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Is Kazakhstan the Second Act of the Ukraine Drama?

Here’s What You Need to Remember: Putin’s preference is almost certain to wait and see if President Tokayev can quell the unrest with the assistance of the “peacekeepers” from the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

The unrest in Kazakhstan spells trouble for Moscow. Until now a reliable authoritarian ally, it provided Moscow with a safety barrier against the perennially unstable Central Asia — all the more needed now with the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. Still more disturbing for the Kremlin is the specter of a pro-democracy “color revolution” on its borders.

With 18 million citizens and a territory of a million square miles, Kazakhstan is too big for an outright takeover, but a plausible target for a limited annexation. Kazakhs had never had their own state, Putin averred. Instead, he continued, the country was “created” by President Nursultan Nazarbayev (who ruled the Central Asian nation between 1991 and 2019) “on the territory where no state ever existed.” Besides, Putin said in June 2020, if this or that former Soviet republic had “entered” the Soviet Union and had been given “a huge quantity of historically Russian lands,” it should have exited the USSR with its original lands instead of “dragging with it the presents from the Russian people.” Putin did not name the offenders but, alongside Ukraine, Kazakhstan could be Exhibit A. Its six northern provinces, where most of the country’s three-and-half million ethnic Russians live, border Russia and could be considered part of the “historical” Russian south-east, southern Urals, and south-west Siberia.

But the immediate “official” pretext for a limited invasion is most likely to be a claim that the ethnic Russian minority was endangered by the turmoil: a Crimea-Donbass scenario, with Islamic “religious extremists” in Almaty replacing the “Russophobic Nazis” in Kiev as an imminent danger to the lives of Russia’s compatriots.

Busy at the moment with the martial drama he is enacting on the Ukrainian border, Putin’s preference is almost certain to wait and see if President Tokayev can quell the unrest with the assistance of the “peacekeepers” from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Yet the temptation to boost his much advertised image as protector of all Russians no matter where they live and, even more so, of an in-gatherer of “historic Russian lands,” lost in the Soviet collapse, may prompt a second edition of the Crimea-Donbass script. Stay tuned!

Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

This article was first published by AEI.

Image: Reuters

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