It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Will Unrest in Kazakhstan Inflame Tensions Between Russia and the West?

A sudden wave of protests has spooked the Kremlin and precipitated an unprecedented intervention by Moscow and its allies.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters attending a rally in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 4 after energy price hikes. ABDUAZIZ MADYAROV/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Happy New Year, Matt! Welcome to 2022. It should be different in every way from 2021, except for the ongoing pandemic, school closures, and numerous international crises.

Matthew Kroenig: Happy New Year! I enjoyed the holiday and am grateful to Russian President Vladimir Putin for having the decency to wait until after the holidays to further invade Ukraine.

We should discuss the latest there, but maybe we should begin with the possible color revolution unfolding right now in Kazakhstan?

Emma Ashford: Happy New Year, Matt! Welcome to 2022. It should be different in every way from 2021, except for the ongoing pandemic, school closures, and numerous international crises.

Matthew Kroenig: Happy New Year! I enjoyed the holiday and am grateful to Russian President Vladimir Putin for having the decency to wait until after the holidays to further invade Ukraine.

We should discuss the latest there, but maybe we should begin with the possible color revolution unfolding right now in Kazakhstan?

EA: I think it’s probably not accurate to describe it as a color revolution—at least yet—but that is certainly how it will be viewed in Moscow, where it will undoubtedly raise tensions with the West even further.

Before I dive in, here’s a brief overview for those who don’t regularly follow Kazakh politics: the country is the biggest in Central Asia and is a major global oil and gas exporter. It has the twelfth-largest proven crude oil reserves in the world, and its economy is heavily dependent on selling hydrocarbons to both Europe and Asia.

It used to export most of those via Russian pipelines, but with new pipelines in recent years it is now far more independent from Moscow. Kazakhstan is also an autocracy, currently in the middle of a transition from its elderly strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev to his handpicked successor as president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Those two facts together are what’s behind the current unrest: The Kazakh people are fed up with three decades of repressive government and suffering economic hardship as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced their government to cancel state subsidies on key goods such as energy.

MK: Thanks for the helpful summary. I was playing loose with the term “color revolution.”

Some of the initial responses from U.S.-based experts have suggested that this is a democratic uprising. Given our history, I think many Americans see any protest against an autocratic regime as the stirrings for the birth of a new democratic nation.

But this protest seems to be more about dissatisfaction with the government’s subsidy cuts than about a desire to create a Jeffersonian democracy.

I hope I am wrong, but, as you point out, the same basic regime has been in power since the end of the Cold War, and I think it is unlikely to fall any time soon.

The Kazakh people are fed up with three decades of repressive government and suffering economic hardship as the pandemic forced their government to cancel state subsidies on energy.

EA: You never know. I agree that this isn’t about democracy, or at least mostly not about democracy.

But even the existing unrest in Kazakhstan might be enough to rattle markets in Europe and Asia. Nazarbayev was never as flamboyant as some of the other Central Asian dictators—his successors might have renamed the capital Nur-Sultan in his honor, but he never dedicated a golden statue of himself or his dog, or did doughnuts on the edge of a flaming crater. What he did do was keep Kazakhstan stable. As a result, the country has been the recipient of substantial foreign investment in the oil and gas sector over the last few decades. And any substantive shortfall in Kazakh oil or gas production would add to the existing tight global market, increasing prices.

MK: The United States has been one of the countries investing in Kazakhstan’s energy sector. Washington has also had substantial engagement with Nur-Sultan on helping to eliminate its nuclear and weapons of mass destruction infrastructure after the end of the Cold War. Kazakhstan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace and hosts a small, annual military peacekeeping exercise, Steppe Eagle. But otherwise, Washington’s relations with Nur-Sultan are pretty thin. Kazakhstan has always been more firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence, giving the United States limited influence over the direction and outcome of this uprising.

EA: True, Kazakhstan’s main military relationship is with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which replaced the Warsaw Pact for Russia and some Central Asian states. Tokayev has appealed for the CSTO to intervene in the ongoing unrest, and small numbers of Russian forces are already deploying in the country to suppress protests. This is not a situation where the United States is likely to play any major role. Again, this is certainly not the typical West vs. Russia narrative that we’ve heard elsewhere during color revolutions. This is far more about economic unrest, and the ongoing transition of power, with the Kazakh regime rapidly seeking to quash any opposition with the help of its CSTO allies.

Kazakhstan has spent the last few decades building energy and foreign-policy ties to both Europe and China, trying to pull itself away from Russia, at least to some extent.

MK: This CSTO military intervention is unprecedented and it goes to show that autocrats’ biggest threat comes from their own people. What a peculiar organization! What is their motto? “NATO might defend the free world from revanchist dictators, but here at CSTO we defend revanchist dictators from repressed Kazakhs”?

EA: It’s an interesting case study. As I talk about in my book—(Oil, the State, and War, forthcoming from Georgetown University Press)—Kazakhstan has spent the last few decades building energy and foreign-policy ties to both Europe and China, trying to pull itself away from Russia, at least to some extent. And it’s been quite successful in doing so, building pipelines that allow it to sell directly to non-Russian consumers and decoupling its foreign policy from Russia at the same time. That’s been largely accepted in Moscow.

But what’s happening now is liable to be perceived as far more challenging to Russian interests than that gradual drift. For one thing, even though you and I know that there is no real U.S. involvement in what’s happening now, the Kremlin has a tendency to see color revolutions and U.S. meddling everywhere. Russia still buys Kazakh gas to backstop its own falling production, and the Baikonur cosmodrome—the home of Russia’s space program and all its launches—is located in Kazakhstan. There is even a sizable population of ethnic Russian speakers inside the country. In short, I worry that any U.S. support for these protests—even just verbal—might worsen relations with Moscow, and further destabilize the situation around Ukraine.

MK: You are right that Putin will almost certainly (and wrongly) see the CIA’s hand behind these protests. After all, Putin sees a Western conspiracy behind anything that is potentially damaging to Russian interests. It was amazing to see the way he has portrayed Russia as a victim of Western expansion in recent weeks even as his military mobilizes to further invade Ukraine.

Let’s switch our focus to Ukraine. What did you make of Putin’s draft treaties to solve the crisis there? To me, they seemed like a pretext for invasion.

EA: Perhaps. It’s certainly notable that the Russians not only delivered these demands to the U.S. government, but also published them on the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the form of a draft treaty. That suggests that they consider this to be more about public opinion and debate than about quiet diplomacy.

And the draft treaty itself is certainly not going to be acceptable to the United States—or to most European states. It would prevent the United States from stationing troops within various NATO member countries, require the United States to return all nuclear weapons to U.S. soil, and limit the ability of U.S. ships to transit the Black or Baltic seas. None of that is going to happen.

At the same time, however, I can see the bones of a workable treaty agreement here if the parties were to embrace the diplomatic route. Rather than a commitment to prevent further NATO expansion—as the Russians ask—a time-bound moratorium might be possible. A more circumscribed deal on missile-basing, nuclear deployments, or military infrastructure near Russian borders could be negotiated, similar to past agreements such as the Helsinki Final Act or Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe.

MK: I agree that there are a few reasonable items in the draft treaties that could form the basis for real discussion. But the major provisions are nonstarters. Is Putin really going to be satisfied if NATO agrees to a “not now, but not never” provision for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership (which is essentially a restatement of the current open door policy) and maintains military forces in former Soviet states, but agrees to some modest limitations on military activity near Russian borders?

I kind of doubt it. Putin expected these treaties to be rejected—giving him additional public justification for an invasion.

EA: Well, first of all, I disagree that “not now, but not never” is the current approach to Ukrainian and Georgian membership of NATO. Even in the midst of this crisis, we still have NATO officials calling for the two countries to be admitted soon. And more importantly, one of the underlying reasons for the current crisis is Russian concerns about Ukraine hosting NATO weapons or infrastructure. To put it another way, Moscow is concerned that Ukraine will become a de facto NATO base, even if it never joins the alliance. And there’s some basis for that fear: It’s a strategy that has been suggested by some in Washington as a way around European opposition to Ukrainian membership.

The real threat the Kremlin perceives is political and economic. If Ukraine succeeds as a vibrant, open-market democracy, its neighbors in Russia will want the same thing.

Indeed, Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador in Washington, published an article here in Foreign Policy just before the new year that put the Russian position pretty succinctly. He argued: “If our partners keep constructing military-strategic realities imperiling the existence of our country, we will be forced to create similar vulnerabilities for them. We have come to the point when we have no room to retreat. Military exploration of Ukraine by NATO member states is an existential threat for Russia.”

So the draft treaty might be a pretext for invasion, but I also think it highlights the underlying causes of this crisis. And to me that suggests diplomacy might still be possible.

MK: I am glad FP published the piece, but it’s a bunch of nonsense. No one, not even Putin in his deepest bouts of paranoia, really believes that NATO poses a military threat to Russia.

EA: I’m not sure why it’s so hard to believe that Russia might feel militarily threatened by NATO. The United States recently had a half-century cold war with them, and Russia was invaded by Germany within (almost) living memory. It might be an overblown fear, but it’s hardly irrational. But go on.

MK: The real threat the Kremlin perceives is political and economic. If Ukraine succeeds as a vibrant, open-market democracy, its neighbors in Russia will want the same thing, and Putin and his fellow kleptocrats will be in trouble. Therefore, he wants to dominate Ukraine, and keep it down, to make Eastern Europe safe for autocracy.

Putin is also on a lifelong mission to restore the Russian empire for reasons of psychology and prestige, and having the former core of the Russian empire in a rival alliance system blocks his imperial ambitions.

EA: I think if he were on a mission to restore the Russian empire, he wouldn’t have stopped at Crimea and the Donbass. He wouldn’t have stopped at Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.

MK: A major reason he stopped, I believe, is a five-sided building in Arlington, Virginia.

EA: Hmm. Given that the George W. Bush administration declined to intervene in Georgia in 2008, and the Obama administration declined to intervene in Ukraine in 2014, I’m not sure the Pentagon deserves so much credit.

MK: Bush sent a U.S. warship to Georgia in the middle of the 2008 war on a “humanitarian mission.” He essentially told Putin: “Get out of the way. I am coming.” We will never know for sure why Putin stopped, but that show of U.S. military force cannot be discounted.

I think we in the West have insufficiently wrestled with the implications of spreading liberal democracy and free markets into the former Soviet space.

EA: Well, either way, your first comment is more to the point. I think we in the West have insufficiently wrestled with the implications of spreading liberal democracy and free markets into the former Soviet space. Good for the people there, but threatening to the autocrats who still rule some of these countries, particularly when it comes with an implied future NATO membership. And that means a foreign policy—and sometimes military—backlash.

We’d do far better disconnecting NATO from the economic side of things. For example, it would undoubtedly be better for Ukraine in the long run to accept some kind of demilitarized status in exchange for the cessation of conflict with Russia and the opportunity to develop economically in conjunction with the West.

MK: That would be a terrible deal! We disarm Ukraine and then ask Putin pretty please not to invade? One of the things holding him back now, I believe, is that Ukraine has strengthened its military (with U.S. and NATO help) since 2014.

We need to be going in the opposite direction. We should provide Ukraine with more military hardware, including counter-battery radar and anti-aircraft missiles. We should also go ahead and strengthen the U.S. and NATO military presence in the Baltics and the Black Sea region. Both of these things should be done now, not after Putin invades. He needs to see a clear deterrent force in his path and understand that simply threatening neighbors with a massive invasion (even if he doesn’t follow through) will have negative consequences for Russia.

EA: To be clear, I am not suggesting that Washington disarm Ukraine. But I am suggesting that U.S. officials might have to consider limiting certain kinds of arms sales if they want to strike a deal with Russia to defuse this crisis. And certainly, the United States and its allies would need to commit to not basing NATO troops or infrastructure on Ukrainian territory.

Look, this crisis didn’t happen overnight. For years, the Russians have been concerned about NATO military presence close to their borders. I’m sure they exaggerate for effect, but it’s still a real concern. It sounds to me like your approach is to dial up that military presence and dare Moscow to call Washington’s bluff. Maybe it works, but I don’t think Americans are going to go to war for Ukraine. And I think the Russians know that too.

MK: The Russians know that because Biden told them. Biden’s response has been pretty good overall, but why tell your opponent not to worry about your queen in a game of chess? Washington should have kept it on the table even if it didn’t intend to play with it.

But speaking of play, I promised my daughter I would take her sledding in this winter wonderland we have in D.C. this week. Until next time?

EA: Well, that sounds lovely. I should get going too. Our nanny has COVID-19, preschool is shut for snow, and I worry that if I don’t intervene, the nascent toddler cold war downstairs might escalate. Of course, if I were to take your advice, I should just sail a warship through the living room and assume that would deter future conflict, right?

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the author of Oil, the State, and War—a book on energy and international security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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