Russian Propagandists Zero In on Kazakh Crisis

Intense interest by diplomats and state media underscores the significance of Russia’s intervention.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
In a Russian Defense Ministry photo, Russian peacekeepers are welcomed at the Chkalovsky airfield as they arrive from Almaty, Kazakhstan.
In a Russian Defense Ministry photo, Russian peacekeepers are welcomed at the Chkalovsky airfield as they arrive from Almaty, Kazakhstan.
In a Russian Defense Ministry photo, Russian peacekeepers are welcomed at the Chkalovsky airfield as they arrive from Almaty, Kazakhstan, on Jan. 13. Vadim Savitsky/TASS via Getty Images)

Russian propaganda accounts on Twitter went into overdrive this month as troops from a Russian-led regional security organization were dispatched to protect critical infrastructure in Kazakhstan amid anti-government protests that rocked the country, according to an analysis shared with Foreign Policy by researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based think tank. 

During a six-day period in early January, accounts run by Russian diplomats and state media abroad tweeted about Kazakhstan 3,210 times, amplifying allegations that foreign interference had fueled the protests and portraying Russian troops as restoring order and stability in the Central Asian nation. 

The intensity and rhetoric of Russia’s state media and its diplomats can often provide a glimpse into the Kremlin’s thinking. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployment was an unmitigated win for the Kremlin, which succeeded in shoring up its authoritarian neighbor in a time of crisis in a model that analysts fear could be repeated across the region. 

Russian propaganda accounts on Twitter went into overdrive this month as troops from a Russian-led regional security organization were dispatched to protect critical infrastructure in Kazakhstan amid anti-government protests that rocked the country, according to an analysis shared with Foreign Policy by researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based think tank. 

During a six-day period in early January, accounts run by Russian diplomats and state media abroad tweeted about Kazakhstan 3,210 times, amplifying allegations that foreign interference had fueled the protests and portraying Russian troops as restoring order and stability in the Central Asian nation. 

The intensity and rhetoric of Russia’s state media and its diplomats can often provide a glimpse into the Kremlin’s thinking. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) deployment was an unmitigated win for the Kremlin, which succeeded in shoring up its authoritarian neighbor in a time of crisis in a model that analysts fear could be repeated across the region. 

“This was certainly a surge that was beyond even what we would see in the normal strategic messaging that they push out about Ukraine and other regional priorities,” said Bret Schafer, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy who created the Hamilton 2.0 dashboard to track the thousands of tweets and statements issued daily by Russian, Iranian, and Chinese government officials and state media. 

Despite the massing of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine and fears among Western officials that Moscow may be poised to launch a renewed offensive, Russian diplomats and state media mentioned Kazakhstan more frequently in the six days measured than they mentioned Ukraine in all of December, said Joseph Bodnar, a research assistant at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. In December, the dashboard recorded 2,674 tweets that mentioned Ukraine. 

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen Russian propaganda mention a country more than Russia itself over a weeklong stretch,” Bodnar said. “It didn’t happen with the Belarus crisis. It didn’t happen with Ukraine. I don’t think it happened with U.S. elections. This was new.”

After protests over a fuel price hike at the beginning of January spread across the country, turning violent in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claimed that “international terrorist groups” had infiltrated the country and were driving the violence. On Jan. 5, he called on the CSTO to intervene, and the Russian-led alliance responded rapidly, deploying 2,500 troops to protect government buildings, oil installations, and the Russian Baikonur spaceport. 

The deployment marks the first time in the 30-year history of the CSTO that it has responded to a request for assistance from a member state and underscores the Kremlin’s ability to react quickly when it sees an opening to advance its interests. 

“What I find interesting about this Kazakh situation is that it’s tailor-made for their kind of vision of what their role should be in Eurasia and Central Asia,” said Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College, noting that it was a low-cost, high-impact operation that is expected to leave Kazakhstan’s leader in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s debt. 

Seen as a much weaker regional parallel to NATO, the CSTO has long been dismissed as a talk shop. “We’re not attuned to all the kinds of ways that they have innovated our own institutions and used them for different kinds of purposes,” Cooley said. 

While some Kazakh scholars have noted that criminal gangs appear to have fueled much of the violence in Almaty, capitalizing on the chaos to advance their own agendas, there is no reliable evidence to suggest a foreign hand in the unrest in Kazakhstan. But claims of foreign interference by the Kazakh president, which were amplified by Russian state media and diplomats online, are commonly deployed by leaders across the region as a reason to crack down on civil society and dissenting voices. Authoritarian leaders across the former Soviet Union have often picked up Moscow’s talking points on foreign interference, terrorist threats, and LGBT rights as a justification to consolidate their rule in an example of what scholars term “authoritarian learning.”

Researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy also noted an increasing pattern of Russian and Chinese state media amplifying each other’s messaging as part of a growing synergy between the propaganda coming out of the two countries. During the protests in Kazakhstan, Russia’s international state-backed news outlet Sputnik picked up a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry blaming outside interference on the unrest, Bodnar said. 

“They’re leaning on the other’s state media takes, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs statements, more and more and more, and we see synergies in the sort of nuance of the messaging become just become more and more apparent,” Schafer said.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily any sort of back-channel agreement of the language that they’re going to use. I don’t think it’s that direct cooperation, but it almost appears like it is because the talking points are so similar coming out of both the government and state media,” he added. 

On Friday, U.S. officials warned that Russia is planning a provocation in Ukraine as a pretext for war, noting that Moscow has already dispatched a team of operatives trained in urban combat and explosives with a view to launching an attack on Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine as an excuse to launch a renewed offensive. 

A U.S. official underscored the role played by Russian state media and influencers in building the case for war. “Russian influence actors are already starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations in state and social media to justify a Russian intervention and sow divisions in Ukraine,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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