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There is Western opportunity in Russia’s Kazakhstan adventure

Last week, the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan exploded into violent protests, which led to a military intervention by a coalition of forces led by Russia in support of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s government. Tempting as Euro-Atlantic countries may find it to use every opportunity to chastise Moscow in the current environment, though, there may be greater advantage in recognising that this was not necessarily a bad move.

On 2nd January, a hike in fuel prices[↗] triggered protests which quickly spread, exacerbated by deep-seated anger at economic inequality and official corruption. On 5th January, essentially peaceful demonstrations turned violent, thanks to a minority of looters and gunmen who have variously been characterised as organised crime thugs, government provocateurs and, least plausibly of all, jihadi terrorists. 

Nonetheless, their actions were enough to prompt – or permit – Tokayev to remove from office Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s effective leader. Nazarbayev had been president since before independence, but in 2019 he moved to a new lifetime position as Chairman of the Security Council, which granted him the right effectively to control the government as Elbasy or ‘Leader of the Nation.’ Nonetheless, Tokayev arranged his dismissal – later spun as being at the 81-year-old’s own request – and purged the government[↗] of his closest partisans.

Tokayev also made an unexpected request for military support[↗] to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a security alliance of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He claimed the protests were instigated by foreign forces, to trigger the CSTO treaty’s Article 4, which permits intervention in the case of external aggression. Within hours a force was being airlifted into Kazakhstan – primarily Russian paratroopers.

Backing a winner

The force is officially 2,500-strong, although some claim it is larger, but even so it is limited in role and rules of engagement. They are there to protect various strategic facilities and can only use their weapons in self-defence. Given that, with the use of gratuitous violence, the authorities were quite quickly able to regain control of the streets[↗], and Kazakhstan already has over 100,000 soldiers and more than 30,000 National Guard, it might seem that there was little reason for this request.

However, what seems to have happened – although the facts are still only emerging – is that Tokayev took advantage of the protests to launch his own coup and remove himself from under Nazarbayev’s thumb. The CSTO presence – essentially, the Russians’ – was a token of support for Tokayev to encourage the rest of the Kazakh elite, and especially the security forces, to line up behind him. As Ben Aris noted[↗], the ‘CSTO completed its task before [the troops] even got on the planes.’

Tokayev’s spokesman has said[↗] that the force will ‘will probably stay for a week’, although it remains to be seen if they remain longer. Despite over-heated claims that Kazakhstan has been ‘invaded’ or ‘occupied’[↗], the best parallel may be Syria, where Moscow deployed a limited force to support an authoritarian regime with which it was allied. Kazakhstan was not and is not becoming a mere client state, but nonetheless accepts Russia’s limited regional hegemony, as a price for security guarantees and the chance to play Moscow off against Beijing, whose role in Central Asia is more bought with money[↗] than muscle.

Not always bad

Unless something goes dramatically wrong and Russia has to escalate its commitment by an order of magnitude, its Kazakh adventure will have no impact on the force build-up around Ukraine. The paratroopers deployed and the airlift capacity they required are well within Moscow’s tolerances. Likewise, the Kremlin is perfectly able to manage its relations with Tokayev without this affecting its ambitious bid at once to subdue Kyiv and redraft Europe’s whole security architecture.

However, it could be used to shape the narrative framing of this week’s US-Russia and NATO-Russia talks, and the more detailed discussions that hopefully will follow.

There is a widespread perception in the Kremlin that the Euro-Atlantic democracies are opposed not to what Russia does, but what it is: that its undeclared war in Ukraine, its thuggish coercive diplomacy, its murders abroad, are all not the causes of sanctions and censure, but mere excuses. At the same time, there is a clear desire to be treated seriously, with respect. A challenge for Euro-Atlantic interlocutors has been how to meet these essentially emotional and rhetorical needs without whitewashing breaches of international law or downplaying aggression. 

The offhand comment[↗] of Tony Blinken, the United States’ (US) Secretary of State, that ‘once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave,’ may be a cute line but is politically tone deaf. It fails to recognise how, for most of the countries of Central Asia, Russia is considered a useful and reliable[↗] security guarantor. In the aftermath of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow’s credibility in this respect has only risen[↗].

Sweetening the pill

It is unlikely that whatever the Euro-Atlantic democracies are willing to offer this week will satisfy the Kremlin. However, at the same time, the hawks in Moscow can  perhaps be wrong-footed, to encourage those still seeking something less than direct confrontation, by giving credit where it is due. 

The Tokayev administration is, for all its manifest flaws, internationally recognised as the legitimate Kazakh Government and was within its right to request support. If the CSTO contingent does indeed remain limited, operates within the law, and leaves once its mission is complete, then this is presumably also a legitimate deployment.

Russia backed Tokayev’s domestic coup for the most self-interested of reasons and will no doubt expect some political benefit as a result. In fairness, though, few nations’ foreign policies could ever be described as wholly altruistic. The bottom line is that Moscow’s main concern[↗] in the region is stability – and if we are honest, that is also the Euro-Atlantic democracies’ priority for this potentially turbulent part of the world, one that matters for a number of reasons, whether as a bulwark against jihadism or a source of energy and vital minerals (Kazakhstan produces more than 40% of global uranium supplies, for example).

Especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Euro-Atlantic democracies are for the foreseeable future unlikely[↗] to play a particularly muscular role in Central Asia. If Russia is not going to be the regional security provider, then the only other real option would be the People’s Repbulic of  China (PRC), and arguably it would be even less comfortable to see Beijing adopting a more assertive posture there.

It may be a stretch, but if Euro-Atlantic countries are willing to recognise that whatever it is doing along its western flank, Moscow can play a positive role along its southern borders, and one that befits a ‘great power’, then this at once disarms some of the more hawkish Kremlin voices and demonstrates that the democracies’ issues are, indeed, with what Russia does than what it is.

Dr Mark Galeotti is Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.

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3 thoughts on “There is Western opportunity in Russia’s Kazakhstan adventure”

  1. You did not mention three policemen who were beheaded, which suggests there may have been muslim terrorists who took the opportunity to attack. There may even have been some Turkish involvement as Erdogan clams trouble at home.

  2. Very insightful article, I do hope the Western powers read this and see Russia’s actions as no different from many of their own interventions down the years, before crying “foul”.

  3. I’ve paid some attention to this and to Kazakhstan over the last year as well as Kyrgyzstan. I’m not sure how reliable my source was but did China move its border after a region of Kyrgyzstan failed to pay a 10m usd debt. Kazakhstan is uncomfortably sandwiched between three hard rocks and due to its cosmopolitan diaspora cannot realistically pick a side. While it is gigantic is size, it’s military presences are limited. Is it better to let Russia be its security as you mention. Or should the west be deploying presences to the south and east. While russia has a habit of displaying strength, there are also more sinister threats. I have genuine concern that this region may unfold as the next theatre once the present lines have been redrawn. And I agree with the comment suggesting there was potential extremist activity during the riots. A lot of movement from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan went unnoticed during the evacuation

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