ILI MILITARY RANGE, Kazakhstan (Reuters) -- Kazakhstan has held joint military exercises with NATO, a move likely to irritate Russia, which sees the Central Asian state as part of its traditional sphere of interest.
Moscow, already angry at NATO's support for Georgia after Russia's military conflict with the Caucasus state, has accused the Western alliance of trying to poach its traditional allies.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan, which has maneuvered carefully between Russia and the West, used the September 23 war games with NATO to call for closer ties with the military bloc.
"We want to bring cooperation with NATO to a new level," Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told reporters at the Ili military range during the games, code-named Steppe Eagle and held in the open steppe outside the financial capital, Almaty.
Flanked by two U.S.-made Humvees, Akhmetov said the exercise was part of Kazakhstan's cooperation agreement with NATO to help bring its armed forces up to NATO standards.
The games, though planned in advance, coincided with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Kazakhstan this week.
Kazakhstan has been careful not to antagonize Russia, its key trading partner, and has cautiously supported its actions in Georgia. But, emboldened by its booming oil revenues, it has tried to pursue an increasingly independent foreign policy.
Kazakhstan, which sent a small military unit to Iraq to support U.S. operations there, has snubbed Moscow by not recognizing the independence of Georgia's Russia-backed rebel regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said this year that Kazakhstan may even consider buying weapons from NATO states for the first time if they offer better value.
The United States praised the performance of the Kazakh troops. "They continue to prove that they are fully capable of performing NATO Peace Security Operations," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.
At the games, explosions and gunfire reverberated across the steppe as Kazakh and NATO soldiers carried out war scenarios.
One blast sent a stray flock of sheep running in panic across the steppe as soldiers carrying Soviet-designed Kalashnikov assault rifles patrolled the area in U.S. Humvees.
"It's a different world now," said one U.S. officer who asked not be named. "And it's a good thing."