Russian troops in Kazakhstan do not mean the same thing to Ukraine

In an article for Foreign policy Last week I designed a framework for the decision-making process for Russia’s military interventions in the post-Soviet space. Within this framework, I have identified five primary variables that Moscow must meet in order to decide to deploy armed forces: 1) a specific trigger, 2) support from local elements, 3) expected military opposition / responses, 4) the technical Feasibility of the intervention and 5) expected political and economic costs of the intervention, such as sanctions. Using this framework, I predicted that a large-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine was unlikely in the near future, despite a buildup and aggressive rhetoric by the Russian leadership.

However, I also noted that there was potential for Russian military armaments and possible missions elsewhere, especially “in countries that are more friendly to Moscow”. And this week such an intervention occurred in Kazakhstan, in which the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) dispatched troops to quell the riots that began on January 2 over the fuel price hike and which quickly spread as a whole Land spread and intensified into acts of violence. While the unrest continues and Kazakhstan’s political and security developments are unclear at this point in time, the timing and manner of Russian intervention in the country offer insights into Moscow’s strategic calculations and indications of what to expect in the wider region.

Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan is unique compared to previous military operations by Moscow in the former Soviet area, around 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Ukraine. The participation of the CSTO, a military alliance consisting of Russia and its strongest security allies in the post-Soviet space, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is unique. In contrast to Russia’s operations in Georgia and Ukraine, the use of CSTO troops (most of which come from Russia, but also with smaller contingents from the CSTO members Armenia, Belarus and Tajikistan) was expressly requested by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did not come against the government. With the situation quickly spiraling out of control, Tokayev felt the need to seek assistance from the CSTO to secure strategic sites and facilities, including government buildings and airports in key cities like Almaty, while Kazakh security forces focus on directly handling the protesters could. Indeed, the multinational nature of the intervention is important, as it represents the first joint stationing of CSTO troops in the 30-year history of the security block.

In an article for Foreign policy Last week I designed a framework for the decision-making process for Russia’s military interventions in the post-Soviet space. Within this framework, I have identified five primary variables that Moscow must meet in order to decide to deploy armed forces: 1) a specific trigger, 2) support from local elements, 3) expected military opposition / responses, 4) the technical Feasibility of the intervention and 5) expected political and economic costs of the intervention, such as sanctions. Using this framework, I predicted that a large-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine was unlikely in the near future, despite a buildup and aggressive rhetoric by the Russian leadership.

However, I also noted that there was potential for Russian military armaments and possible missions elsewhere, especially “in countries that are more friendly to Moscow”. And this week such an intervention occurred in Kazakhstan, in which the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) dispatched troops to quell the riots that began on January 2 over the fuel price hike and which quickly spread as a whole Land spread and intensified into acts of violence. While the unrest continues and Kazakhstan’s political and security developments are unclear at this point in time, the timing and manner of Russian intervention in the country offer insights into Moscow’s strategic calculations and indications of what to expect in the wider region.

Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan is unique compared to previous military operations by Moscow in the former Soviet area, around 2008 in Georgia and 2014 in Ukraine. The participation of the CSTO, a military alliance consisting of Russia and its strongest security allies in the post-Soviet space, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, is unique. In contrast to Russia’s operations in Georgia and Ukraine, the use of CSTO troops (most of which come from Russia, but also with smaller contingents from the CSTO members Armenia, Belarus and Tajikistan) was expressly requested by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev did not come against the government. With the situation quickly spiraling out of control, Tokayev felt the need to seek assistance from the CSTO to secure strategic sites and facilities, including government buildings and airports in key cities like Almaty, while Kazakh security forces focus on directly handling the protesters could. Indeed, the multinational nature of the intervention is important, as it represents the first joint stationing of CSTO troops in the 30-year history of the security block.

But the reasoning behind the Moscow-led operation in Kazakhstan shows important parallels with Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Georgia. Ultimately, every Russian intervention in the post-Soviet space is rooted in Russia’s primary geopolitical imperatives: to maintain domestic political consolidation, to protect itself from hostile neighbors or external powers, and to consolidate its influence in the region while at the same time limiting the influence of rival actors. While Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine to undermine pro-Western governments that were hostile to its interests, Moscow’s CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan is the opposite: supporting a pro-Russian government strategically aligned with the Kremlin. No less important is that Russia wants to send a message that it is ready to act to contain the risk of such violent and political unrest in other Moscow-friendly states, as well as possibly on Russian territory itself.

Thus the broader strategic rationale for Russian intervention in Kazakhstan was in place. Such a deployment tracks many of the elements previously identified from the frame: the trigger was the storming of public buildings by demonstrators, and support for local elements came from Tokayev’s CSTO intervention request, which in turn indicated a technical feasibility and that it was not a hostile one Reaction of the Kazakh military would give. Signals from the United States and the European Union indicated that there would be no significant economic or political setback from the West in response to Russian intervention. As a result, Russia has acted quickly and decisively to send CSTO troops immediately at Tokayev’s request. Without these factors, Moscow might have delayed the deployment, made it much smaller, or even tactfully ignored the request.

That does not mean that Russia’s CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan does not come with problems of its own. It also does not guarantee success in achieving its goal of restoring public order and supporting the Kazakh regime. While there is local government support for Russia’s intervention, there are some elements within Kazakhstan – including many demonstrators, but also opposition members who have spoken out against it and may oppose it now or in the future. In addition, the military involvement of CSTO states like Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, all of which have had their own problems with social and political unrest, could even make these countries more vulnerable to political unrest in the future. And if the Russian-led CSTO forces are unable to calm the situation and restore order in Kazakhstan – and possibly in future CSTO hot spots – this could damage the Kremlin’s reputation both domestically and in the post-Soviet one Time is wasting space.

A lot is at stake in Kazakhstan at the moment, both for the Kazakh government and for Russia and its CSTO allies – not to mention the Kazakh public and the demonstrators themselves. Moscow has shown itself to be consistent in its readiness to use military force for defense proved its position in the former Soviet space, but such interventions can have unpredictable and far-reaching consequences.


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