Vladimir Putin really does want to get the ol’ Hammer & Sickle band back together, doesn’t he? While the US and NATO negotiate to de-escalate the war in Ukraine, Russian troops landed in Kazakhstan overnight to put down a popular uprising against the Moscow-friendly government. Putin ordered it under a collective security agreement with several of the former Soviet republics on Russia’s border, but the question will be whether they ever leave:
Russian troops landed in Kazakhstan on Thursday after a call for help from the Central Asian country’s president amid sweeping anti-government protests — a major test of a Moscow-led military alliance as the Kremlin deepened its role in the crisis.
“Dozens” of demonstrators were killed, a Kazakh official said, as security forces tried to quell protests that began with outrage over a fuel price hike but have grown into a challenge to a political system largely unchanged since the end of the Soviet Union three decades ago.
It is the first time the Collective Security Treaty Organization, founded after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and composed of six former members, has agreed to deploy “peacekeepers” to aid a member country. Though the bloc has long been seen as Russia’s answer to NATO, its first joint action is putting down a domestic protest rather than combating an attack from an external force.
The stakes are especially high for Russia, effectively the leader of the alliance, as its presence risks alienating a public that is demanding a change in Kazakhstan’s regime but has yet to show any anti-Russian sentiment.
It’s the first time that the CSTO has been invoked in this manner, but it’s hardly the first time Putin has used troops to intervene in his neighbor’s affairs. Russian troops now occupy Crimea and parts of the Donbass, a situation that has been ongoing for eight years now. In 2008, Putin sent troops into Georgia and forcefully severed its Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces. Putin also made it clear that he would use his military might in Belarus if necessary to keep Putin’s toady Alexander Lukashenko in power in the face of a popular uprising there.
This Bloomberg discussion drily notes that Putin doesn’t like popular uprisings, which is an understatement:
In one demonstration of how much Putin dislikes such popular revolts, the Daily Beast reports that Putin’s ally “liquidated” dozens of demonstrators in the capital prior to Russian troops arriving to prop it up:
Protesters now storming the main government building in Kazakhstan’s largest city Almaty. pic.twitter.com/lemKcpILL8
— Patrick Reevell (@Reevellp) January 5, 2022
Dozens of demonstrators have been reported dead in Kazakhstan as protests turned to bloodshed Thursday and Russia sent in paratroopers in a dangerous bid to crush the uprising.
Police in the largest city, Almaty, said “dozens of attackers were liquidated” as they tried to storm government buildings, referring to demonstrators. The local police chief was quoted in local media calling the protesters “extremists and radicals.”
State TV reported that more than a dozen members of law enforcement were dead, two of whom were said to have been decapitated, according to Reuters. At least 2,000 people have reportedly been arrested.
Banks have been shut down across the nation, flights into the country have been halted, and residents inside Kazakhstan have been cut off from the rest of the world as the internet was shut off, making the full extent of the chaos unclear.
There are a couple of ways of viewing this intervention, but they all pretty much lead to the same place. One is that President Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev really did break the emergency CSTO glass and Putin felt bound by that pact to provide troops for an uprising that they neither want nor started. Alternately, one can wonder just how much Russia played a part in fomenting this unrest to essentially force the Tokayev government to invite Russian troops to station themselves there permanently … again.
Either way, now that the Russians are there, they’re not leaving any time soon. If Tokayev’s government stabilizes, it will only be because Putin’s troops are suppressing the popular revolt against Tokayev’s governance, which will have the added effect of amplifying any anti-Russian sentiment in this former Soviet republic. Regardless of whether Putin wants it or not, a Russian pullout in the near future would leave Tokayev so vulnerable that a re-invasion would be almost immediately necessary. (Worth noting: ethnic Russians make up 20% of Kazakhstan’s population, and the Russian language is still in greater use in Kazakhstan than Qazaq itself.)
What does that mean for Ukraine? In the first blush, it probably should impress US and NATO negotiators that Putin’s ambitions remain unchecked in the former Soviet sphere. If Putin fomented this unrest to force Tokayev into inviting Russians back into Kazakhstan, he may well try similar moves in other neighboring republics. Kazakhstan is the key to Central Asia and dominance of the other former Soviet republics in that region, as even a quick glance at a map reveals. In one fell swoop, Putin now has access to all of the nations north of Iran and Afghanistan, with the latter an especially interesting nugget in the wake of the American withdrawal. Some of those still have significant residual ethnic-Russian populations, not to mention strategic positioning and resources.
In practicality, though, this might end up complicating Ukraine for Putin. The Soviet Union fell apart at least somewhat because of military costs and overextensions. Ukraine has already been a costly adventure for Putin, and any further incursions will force the West to impose onerous economic sanctions, at least for a while. Putin’s still dealing with the Georgian provinces too, plus the ongoing unrest in Belarus. These aren’t wars per se except in Ukraine, but Putin’s getting pretty close to a multifront series of entrenched police actions that could drain his treasury and his political strength. Russia is not tooled for empire in the long run, a lesson Putin apparently never learned, and he risks collapse at some point.
That might make him more amenable to a settlement on Ukraine while he can still get it, one that leaves him in control of Crimea and the guarantor of Donbass autonomy. The West would likely sign off on that arrangement if it meant the end of the threat of war in Ukraine and an end to any threats on the Baltic states. If they do, the rest of the Central Asian republics had better batten down the hatches.