Putin’s Euroasian Dilemma: Is Kazakhstan Russia’s Next Ukraine?

Written by | Saturday, January 8th, 2022

Russia must respect the sovereignty of Kazakhstan, said the European Union, reacting to the deployment of Russian paratroopers (6 January) to quell a countrywide uprising after deadly violence spread across the tightly controlled former Soviet state. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, hand-picked by the former country’s strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev as his successor, called in forces from ally Russia overnight as part of a Moscow-led military alliance of ex-Soviet states. He blamed the unrest on foreign-trained terrorists who had seized buildings and weapons. The uprising began as protests over a fuel price hike on New Year’s Day. The situation spiraled rapidly as protestors stormed and torched public buildings, resulting to many casualties, both civilian and state security forces. An EU spokesperson said that Kazakhstan’s independence must be respected, adding that “the violence must be stopped. We are also calling for restraint from all parties and a peaceful resolution of the situation. Now obviously, the EU is ready and willing to support dialogue in the country,”
“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,” argues John E. Herbst, a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former US ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan. He explains that “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. … [But] 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.”
Deutsche Welle’s correspondent Andrey Gurkov agrees, saying that “The Kazakhstan crisis makes war in Ukraine less likely. If Russia were to insist on ‘taking back’ Ukraine, it would ‘lose’ Kazakhstan.” He argues that as Russia must now dedicate much more attention to its southern neighbor, Kazakhstan, Russian military operation on Ukrainian territory has now become less likely. Another reason is that Russian military intervention could lead to domestic instability inside Russia similar to the unrest unfolding in Kazakhstan. Herbst adds that if Russian-led operation in Kazakhstan 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,” he writes. “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? … 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.”

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