How Kazakhstan could shift Putin’s calculus on Ukraine

How Kazakhstan could shift Putin’s calculus on Ukraine

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed in a largely bloodless way. But events in recent years have proved that bloodlessness to be only temporary. Russia’s war against Ukraine—with fourteen thousand Ukrainian fatalities thus far (and more in the offing if Moscow sends an invasion force of one hundred thousand into the country)—is the major proof. Its brief 2008 conflict in Georgia, meanwhile, caused hundreds of deaths.*

Sadly, the unrest in Kazakhstan may provide additional evidence. As of Thursday, dozens have been reported dead as clashes between protesters and police intensified.

The crisis in the Central Asian former Soviet republic fuses geopolitical issues across Eurasia, from Moscow’s efforts to cow the West and subjugate Ukraine to its delicate relationship with China—and the implications are enormous. It’s a happy surprise that this region has been largely stable since the end of the Tajik civil war in the late 1990s. It has proved to be a buffer for major players Russia, China, and India, as well as lesser but still important powers such as Pakistan and Iran. But the instability in Kazakhstan offers opportunities for these states to enhance their position in Central Asia, and they are seizing them.

Besieged Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Russian-led military alliance, to help restore order. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, who is the rotating head of the group, has announced it will send troops. This is significant for two reasons. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of restoring Russian influence in the post-Soviet space is not limited to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova; Tokayev’s invitation gives Moscow the chance to do just that in Central Asia’s richest country. Second, Tokayev had another option: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China but which also includes Russia. Despite growing cooperation between Moscow and Beijing in opposing US policies globally, the two are competitors in Central Asia. 

Putin infamously said at Lake Seliger in 2014 that Kazakhstan was an artificial country created by its first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and its population understands the importance of close relations with Russia. Ethnic Russians comprise 18 percent of the country’s population, and they—along with more than 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon resources—are concentrated in the north, not far from the Russian border. Since Putin’s remark, Kremlin allies have called for the “return” of northern Kazakhstan to Russia. Meanwhile, China has its own territorial pretensions on the country.

It’s safe to assume that the CSTO decision was in fact Putin’s decision. This means that he considered it more important to strengthen Moscow’s position in Kazakhstan than to accommodate China. While this is not likely to have an immediate, visible impact on Russia’s relations with China, it’s a message to Beijing that there are limits to Moscow’s acceptance of junior-partner status in their bilateral relationship. Over time, this will shape the relationship.

And this brings us to Moscow’s current buildup of approximately one hundred thousand troops on and near Ukraine’s border, as well as its efforts to squeeze concessions out of the United States, NATO, the European Union, and Ukraine with the threat of a major conventional offensive. He is threatening this invasion because his nearly eight-year hybrid war against Ukraine has failed to achieve its objective: to prevent the country’s westward drift. But Putin’s current focus on Ukraine is not meant to come at the expense of his other geopolitical objectives in Eurasia. To the extent possible, he would like to restore Kremlin influence across the territory of the former Soviet Union. In some places—Crimea, and perhaps northern Kazakhstan—that means Moscow seizing and annexing territory. In other places, it means ensuring national-security and economic policies consistent with Kremlin interests.

The unrest in Kazakhstan poses a question for Putin: Should he continue his intimidation campaign on his western flank, or should he address the dangers to his south? Or can he do both? At the moment, Putin is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Maybe the CSTO can impose order and restore Tokayev’s government without significantly reducing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border. That is certainly the Kremlin preference, because its long military buildup and threats to Ukraine have produced talks with the United States, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that might achieve some concessions on issues such as limiting NATO enlargement and the Alliance’s activities in Eastern Europe, or the Minsk talks on ending Moscow’s war in the Donbas region of Ukraine. He would prefer not to reduce the pressure.  

Yet if the initial CSTO deployment fails, Putin may face a dilemma. Moscow’s pre-buildup situation in Ukraine was a stalemate; in Kazakhstan, Moscow’s position in Central Asia would deteriorate if a popular revolt produces a reform-minded government, or if Tokayev calls on China and the SCO for help to stay in power. The question then becomes: Would Putin pull troops from Ukraine’s border to deal with disorder in Kazakhstan and enhance Russia’s standing in Central Asia? Doing so certainly entails less risk than launching a major conventional military offensive in Ukraine. Putin could easily explain standing down temporarily in the west to secure a new trophy in the south. And that still would not preclude a third buildup of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border.

The stakes for Putin are large in both Kazakhstan and Ukraine—but it may prove difficult for the arch opportunist to successfully attend to both at the same time.


John Herbst is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

5 comments

    • Everyone has his own opinion. This is even evident in the press. One side claims that it is Ruskie-induced, the other side says that this throws a wrench in mafia plans concerning Ukraine. I belong to the second category, as you’ve seen. I believe that the rat has walked out on a tightrope on this, and he is hoping that no Western interference will make him fall.

      Liked by 5 people

  1. “Yet if the initial CSTO deployment fails, Putin may face a dilemma. Moscow’s pre-buildup situation in Ukraine was a stalemate; in Kazakhstan, Moscow’s position in Central Asia would deteriorate if a popular revolt produces a reform-minded government, or if Tokayev calls on China and the SCO for help to stay in power. The question then becomes: Would Putin pull troops from Ukraine’s border to deal with disorder in Kazakhstan and enhance Russia’s standing in Central Asia? Doing so certainly entails less risk than launching a major conventional military offensive in Ukraine.”
    The situation in Kazakhstan certainly has shed more light on the West’s competency at handling a situation such as we now have on the Ukraine border. Unless I get surprised by some decisive announcement from … somewhere by someone and this soon. So far, it’s been glaringly obvious is that its competency is piss poor.
    Now is the time to stand very firm and to help Ukraine immediately with arms and the promise of at least air and navy support. Increasing troop buildup in Poland and the Baltic States would help to boost this message to be more than loud and clear. Such a stance would be hard to counter with something better other than attacking, which he won’t. Mafia land cannot engage both issues at the same time. At least, he has merely so many military assets available and a portion has already been sent to Kazakhstan. The ball would be in his court, and for every day that passes during this stalemate, arms shipments and troop-buildup would let his wet dreams dry up like a drop of water in the Mojave.
    That is what I would do as President of the United States. But, right now, Pewtin knows that he is facing only cowards and marshmallows in the West and that he can play any game with them because recent history concerning mafia land has shown us that this has been an ongoing spectacle.

    Liked by 4 people

    • There are always two things you can count on; first, that Putin will lie. Second, that Putin will always have a distraction. I am puzzled too and I don’t know if Kazakhstan is a distraction or just another opportunity for the little fascist to assume more control. As always he won’t leave and the Kazakh president will have to relinquish control to the dwarf so he can stay alive, just like Lukashenko. If NATO doesn’t stand up to him now, Putin will have been very successful in his USSR 2.0 scheme and we will have to see who’s next.

      Liked by 5 people

      • I assume that NATO will have its hands tied once again by certain chickenshit member nations. It should be very clear that this organization has lost very much of what it is about. A new one, composed of willing nations, is in order. The only thing is, there is no one present to make this happen, although Trump sort of got things rolling.

        Liked by 2 people

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