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Putin’s Kazakh gambit tightens his grip on ex-Soviet space

Oksana Antonenko is a director for Global Risk Analysis at Control Risks and a global policy fellow at the Kennan Institute.

Holiday seasons are often haunted by unexpected crises, and 2022 has proved no exception.

Kazakhstan — the energy-rich country located at the center of Eurasia — has been plunged into a major political crisis, and seen President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turn to Russia to help him quell popular protests, restore order and consolidate his power.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russia-dominated but nominally multilateral security alliance of six former Soviet states, speedily approved a peacekeeping mission to Kazakhstan — the first such intervention to assist a member with resolving a domestic political crisis, setting a very dangerous precedent. And this deployment will have major geopolitical implications not only for Kazakhstan but for Central Asia as a whole, bringing a long period of stability to a sudden and unforeseen end. 

For years, the region — and Kazakhstan in particular — was considered remarkably stable despite their authoritarian leaders, particularly compared to post-Soviet Eastern Europe or the South Caucasus, where geopolitical battles rage with increased frequency.

Central Asia has so far survived a much-feared transition of power in Uzbekistan, multiple revolutions in Kyrgyzstan, and the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, all without its uniquely balanced geopolitical order being undermined. It was the one area where Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, the EU and the U.S. were able to avoid zero-sum thinking, and even manage some cooperation — until now.

The use of the Russian military to prop up a regime in Kazakhstan that has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of many of its citizens means that the country will no longer be able to maintain its long-standing multivector diplomacy, establishing flexible and positive relations in their engagement with competing global actors. Kazakhstan and its foreign policy will now face greater assertiveness and heightened expectations from Moscow, which will undoubtedly constrain its relations with the West and with China.

There is no example of Russian peacekeepers being deployed in the post-Soviet space without geopolitical preconditions. And it is very likely that at least some of these heavily armed troops — many of whom were previously deployed on Russian operations in South Ossetia, Syria and Crimea — will now be stationed in Kazakhstan on a long-term basis.

Kazakhstan’s political crisis and Russia’s military involvement will also empower nationalists in Moscow who seek greater autonomy for what used to be mostly Russian-speaking northern regions of Kazakhstan. These voices are strident on Russian social media, and even among senior MPs in the Duma — the lower house of Russia’s parliament. With many Kazakhs resenting Russian military involvement, tension between the ethnic Russian and Kazakh populations is likely to increase, making Russian support for autonomy more probable.

By staying out of the crisis, other than issuing statements of concern, the U.S. and the EU have signaled that their ambitions and influence in Central Asia are limited. And it will be hard for the West to maintain its privileged partnership with Kazakhstan following a bloody crackdown on popular protests.

The flare-up also comes at a sensitive time in Russia’s relationship with the West, as Washington and Moscow are about to start talks on Russian proposals for security guarantees against NATO expansion. Russia’s muscle flexing in Eurasia — amid yet another example of Western nonaction — may add credence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands.

But the geopolitical fallout may go well beyond new sources of tension between Russia and the West. It could also undermine the delicate Sino-Russian balance in Central Asia.

While Beijing — which recently took over the chairmanship of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, another regional economic and security institution — has so far stayed out of the current crisis, Moscow chose to act. Russia may now seek to convert its enhanced security clout into economic power, increasing its influence over Kazakhstan’s vast oil and gas resources, where China is a major investor and consumer — a relationship that Russia has long eyed with concern.

Interestingly, Putin’s military ambitions are unlikely to pay off at home, however. Opinion polls indicate that Russians are increasingly hostile to new military interventions. And their own demands for economic opportunity and greater accountability from corrupt officials are not that dissimilar to those that are being silenced on the streets of Kazakhstan right now.

With military operations in the South Caucasus, Belarus and now Kazakhstan, as well as the continuing military threat to Ukraine, Russia is clearly tightening its grip on the post-Soviet space at the cost of worsening relations with the West, China and the populations of its former empire. And even if it avoids following Belarus’ fate, Kazakhstan’s drift away from the West will not be reversed for years to come.

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