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Claims that the US bought 81 Soviet-era combat aircraft from a close Russian ally are likely false, experts say

Thibault Spirlet,Rebecca Rommen   

Claims that the US bought 81 Soviet-era combat aircraft from a close Russian ally are likely false, experts say
  • Reports that the US purchased 81 combat aircraft from Kazakhstan are likely false, experts said.
  • They cited Kazakhstan's deep economic ties to Russia and the report's sources.

Reports that the US acquired 81 obsolete Soviet-era combat aircraft from Kazakhstan are likely false, according to military analysts.

On Sunday, the Kyiv Post reported that Kazakhstan had auctioned off 117 Soviet-era fighter and bomber aircraft for a reported fee of one billion tenge, or $2.26 million, of which 81 were purchased by the US.

The outlet cited reports from the Ukrainian Telegram channel Insider UA and the Russian news site Reporter.

The Kyiv Post said the reason for the US purchase was not made public but that the aircraft would "likely" be transferred to Ukraine, which is fighting back against Russia's full-scale invasion.

But Kazspetsexport, Kazakhstan's state-owned weapons importer and exporter, denied selling military airplanes to Ukraine in a later statement, saying that foreign companies were not allowed to bid.

According to Francisco Olmos, a research fellow at The Foreign Policy Center specializing in Central Asian Affairs, it's "very" hard to establish whether the sale actually happened.

But he said that Kazspetsexport's denial "lends weight to the fact that such a purchase by the US did not take place."

He also said he doesn't see why Kazakhstan would indirectly provide spare parts for Ukrainian jets.

Given Ukraine's reliance on Soviet-era weapons, the Kyiv Post had suggested that the aircraft could either serve as a source of spare parts or be strategically deployed as decoys at airfields.

"Astana has kept a balanced stance during the conflict, and this would significantly change that," Olmos said. "Let's not forget Russia and Kazakhstan continue to have close ties, politically and economically."

Alexander Libman, a professor of Russian and East European Politics at the Free University of Berlin, said he would "seriously" doubt that such a deal could take place.

"Kazakhstan was extremely cautious about not creating tensions with both Russia and the Western countries, and supplying weapons to Ukraine would be a clear violation of this strategy," he told BI.

The Pentagon declined to comment.

The Embassy of Kazakhstan in the US told BI in a statement that Kazakhstan does not export or sell arms and military equipment to any country, including the US, under a moratorium in place since August 2022.

Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, its neighbors, including Kazakhstan, have trod a fine line, trying to keep an officially neutral position while, in some cases, strengthening their ties with the West.

Some Central Asian countries, like Kazakhstan, have even offered humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

However, out of fear of a backlash from Russia, they have declined to provide military equipment, Mark Temnycky, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, told BI.

He said these countries saw Russia's invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2022, and with large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations of their own, fear they could be next.

Russia has also deepened economic ties with the countries, especially Kazakhstan, with Russia-Kazakhstan trade valued at $26 billion and $27 billion in 2022 and 2023, record numbers.

Balancing economic ties with Russia and closer relations with the West puts Kazakhstan on an "increasingly difficult tightrope," Kate Mallinson, an associate fellow of Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia Programme, told BI.

She also suggested that reports of a US-Kazakhstan deal are likely part of a disinformation campaign from Russia aimed at "driving a wedge" between Kazakhstan and its neighbors, and putting more pressure on the country to toe the line.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024: This article has been updated to include a statement from the Embassy of Kazakhstan in the US.

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