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The Crackdown in Kazakhstan Is a Win for Russia (Or Is It?)

Image of Russian Special Forces Solider. Image: Creative Commons.

A few days ago, as violence in Kazakhstan escalated, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a key decision to dispatch 2,500 Russian troops as “peacekeepers” reportedly authorized by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-controlled military alliance of several post-Soviet states. Putin’s decision to airlift troops into Kazakhstan just days before the much-anticipated meetings with the U.S. and NATO to discuss Russian demands concerning the future of Ukraine and European security writ large has sent an unmistakable message that he remains determined to follow Russia’s neo-imperial course aimed at restoring control over the post-Soviet domain. Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are also sending troops to assist in this Russian “peacekeeping” mission.

The crisis in Kazakhstan is the first time that the CSTO collective defense clause has been invoked; Russian media announced that the forces were being sent to Kazakhstan at President Tokayev’s request. Tokayev’s decision to issue shoot-to-kill orders to his military and security forces, coming on the heels of a phone call with Putin, makes it plain that he has fully coordinated with Moscow his decision to suppress the protest.

Pointedly, Russian media has blamed the unrest in Kazakhstan on the United States, comparing the eruption to the 2014 revolution in Ukraine. The Kremlin has also issued a statement that Kazakhstan is able to “independently solve its domestic problems” and – somewhat comically – warned against foreign interference.

Russia’s military entry into Kazakhstan has several important geostrategic consequences. First, it ensures that Russian access to the Baikonur Cosmodrome military base remains unrestricted, and it has given the Russian military full control of the Almaty airport. Ostensibly, the overarching goal of the force is to protect ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan, who today still constitute about one-fifth of the total population.

Most of all, however, this Russian military intervention sends a clear message to the United States, as well as to China and Turkey that Moscow intends to claim Kazakhstan as part of its exclusive sphere of influence, regardless of the inroads Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Ankara has made there in recent years. Putin’s decision to send in a Russian expeditionary force is an unmissable sign for the others that he intends to keep a firm grip on Central Asia’s resource base.  At stake are both Russia’s unrestricted access to the region and in Kazakhstan specifically to the country’s deposits of key raw materials. It has at least one-fifth of the world’s uranium deposits (some estimates put the number much higher), it is the second-largest producer of chromium, and it has the Caspian Sea’s largest proven oil reserves.

Putin’s message, that when it comes to Central Asia, Russia is ready to play hardball, appears to have registered both in Beijing and Ankara. China has issued a statement that the events in Kazakhstan are an “internal affair” of that country, called for the restoration of social order and, increasingly in alignment with Russia’s actions, offered Tokayev increased “law enforcement and security cooperation” assistance to oppose another “color revolution.” President Erdogan made a call to Tokayev and reportedly expressed Turkey’s solidarity with Kazakhstan and his hopes that a new government will quickly emerge to stabilize the situation and end-all tensions.

Notwithstanding Russian propaganda to the contrary, the protests in Kazakhstan have all the markings of a genuine social rebellion against the country’s dictator and its oligarchs. The Kazakhs have expressed not just their fury at the sudden increases in energy prices, but have also registered their rejection of the extant repressive system. This rising tide of popular anger and frustration, especially among the young, is likely to remain a potent factor going forward. Although the current crackdown by Kazakh security forces will most likely succeed in putting down this round of protests, it is far from certain that public discontent will not erupt again soon.

Here, Russia is running the risk, similar to what happened in Ukraine, that its military involvement in Kazakhstan may in fact trigger a backlash in a country that historically has had close relations with Russia; in fact, the Russian language is still widely spoken in Kazakhstan and remains the lingua franca in all of Central Asia. Hence, Putin’s exploitation of the revolt in Kazakhstan to strengthen Russia’s grip on Central Asia is not necessarily all good news for his strategy to rebuild the Russian empire. The eruption in Kazakhstan, alongside the ongoing war in Ukraine, means that Russia will from now on have to manage instability in two regions.

The larger objective of what Putin has been aiming at in Eastern Europe and now also in Central Asia, is to reverse the geostrategic consequences of the end of the Cold War and create a world where Russian spheres of influence would be explicitly recognized by the West and, preferably, sanctioned by treaty.  In this strategy, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are to become undisputed spheres of Russian domination yet again.

Significantly for Putin’s design, the scheduled talks with the United States, NATO and the OSCE to address Russia’s most recent demands concerning the security architecture in Eastern and Central Europe will go as planned, notwithstanding the Russian military having been sent to Kazakhstan. Officially, the United States has called for all sides in the unfolding Kazakh crisis to “show restraint.” Other European governments, including the UK, have expressed concern about the situation and called for an end to violence, while the EU has called on Russia to respect Kazakhstan’s sovereignty. But Putin is right to expect little more from the West other than diplomatic demarches and public statements of concern. Last but not least, Moscow has announced that it will not agree to include Kazakhstan on the agenda of the U.S. – Russia talks in Geneva.

The crisis in Kazakhstan presents Putin with an opportunity to push forward his neo-imperial plans for restoring Russia’s control over much of Eurasia, and more specifically to consolidate further Russia’s military presence in Central Asia where Moscow has been making steady gains for several years at the expense of Washington. Even while the U.S. was still at war in Afghanistan, Putin managed to tighten Russia’s links to Kyrgyzstan enough to bring about the closure of a U.S. military base there.

Geography favors Russian access to the region, as the five ex-Soviet states in Central Asia stretch strategically between Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan. The departure of the United States from Afghanistan has further redefined the parameters of great power competition in Central Asia. Today Russia maintains military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Kazakhstan, it operates an anti-ballistic missile testing range, while the Baikonur Cosmodrome is in effect a Russian military installation.  Those bases are augmented by Russian naval presence in the oil-rich Caspian Sea.

On balance, thirty years post-Cold War Moscow appears to have regained the upper hand in the region, as its key role in propping up the Kazakhstan regime has just shown. Nevertheless, this Russian short-term gain may yet prove problematic, for with the United States gone from Afghanistan and Russia embedded more deeply in Central Asia, the conflicts and fissures that remain in the region, including what happens in Afghanistan, are now Moscow’s to deal with.

Andrew A. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, a former professor at the U.S. Naval War College, and a former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He is also a 1945 Contributing Editor. 

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Written By

Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies and a new Contributing Editor for 1945. He is the former Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College and former Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMichta. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.