Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the limits of Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions

The outcome of this week’s eight-hour-long US–Russia talks in Geneva wasn’t reported on the main news broadcast of Russia’s state-owned Channel One, a primary propaganda outlet for the Kremlin, until the 11th minute. The first two stories focused on events in Kazakhstan, particularly President Vladimir Putin’s virtual consultation with the leaders of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). It seems that Putin wanted to impress Russians in other ways than by issuing an ultimatum to the West as a pretext to invade Ukraine.

Russia’s deployment of troops to help quell unrest in Kazakhstan is of a piece with Putin’s efforts to reconstitute the Russian empire through intimidation and military force. Putin is aiming to erase 25 years of Western security policy by curtailing the sovereignty of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and even the former Soviet republics—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—that have already joined NATO. To strengthen his negotiating position, Putin wants to show that Russia has something like its own NATO.

Although the CSTO, a kind of ‘Warsaw Pact–lite’, was founded in the 1990s, the Kremlin has never used it to justify a foreign intervention—until now, in Kazakhstan. The CSTO didn’t intervene when Kyrgyzstan requested Russia’s help in 2010, or when Armenia did so during its recent conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

But the Kremlin now seems to have learned the lessons of the popular uprisings in Belarus and Ukraine over the past decade. To launch joint missions with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s forces, Putin could simply hide behind the CSTO. Tellingly, the CSTO’s ‘peacekeeping military mission’ in Kazakhstan is headed by Russian Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, the same man who led the military operations to seize Crimea in 2014, and who then commanded Russian forces in Syria.

Russia’s entry into Kazakhstan has certainly got the West’s attention. Its most important assets are its raw materials (oil, gas and uranium) and its central placement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which branches into Iran, Turkey and Russia. Under Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled for three decades until stepping down from the presidency in 2019, Kazakhstan maintained a policy of relative independence vis-à-vis Russia, China and the United States; now, however, the balance has suddenly shifted.

But it’s unclear exactly what the Kremlin hopes to achieve in Kazakhstan. If it tries to take control of the country’s resources, it will end up in a confrontation with China, which it cannot afford. Nor can it control the political situation in the country. The protesters, after all, have already achieved their goals of forcing the government’s resignation and restoring fuel-price caps (a doubling of prices triggered the unrest).

Nonetheless, after years of the Kremlin standing by and watching as the US and China colonised Kazakhstan economically, those countries now must watch as Russian soldiers help to patrol Kazakh cities. Chevron, ExxonMobil and European oil companies have fields and installations across Kazakhstan, so the last thing they want is a deeper conflict.

As always with Putin, the domestic audience is a key consideration. Most Russians—including many independent analysts and opposition figures—consider Kazakhstan a part of the Russkiy mir (‘Russian world’). As with Russian speakers in Ukraine, the assumption is that all Russophones in Kazakhstan are in fact Russians who dream of nothing more than annexation by the motherland. In the 1990s, extreme nationalists, including the Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, openly called for northern Kazakhstan to be incorporated into Russia.

Yet many Russian-speaking Kazakhs are not pro-Russian, nor do they want to incorporate their country partly or wholly into Russia. There are Ukrainians and Kazakhs who speak only Russian and don’t want that language to be their country’s official language. But none of that matters to Putin. He sees the mere existence of a Russian minority—whose size he usually inflates several times over—as sufficient justification to include a neighbouring country in Russia’s sphere of influence.

But the Kremlin also has plenty to lose in Kazakhstan. Deploying 2,500 troops may strengthen Russia’s influence, but maintaining a military presence will antagonise Kazakhs, just as previous interventions antagonised Ukrainians and Belarusians who used to consider themselves pro-Russian.

That antagonism will have only marginal geopolitical significance in the short and medium terms, but in the long term it could lead to greater independence. After Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Belarus in 2020, Kazakhstan is another chapter in Putin’s neo-imperial narrative. But that also makes it another traditionally pro-Russian society that Putin is at risk of losing. Though the intervention is supposed to scare the protesters into submission, it could well have the opposite effect, turning Kazakhs decidedly against Russia.

Russia’s military presence in Kazakhstan is an additional source of leverage as Putin pursues his second goal: an unwritten agreement to halt the integration of Ukraine and Georgia into the West. Were it not for Russia’s ultimatum regarding NATO membership, the mere demand to withdraw Western support for Ukraine would be radical. But, against this background, Putin’s objective seems to be a minimum plan—almost a compromise. And the whole course of events in Kazakhstan and along the Ukrainian border serves this purpose.

If, after eight hours of talks, the Kremlin-controlled media don’t thunder that Russia was offended and provoked to an appropriate reaction, then it seems that the outcome wasn’t a pretext for invading Ukraine. The West was supposed to learn from the CSTO’s deployment in Kazakhstan that Russia is equal to the US, has its own NATO and has the ability to expand its influence into large neighbouring countries. As Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said: Russia must get something from NATO.

From now on, an agreement to keep Ukraine out of NATO is the minimum, not the maximum, that Russia will demand. It might work. After all, while a country’s admission to NATO needs to be announced, a decision to keep it out permanently does not.