Opinion: For Putin, Kazakhstan is a domino too big to fall
The approximately 100,000 Russian soldiers parked near Ukraine is the biggest security crisis in years for Europe and its allies, including the United States. While in Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin used this month’s brutal crackdown by regime president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as an opportunity to remind protesters revolutions will never be allowed to spread in the region and by deploying Moscow-led security alliance troops to help quell the unrest, the Central Asian country remains firmly in its sphere of influence.
The tone of Putin’s rhetoric and the trajectory of the military deployment leave little doubt about his intentions: to regain control of a large swath of the former Soviet Union, even to the point of reducing the Organization’s footprint of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO). to the Cold War years. Indeed, during the high-stakes NATO-Russia talks in Brussels last week, US chief negotiator Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told CNN that Moscow had made no commitment to de-escalate on the border. Ukrainian.
Overhanging US negotiations is the Biden administration’s desire to avoid a distraction from its intent pivot to the Indo-Pacific, in particular by resetting relations with China. But with many analysts to agree threats of stinging new sanctions have not deterred Russia’s adventurism in Europe, Western diplomats may be negotiating with a largely empty toolbox.
The stakes for Putin are just as high. In less than two years, Russia has had to deal with two surprise uprisings on its doorstep: in Belarus and Kazakhstan. But from the Kremlin’s perspective, Kazakhstan, the largest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, is too big a domino to fall.
Allowing Kazakhstan to drift further into a Western orbit – for example, allowing Western-style democratic elections or responding to popular outcry with more political freedoms – would be a blow to Russian pride and signal that Moscow is loosening the grip on an area rich in natural resources that has attracted billions in investment from the United States and China. Kazakhstan has the world 12th largest proven oil reserves and is 14th for gas. In 2019, it produced nearly half of the world’s uranium, according to the World Nuclear Association. The last thing the Kremlin wants is for another so-called color revolution to develop, which could inspire protest movements in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
Recent unrest in Kazakhstan has been sparked by rising fuel prices and frustrations over everything from unemployment to inflation to corruption. This escalated into protests reflecting “anger, mismanagement against a corrupt government that has been very authoritarian and social inequality”, said Edward Lemon, president of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. The government crackdown that followed succeeded in at least 164 deaths and thousands of arrests.
True to form, the tactics used to quell the uprisings in Belarus have been employed in Kazakhstan: a brutal crackdown, sowing misinformation, blaming unspecific foreign troublemakers, throttling social media… including for the first time the popular Chinese application WeChat – and creating no space for dialogue.
Moscow quickly agreed to President Tokayev’s request that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security alliance led by Russia, send “blue helmets” to help restore order. Putin had every reason to intervene. If Russia were to lose Kazakhstan from its sphere of influence, it could inspire pro-democracy movements in other former republics.
But what the rest of the world – especially China – learns from how the current drama is unfolding is critically important. Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely watch closely how far Putin can push the West and almost surely apply that learning to Taiwan and other potential territorial adventures. Russia’s participation in high-level diplomatic meetings while maintaining a threatening posture, only to walk away declaring that the talks had reached a “dead end“and it will take take action “Eliminating unacceptable threats to our national security” is a masterstroke of wayward diplomacy potentially applauded in Beijing.
Now, with Beijing and Moscow stepping up their coordination efforts In foreign policy, China can learn useful lessons by observing the extent to which Putin can test Western resolve. For a China bent on “reunification” with Taiwan – the breakaway island where the United States provides security – and asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea, it is worth observing closely where the The West sets its red lines and how it respects them (or does not respect them).
While Kazakhstan may be a wobbly domino on Putin’s regional game board, the country has also become an important piece in China’s geopolitical strategy for energy independence, which means unrest is here. of direct importance to Beijing. Companies related to China would have have up to $26 billion in investments in Kazakhstan, including in an oil pipeline that crosses the Sino-Kazakh border about 1,100 miles. In 2017, Kazakhstan was also a major player recipient Chinese money from its multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s economic interests in Kazakhstan could lead Western diplomats to hope that Beijing will encourage the Kremlin to exercise restraint in maintaining stability in the country. China said it supports Russian-led forces deployed in Kazakhstan to quell the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United States, which has a lot at stake as a first foreign investor in Kazakhstan and with three decades of good bilateral relations, must continue to engage with the new circle of officials established around Tokayev, and insist on why suppressing free speech creates a toxic investment climate. But the United States does so knowing that investors from countries accused of violating human rights, such as China, will happily fill any trade void.