The potential fallout if Kazakhstan becomes Russia’s next Ukraine

Moscow deploys troops as clashes turn deadly in former Soviet state

Security forces on the streets in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Security forces on the streets in Almaty, Kazakhstan
(Image credit: Valery Sharifulin\Tass via Getty Images)

Russian paratroopers have arrived in Kazakhstan to help the president regain control of the country as part of a “peacekeeping” mission by a Moscow-led military alliance.

The soldiers were sent “at the invitation” of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to “help put down a growing protest movement”, reported The New York Times (NYT). The chair of the military alliance, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, said in a statement posted on social media that the troops would be stationed “for a limited time period”.

Their arrival comes after “dozens” of demonstrators were “eliminated” during overnight clashes, according to Kazakhstan’s Interior Ministry. At least eight police and National Guard officers have also been killed and more than 300 injured since riots erupted at the weekend.

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‘Terrorist threat’

With memories of Moscow’s intervention in the 2020 clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan still fresh in diplomats’ minds, the deployment of troops by the Moscow-led alliance has raised eyebrows.

“Putin first sent a chill down Kazakh spines seven years ago,” said James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in article on Eurasia Review.

Asked just nine months after the 2014 annexation of Crimea whether “Kazakhstan risked a fate similar to that of Ukraine”, Putin echoed “a widespread perception among ethnic Russians that Russia had civilized central Asia’s nomadic steppes”, Dorsey wrote.

The Russian leader reminded Kazakhs that then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, a Soviet-era Communist Party boss, had “created a state on a territory where there has never been a state”.

“The Kazakhs never had a state of their own,” Putin said. “He created it.”

The military alliance now sending troops to Kazakhstan is known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and is “Russia’s version of Nato”, said the NYT. The five other members are the former Soviet states of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Kazakh leader Tokayev revealed his plea to the CSTO to intervene during a televised address in which he labelled the protests a “terrorist threat” that was “undermining of the integrity of the state”. The protests were “an attack on our citizens, who are asking me to help them urgently”, Tokayev said.

“Almaty was attacked, destroyed, vandalised, the residents of Almaty became victims of attacks by terrorists, bandits, therefore it is our duty to take all possible actions to protect our state,” he added.

The alliance troops are arriving as “violent clashes continue between protesters and the police and army in Kazakhstan”, The Guardian reported.

“There is little reliable information on the number of casualties,” said the paper, but further clashes and shooting in Almaty and other cities was reported yesterday, and unverified video footage appeared to show casualties among the protesters.

The country’s internet was also “blacked out” yesterday, The Washington Post reported, and national banking services have been “suspended”.

Ukraine 2.0

The protests have “reverberated across the continent to Moscow”, where President Putin “was forced to witness another uprising against an authoritarian, Kremlin-aligned nation”, said the NYT.

Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia expert based in Moscow, told the paper that the protests represent a warning to Moscow, following the uprisings in Ukraine in 2014 and in Belarus in 2020.

The government in Kazakhstan is “a reduced replica of the Russian one”, he said. “There is no doubt that the Kremlin would not want to see an example of such a regime beginning to talk to the opposition and conceding to their demands.”

Putin has also been clear about his willingness to expand Russia’s borders and reabsorb the surrounding ex-Soviet satellite states.

After the hijaking of a passenger plane last year, the Kremlin kept its powder dry for days before voicing support for President Alexander Lukashenko, and urging the Belarusian leader to push through reforms that would pull his country further into Moscow’s orbit.

The unrest in Kazakhstan comes as Russian troops also continue to mass on Ukraine’s border. Rob Lee, an expert in Russian defence policy, tweeted on Wednesday that if Moscow were to deploy military forces to Kazakhstan, “we would expect to see” units that are “almost completely deployed near Ukraine and Belarus right now”.

“I think Russia was pretty well prepared for an escalation with Ukraine,” he added. But while “Russia still has plenty of units that it can deploy if necessary, you wouldn't want to start a conflict with Ukraine right now while the situation in Kazakhstan is so uncertain”.

Concern is growing that oil-rich Kazakhstan may replace Ukraine as Russia’s top strategic objective. “It’s not only Ukrainians who worry about what Putin may have in store for them,” wrote Dorsey on Eurasia Review. “It’s Kazakhs too.”

“For now”, he continued, “Kazakhs don’t have to be immediately concerned about Russian troop movements.”

But “what unsettles them is years of Russian rhetoric, spearheaded Mr. Putin’s repeated comments, stressing the ideological rather than the security aspect of the build-up against Ukraine and verbal assaults on Kazakhstan”.

As the unrest in Kazakhstan continues, “the countries of the former Soviet Union are watching the protests closely”, the NYT said. “For Russia, the events represent another possible challenge to autocratic power in a neighbouring country.”

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