Kazakhstan’s Border With Russia Is Suddenly an Open Question Again

Moscow has long claimed parts of northern Kazakhstan. The country’s current turmoil makes those claims a lot more relevant—and troubling.

By , an investigative journalist and author of American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History.
Russian troops walk toward a military plane at a snowy airfield.
Russian troops walk toward a military plane at a snowy airfield.
Russian troops board a Russian military plane at an airfield outside Moscow to fly to Kazakhstan on Jan. 6. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Amid nationwide protests rocking Kazakhstan this week—which have already resulted in bloodshed, political turmoil, and the end of former dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev’s cult of personality—the country is going through an unprecedented shift.

But as Kazakhstan continues to roil and as troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance, flood the country to “stabilize” the situation, one potential outcome is suddenly very relevant yet still overlooked: state fracture. Specifically, the potential for a revanchist Russia to use Kazakhstan’s domestic turmoil as a pretext to seize a swath of northern Kazakhstan, which Russian nationalists have long coveted and ethnic Russian populations in the region have long toyed breaking off from.

Russian revanchism over the past decade is hardly a secret. Yet although the locus of the Kremlin’s irredentism has centered on Ukraine—where Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and where it once more toys with seizing swaths of eastern Ukraine—Russian nationalists have never shied away from the fact that they believe significant chunks of northern Kazakhstan belong to Russia and that the Russia-Kazakhstan border should be open for discussion once more.

Amid nationwide protests rocking Kazakhstan this week—which have already resulted in bloodshed, political turmoil, and the end of former dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev’s cult of personality—the country is going through an unprecedented shift.

But as Kazakhstan continues to roil and as troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance, flood the country to “stabilize” the situation, one potential outcome is suddenly very relevant yet still overlooked: state fracture. Specifically, the potential for a revanchist Russia to use Kazakhstan’s domestic turmoil as a pretext to seize a swath of northern Kazakhstan, which Russian nationalists have long coveted and ethnic Russian populations in the region have long toyed breaking off from.

Russian revanchism over the past decade is hardly a secret. Yet although the locus of the Kremlin’s irredentism has centered on Ukraine—where Moscow illegally annexed Crimea and where it once more toys with seizing swaths of eastern Ukraine—Russian nationalists have never shied away from the fact that they believe significant chunks of northern Kazakhstan belong to Russia and that the Russia-Kazakhstan border should be open for discussion once more.

Moscow’s claims to significant stretches of northern Kazakhstan have a long pedigree—and long predate the reign of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As the Soviet Union entered its final death throes in the early 1990s and new post-Soviet republics began emerging as independent states, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin realized the Soviet-era borders may not fully reflect the Kremlin’s interests. His office issued a statement in late 1991 planting a territorial flag. As historian Serhii Plokhy details, the diktat highlighted “the problem of borders, the non-settlement of which is possible.” Russia, according to Yeltsin, “reserves the right to raise the question of the revision of boundaries.”

It wasn’t difficult to identify which borders Yeltsin had in mind. As the Soviet republics sprinted toward independence, Plokhy related, “Yeltsin panicked, threatening Ukraine and Kazakhstan with revision of borders and Russian claims on parts of their territory if they insisted on independence.” If anyone missed the memo, Yeltsin’s press secretary specified there were four regions Moscow eyed for potential border revision. The first, Georgia’s Abkhazia region, Russia invaded in 2008. The second and third—Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbass regions—Russia invaded in 2014. The fourth is the only region Russia hasn’t yet seized: northern Kazakhstan.

Yeltsin was hardly alone in making rhetorical claims to northern Kazakhstan. With the region remaining majority ethnic Russian, other Russian nationalists followed Yeltsin’s lead. Luminaries like dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who claimed northern Kazakhstan was rightfully Russian, and author and ultra-right political activist Eduard Limonov, who was later arrested for fomenting a separatist plot in the region, all joined the chorus.

Indeed, the potential for regional secession motivated the Kazakh government’s 1997 decision to move the country’s capital from the southern city of Almaty to Astana (recently renamed Nur-Sultan), far closer to the country’s northern stretches.

For a spell, Russian nationalist claims to the region receded amid rising economic tides and increasingly tight relations between Kazakh and Russian leaders. Then, in the mid-2010s, Russia launched its neoimperialist invasion of Ukraine, returning regions it claimed were historically Russian to Moscow’s fold. And a chill burst through Kazakh leadership—seen, for instance, in Nazarbayev reportedly asking Chinese President Xi Jinping for “assurances” for Kazakhstan’s security—as questions of northern Kazakhstan’s borders became once more relevant.

Much of that renewed relevance stemmed, unsurprisingly, from Putin. Shortly after announcing the seizure of Crimea in 2014, Putin spoke at a Russian youth forum. Asked if Kazakhstan would “follow the Ukrainian scenario” after Nazarbayev’s departure, Putin told listeners, “Kazakhs never had a state of their own.” Coming amid Ukraine’s forced fracture, the implications were impossible to miss; days later, the Kazakh government announced plans for the 550th anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate, a clear rebuke to Putin’s claim that they never had statehood before the Soviet collapse.

But between Putin’s comments and the revanchism on display in Ukraine, the Pandora’s box of Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity was suddenly open for discussion. Ethnic Russians born and raised in northern Kazakhstan suddenly began describing their country to me as a “Bantustan” and a “virtual” country: as something cobbled together by Soviet politicians rather than an actual country that deserved sovereignty and recognition. Another person told me if things fell apart, he’d side with Moscow over the Kazakh government.

Much of this was predicated on the outright chauvinism (or racism)—the belief that Kazakhstan was hardly deserving of full, sovereign independence or equality with the Russian state—that has motivated Russian neoimperialism elsewhere rather than on policies that exacerbated ethnic strife. (The logic is similar to how Putin describes Ukraine, claiming the modern Ukrainian state is effectively a fabrication.)

With remarkably little survey data and reporting on potential separatist sentiment in the region, we’re left to rely on anecdata. But the little we do know suggests potential state fracture can’t be dismissed out of hand—especially as the Kremlin scours for projects to fortify its own flagging support back home.

As author Joanna Lillis reported in her seminal 2018 book on Kazakhstan, concerns about regional separation are hardly nonexistent. (“When Russia needs a war like the one in Ukraine in northern Kazakhstan, it’ll make one,” said one Kazakh in the book.) Nor is separatist sentiment. A few years ago, Lillis reported, a poll in the Russian-majority town of Ridder, just a few dozen miles from the Russian border, found some three-quarters of respondents were in favor of the region “seceding and becoming part of Russia.”

And legislators in Moscow have been only too happy to pick up the thread. In recent years, State Duma deputies have increasingly framed northern Kazakhstan as rightfully Russian. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Bruce Pannier detailed, the head of the State Duma’s Education and Science Committee recently said northern Kazakhstan was effectively “uninhabited” until Russian colonization, with another claiming Kazakhstan was simply “leasing” Russian land.

Or, as a banner draped just a year ago by a Russian nationalist on the gate of the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow read, “Northern Kazakhstan is Russian land.”


One question, then, hangs: Is Kazakhstan set to follow the Ukrainian model of state fracture, suffering a renewed Russian conquest of formerly Kremlin-controlled lands, all predicated on ethnic grievances and regional separatism? Is Russia set to seize northern Kazakhstan and dare the world to do anything about it?

The short answer is almost certainly not—at least in the immediate future. There are myriad reasons agitating against such an outcome. First, there are clear distinctions between Kazakhstan’s 2022 unrest and previous models of Russian moves to seize post-Soviet territory elsewhere, whether in Georgia in 2008 or Ukraine in 2014.

Unlike Georgian or Ukrainian leadership, Kazakh authorities and protesters alike have espoused little interest in breaking off economic or military ties with Moscow. At present, the tumult in Kazakhstan is similar to Belarus’s democratic protests in 2020: purely domestic in nature and pushing back against a kleptocratic regime that has spent decades smothering any efforts at democracy, transparency, or political opposition. There appears little agitation and little appetite for pulling Kazakhstan out of bodies such as the CSTO or the Eurasian Economic Union, both of which Kazakhstan remains a member of. And unlike Georgia or Ukraine, Kazakhstan is not moving toward potentially joining the European Union or NATO anytime soon.

Second, Kazakh leadership—nominally overseen by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev—has largely refrained from using chauvinistic Kazakh nationalism to buttress its regime. One of the few silver linings of Nazarbayev’s rule, which formally ended in 2019 (albeit in a fashion that allowed Nazarbayev to continue to steer Kazakhstan’s broader strategy), was a clear focus on multiethnic comity, a direction Tokayev has continued in his third year of the presidency.

While the government has slowly incorporated policies shoring up Kazakh sovereignty, from announcing a transition from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet to refraining from recognizing Moscow’s territorial claims in Ukraine, concerns of rising Kazakh nationalism are hardly sufficient for Moscow to announce a seizure of northern Kazakhstan to safeguard the rights and safety of ethnic Russians. Actual interethnic violence would definitely suffice—but there’s been zero indication of anything like that targeting ethnic Russians.

Those realities, though, are hardly panaceas, especially as Russian-led “peacekeeping forces” begin to scour the country as part of the broader CSTO “intervention.” Almost overnight, Kazakhstan’s claims to sovereignty buckled as the country’s leaders ushered in foreign troops to shore up their listing regime. Barely 48 hours after protests had begun, Russian boots touched down in Kazakhstan. And in Moscow, the propagandists followed suit. RT chief Margarita Simonyan promptly issued a list of demands to Kazakh authorities, including recognizing Russia’s claims to Crimea, retaining Cyrillic, and elevating Russian to the country’s second state language.

Nor is there reason to think Moscow is a servant to logic, anyway. Ensconced in the Kremlin for almost two decades, Putin increasingly appears to view himself less as a rote statesman and more as a figure of historical import whose destiny melds returning Russia to its international prominence and, as in Ukraine, gathering the lands he views as formerly Russian. Bathed in conspiracy, Putin has built an empire of self-deception under the belief that Russia remains assaulted from all sides.

The uprising in Kazakhstan will only confirm Putin’s fears that Moscow stands alone. And if Putin’s supposedly historic mandate includes returning lands perceived as rightfully Russian, northern Kazakhstan is suddenly closer to the Russian fold than it’s been in decades. This fact is all the more salient as the Kremlin searches for projects to shore up its own waning domestic support, including potentially invading Ukraine, another neighbor hosting lands Russian nationalists claim are rightfully theirs.

For now, though, it seems Moscow, along with Tokayev and his allies, is focused primarily on shoring up the regime and squelching any protests or thoughts of pro-democracy reform. But given how abruptly the ground has shifted in Kazakhstan in just a few days, possibilities previously dismissed are suddenly front and center. Given how swiftly Nazarbayev’s legacy has crumbled, how swiftly the body count spiked, and how quickly Russian troops swarmed the country, Kazakhstan’s supposed stability is suddenly an open question.

Casey Michel is an investigative journalist and author of American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History. Twitter: @cjcmichel

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.