Analysis

Why Russia Sent Troops Into Kazakhstan

Moscow’s swift aid to a neighboring regime tracks with its wider strategic goals.

By , a nonresident fellow at the Newlines Institute.
A gas mask lies near the fence of an administrative building in central Almaty, Kazakhstan.
A gas mask lies near the fence of an administrative building in central Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 7. Abdauziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty Images

In an article for Foreign Policy last week, I laid out a framework for the decision-making process of Russia’s military interventions in the post-Soviet space. Within that framework, I identified five primary variables that must be in place for Moscow to decide to send in military forces: 1) a specific trigger, 2) support from local elements, 3) anticipated military opposition/reactions, 4) the technical feasibility of the intervention, and 5) anticipated political and economic costs of intervention, such as sanctions. Using this framework, I predicted that a large-scale military invasion by Russia of Ukraine was unlikely to happen in the immediate term, despite a buildup of troops and aggressive rhetoric by Russian leadership.

However, I also noted that there was the potential for Russian military buildups and potential deployments elsewhere, particularly “in countries that are friendlier to Moscow.” And this week, just such an intervention has occurred in Kazakhstan, with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deploying troops to quell unrest that began over fuel price hikes on Jan. 2 and quickly spread and intensified into violence throughout the country. While the unrest is ongoing and Kazakhstan’s political and security trajectory remains unclear as of this writing, the timing and manner of Russia’s intervention in the country offers insight into Moscow’s strategic calculus and clues on what to expect moving forward in the broader region.

Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan is unique compared with Moscow’s previous military operations in the former Soviet space, such as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. One unique aspect is the involvement of the CSTO, which is a military alliance consisting of Russia and its strongest security allies in the post-Soviet space, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Unlike Russia’s operations in Georgia and Ukraine, the deployment of CSTO troops (the majority of which come from Russia but also with smaller contingents from CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, and Tajikistan) was explicitly requested by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and did not come against the government. With the situation rapidly spinning out of control, Tokayev felt the need to get CSTO assistance in order to secure strategic sites and installations, including government buildings and airports in key cities such as Almaty, while Kazakh security forces could focus on handling the demonstrators directly. And indeed, the multinational nature of the intervention is significant, serving as the first joint deployment of CSTO forces in the 30-year history of the security bloc.

In an article for Foreign Policy last week, I laid out a framework for the decision-making process of Russia’s military interventions in the post-Soviet space. Within that framework, I identified five primary variables that must be in place for Moscow to decide to send in military forces: 1) a specific trigger, 2) support from local elements, 3) anticipated military opposition/reactions, 4) the technical feasibility of the intervention, and 5) anticipated political and economic costs of intervention, such as sanctions. Using this framework, I predicted that a large-scale military invasion by Russia of Ukraine was unlikely to happen in the immediate term, despite a buildup of troops and aggressive rhetoric by Russian leadership.

However, I also noted that there was the potential for Russian military buildups and potential deployments elsewhere, particularly “in countries that are friendlier to Moscow.” And this week, just such an intervention has occurred in Kazakhstan, with the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deploying troops to quell unrest that began over fuel price hikes on Jan. 2 and quickly spread and intensified into violence throughout the country. While the unrest is ongoing and Kazakhstan’s political and security trajectory remains unclear as of this writing, the timing and manner of Russia’s intervention in the country offers insight into Moscow’s strategic calculus and clues on what to expect moving forward in the broader region.

Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan is unique compared with Moscow’s previous military operations in the former Soviet space, such as in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. One unique aspect is the involvement of the CSTO, which is a military alliance consisting of Russia and its strongest security allies in the post-Soviet space, including Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Unlike Russia’s operations in Georgia and Ukraine, the deployment of CSTO troops (the majority of which come from Russia but also with smaller contingents from CSTO members Armenia, Belarus, and Tajikistan) was explicitly requested by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and did not come against the government. With the situation rapidly spinning out of control, Tokayev felt the need to get CSTO assistance in order to secure strategic sites and installations, including government buildings and airports in key cities such as Almaty, while Kazakh security forces could focus on handling the demonstrators directly. And indeed, the multinational nature of the intervention is significant, serving as the first joint deployment of CSTO forces in the 30-year history of the security bloc.

But the reasoning behind the Moscow-led deployment in Kazakhstan does have important parallels with Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Georgia. Ultimately, any Russian intervention in the post-Soviet space is rooted in Russia’s primary geopolitical imperatives: to preserve domestic political consolidation, protect itself from adverse neighbors or external powers, and entrench its influence in the region while limiting that of rival players. While in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia invaded to undermine pro-Western governments hostile to its interests, Moscow’s CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan is the inverse: supporting a pro-Russian government that is strategically aligned with the Kremlin. No less importantly, Russia wants to send a message that it is willing to act to stem the risk of such violent unrest and political disorder from breaking out in other Moscow-friendly states, as well as potentially within Russian territory itself.

Thus, the broader strategic reasoning for a Russian intervention in Kazakhstan was there. Such a deployment tracks with many of the elements that had been previously identified from the framework: The trigger came in the form of protesters storming public buildings, and the support from local elements came from Tokayev’s CSTO intervention request, which in turn indicated a technical feasibility and that there would not be a hostile response from the Kazakh military. Signals from the United States and European Union indicated that there would not be significant economic or political blowback from the West in response to Russia’s intervention. As a result, Russia has acted swiftly and decisively to send in CSTO forces immediately after Tokayev requested them. Without these factors, Moscow might have delayed the deployment, made it a far smaller one, or even tactfully ignored the request.

This doesn’t mean Russia’s CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan won’t come with its own problems. Nor does it guarantee success in accomplishing its objective, which is to restore public order and support the Kazakh regime. While local support for Russia’s intervention exists at the government level, there are some elements within Kazakhstan—including many of the demonstrators, as well opposition figures, who have spoken out against it and could decide to put up a resistance now or in the future. Furthermore, the military participation of CSTO states such as Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia—all of which have had their own problems with social and political unrest—could actually make those countries more vulnerable to political unrest in the future. And if the Russian-led CSTO forces are unable to quell the situation and restore order in Kazakhstan—and potentially in future hot spots throughout the CSTO—this could be badly damaging to the Kremlin’s own reputation, both at home and in the post-Soviet space.

There is a lot on the line 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 protesters themselves. While Moscow has proved consistent in its willingness to use military force to defend its position in the former Soviet space, such interventions are prone to producing unpredictable and wide-ranging consequences.

Eugene Chausovsky is a nonresident fellow at the Newlines Institute. Chausovsky previously served as senior Eurasia analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor for more than 10 years. His work focuses on political, economic, and security issues pertaining to Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

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