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What Kazakhstan’s Unrest Means for Russia

Moscow can walk into Kazakhstan and chew gum at the Ukrainian border, with recent unrest unlikely to upset its tactics further west.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
Protesters storm the city hall of Kazakhstan’s largest city.
Protesters storm the city hall of Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, as unprecedented unrest hits the Central Asian nation on Jan. 5. Alexander Platonov/AFPTV/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russia sends troops into Kazakhstan to help quell unrest, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visits Myanmar, and China prepares to appoint a new Horn of Africa envoy.


Russia’s Troops Head South

Just as Russia prepares for crucial talks with the United States and NATO over its buildup in Ukraine and demands for security guarantees, a new crisis has begun in neighboring Kazakhstan, where protests over the government’s removal of fuel price caps have morphed into a larger reckoning with the authoritarian state.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russia sends troops into Kazakhstan to help quell unrest, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen visits Myanmar, and China prepares to appoint a new Horn of Africa envoy.


Russia’s Troops Head South

Just as Russia prepares for crucial talks with the United States and NATO over its buildup in Ukraine and demands for security guarantees, a new crisis has begun in neighboring Kazakhstan, where protests over the government’s removal of fuel price caps have morphed into a larger reckoning with the authoritarian state.

With government buildings torched and the main airport briefly occupied, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a regional security partnership where Russia is the most powerful member, to provide peacekeeping support. The move threatens to upend Kazakhstan’s decadeslong great-power balancing act.

Russia’s deployment of roughly 2,000 troops isn’t expected to affect its buildup near Ukraine’s border, despite forces usually close to Kazakhstan now deployed west. The troop dispatch would be “rather small, but sufficient to demonstrate the regime has backing from Moscow,” Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, wrote on Twitter.

As well as Russians, military units from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan will make up a force of some 2,500 troops, a number not close to an invasion force for the world’s ninth largest country. It’s likely to be mainly charged with protecting key infrastructure.

So far, there’s no sign of the protests being added to the list of Russian grievances ahead of next week’s talks, Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, confirmed via email, with no real evidence of a broad push within Russia to label the turmoil as a “color revolution,” as Moscow has described protests in Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine.

What the CSTO entry has done is upset the equilibrium Kazakhstan has managed to find between the East and West. Since its independence from the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has served in several capacities: a conduit for China’s economic ambitions, a key Russian ally, and a friendly nation for the United States and European Union. Not anymore, Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, a Central Asia expert at the University of Pittsburgh, told Foreign Policy. “I think it’s a huge blow to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, and it really alters the balance of power in the region,” she said.

The CSTO deployment will also be a test of Tokayev as he seeks to come out of longtime Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev’s shadow. “I’ll be looking at how the local security forces respond to the Russian troops that are coming in,” Brick Murtazashvili said. “Are they going to be loyal to Tokayev? You’re asking them to be loyal to this new person who’s taken over, and the first thing he does is bring in foreigners.”


What We’re Following Today

Myanmar’s visitor. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen travels to Myanmar today for a two-day visit, the first by any head of government since Myanmar’s February 2021 military coup. Hun Sen is set to meet with junta leader Gen. Min Aung Hlaing. Hun Sen has said the trip would “ease the crisis occurring there and urge restraint by all parties in order to end the violence in the country.” In Cambodia’s capacity as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Hun Sen named Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn as the bloc’s new special envoy to Myanmar last month and said junta officials were welcome to attend ASEAN meetings, a change in policy from previous chair-holder Brunei.

NATO huddles. NATO foreign ministers meet virtually today to discuss Russia’s military buildup in Ukraine before a week of meetings planned to de-escalate tensions in the region. Talks between Russian and U.S. officials take place on Jan. 9 and 10 in Geneva, followed by a NATO-Russia Council meeting on Jan. 12 and an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting on Jan. 13 in Vienna.


Keep an Eye On

China’s new envoy. China will soon appoint its own envoy to the Horn of Africa region, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced on Thursday during a speech when he said China wished to shift its focus in Africa from infrastructure to trade. Wang delivered the remarks while in Kenya, where he also announced a donation of 10 million COVID-19 vaccines. China’s new envoy will compete for attention with incoming U.S. Horn of Africa envoy David Satterfield, who takes over from the outgoing envoy, Jeffrey Feltman.

The Quad’s defense ties. Australia and Japan signed a new defense treaty on Thursday, Japan’s second military pact after its agreement with the United States. Dubbed the Reciprocal Access Agreement, the deal will “underpin greater and more complex engagement in operability between the Australia Defence Force and Japan Self-Defense Forces,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Iraq’s parliament convenes. On Sunday, Iraq’s parliament will hold its first session since elections in October 2021, which favored Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr’s political movement. Members have 30 days to elect a president, who will then select a prime minister to form a government.


Odds and Ends

Ireland’s parliament buildings, the Oireachtas, are battling a persistent pest problem, a new report issued under the country’s freedom of information laws revealed, with foxes, seagulls, pigeons, and rats all finding ways to disrupt life at the seat of government. Authorities are reported to have spent roughly $75,000 over the past year dealing with the animals, with inspectors recommending keeping windows closed at night after a fox “urinated all over an office” in the prime minister’s building. An Oireachtas spokesperson defended the expenditure as “appropriate to the size, age, and location” of the buildings.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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