Putin’s Kazakhstan Show of Muscle Is Meant for US Eyes
Putin’s Kazakhstan Show of Muscle Is Meant for US Eyes
From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s point of view, last week’s unrest in Kazakhstan was a godsend just as negotiations with the US over Russia’s security demands were about to start in Geneva. With an instant deployment of an unnecessary “peacekeeping force,” and now a planned rapid withdrawal, the Kremlin is making far more potent points than with anything its emissaries can bring to the talks — or indeed with any military build-up on the Ukrainian border.
It’s still too early to say exactly how regional protests against higher fuel prices in Kazakhstan escalated into nationwide violence despite President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s early concessions to the protesters (including a price freeze at the old level and the government’s resignation). Tokayev’s own narrative, endorsed by his allies in the post-Soviet Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is that unnamed foreign masterminds used the moment to send into battle thousands of militants they had been training up in secret. To quote Putin’s remarks on a call with CSTO leaders on Jan. 10, “Those who were concerned about the gas market situation are one group of people with one set of goals, and those who took up weapons and attacked the state are totally different people with a different set of goals.”
It doesn’t really matter at this point, however, whether there’s any truth to this narrative: The riots have been put down, and the two main beneficiaries of the tumultuous week are Tokayev and Putin. The former consolidated his power, removing the remaining levers of influence from Kazakhstan’s founding president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had been unable to let go despite being 81 and officially semi-retired. Tokayev seemed to wobble as the street violence escalated and Kazakhstan’s police and military appeared to waver — but at the end of the day, the former diplomat prevailed and it was his security forces, not the less than 2,500-strong CSTO force, that violently quashed the uprising.
They always had the numbers to cope with any outbreak of protest: The Kazakh military has 135,000 active personnel, and, with 424 police officers per 100,000 population, Kazakhstan is much more heavily policed than European Union members (334 officers per 100,000 residents on average) or the US (238). So as soon as the enforcers aligned with Tokayev, the crisis was effectively resolved in his favor — just as, in 2020, Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko rode out an unusually powerful wave of protest because enforcement agencies sided with him. Just as Lukashenko didn’t have to ask for military assistance — Putin’s political and propaganda backing sufficed — Tokayev could have done without it, too. And yet, for reasons that may never be entirely clear, he requested CSTO assistance — and, mere hours later, troops were deployed using Russian transport planes and under Russian command.
Putin’s win here isn’t that it might be hard to get Russian troops to leave once they come in, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested. The Russian troops, not numerous to start with, are about to start withdrawing, according to Tokayev, and the Kazakh leader is not beholden to his Russian counterpart in any binding way. Putin, who doesn’t see Kazakhstan — unlike Belarus and Ukraine — as part of Russia’s historic core, will never invade the vast Central Asian nation unbidden if Tokayev continues Nazarbayev’s old line of staying friendly with all neighboring states. Putin, for his part, owes Tokayev one for the chance to advertise the kind of service he’d like to provide not just to post-Soviet authoritarian states but to those who sign up for it elsewhere.
After all, the CSTO deployment makes an attractive pitch to endangered leaders in the market for protection. If you ask Russia, and not the US or NATO, for help, it will arrive immediately, without pause for deliberation or internal debate. The speed of the move also tells the US, watching keenly from the sidelines, that Russia doesn’t really need a slow, obvious troop build-up to attack Ukraine: It can strike suddenly. The appointment of Russian Airborne Forces commander Andrey Serdyukov, the general who ran the Crimea takeover in 2014, to head up the Kazakhstan deployment reinforces the message. It’s not as if Putin couldn’t have found a lower-ranking commander for the small force.
If Tokayev is right about the quick withdrawal — and he probably is — that’s another reason to call Moscow rather then D.C. The US tends to get bogged down in its wars — and then leave abruptly and without looking back, as it did in Afghanistan.
Finally, the CSTO deployment clarifies how a plea for help must be formulated to get a quick response. The beleaguered national leader must assert that his country is being attacked by foreign or foreign-backed “colored revolution” forces. Regardless of how convincing that assertion may be, leaders who do so get the kind of help they desire: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad did, and so did Lukashenko. On the other hand, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan failed to receive Putin’s military support when he asked for it in 2020 as his country was losing the Nagorno-Karabakh war to Azerbaijan. Putin’s official excuse was that the disputed enclave was not officially part of Armenia, a CSTO member, so the bloc had no legal reason to get involved. Yet, judging by the Kazakh precedent, it would have been harder for Putin to stay out if Pashinyan had argued that Armenia was being attacked by NATO. After all, Turkey, a member of the Western alliance, had openly backed Azerbaijan. Pashinyan, who had come to power on the back of street protests, was always viewed as unreliable by Putin and his entourage. He failed to find the words that fit Putin’s worldview. So the Kremlin leader stayed above the fray, only helping forge the final peace deal, which sealed Armenia’s defeat, and only then sending Russian troops to enforce it.
As Tokayev took some risks to emerge as top dog, he gave Putin a much-needed assist, allowing him to present his alternative to the American global policing proposition: On the CSTO call, Tokayev said the deployment scared the rioters into abandoning plans to storm the presidential residence, thereby freeing up loyal forces for the clean-up of the anarchic situation in the country’s biggest city, Almaty. I’m not sure the small group of Russian paratroopers instilled that much fear in desperate protesters who had managed to take over entire cities, but Putin must have been flattered to hear Tokayev make the claim.
The Putin security proposition, such as it is after Kazakhstan, is only attractive to a certain kind of ruler, short on democratic legitimacy and anti-Western enough to deliver the kind of rhetoric that can spur Putin into action. Ukraine’s leaders, for example, will not be interested as long as they’re democratically elected. But by showing off his power projection capability, Putin also throws down a gauntlet to NATO, whose protection Ukraine has sought. Can the US-led alliance play with similar speed and effectiveness in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence? It’s a tough question for NATO leaders to ask themselves.
So far, the US has countered Russian power projection only with relatively week economic sanctions. The message from Moscow: Even much tougher measures of this kind will not hinder Russia’s capacity to police its neighborhood and occasionally venture outside it when invited by like-minded authoritarians. The US must decide whether to take this message seriously. The Biden administration’s anemic response thus far suggests a certain deference to Putin’s willingness to act forcefully. As the Kazakhstan demonstration shows, that approach only seems to make Putin bolder.