Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Russia's Backyard

By David G. Young

Hollywood, FL, January 11, 2022 --  

The failed revolt in Kazakhstan allows Russia to reassert control over its sprawling neighbor.

The Russian paratroopers that landed in Kazakhstan last Thursday found themselves in a city devastated by violent unrest. Pictures of the main square of Almaty made it look like a war zone, with a burned out city hall and a main square surrounded by charred overturned cars, a breeched presidential palace, and toppled statues of Kazakhstan's first president.1 The country's current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has asserted he has reclaimed full control of the country with support from troops from Russia and a handful of other former-Soviet allies.

But as the smoke clears views in burned-out city, what really happened remains unclear. Everyone agrees that protests erupted over hikes in fuel prices and that crowds turned violent. The country's largest city of Almaty suffered widespread looting and arson of not just government buildings but private businesses. Clearly, this was not just a bottom up revolt -- the firing of Kazakhstan's secret police chief Karim Masimov during the protests shows that an internal power struggle was also taking place.2

The country's current president took office in 2019 after being hand picked by the former-Soviet strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev who had ruled Kazakhstan since the Soviet breakup. Nazarbayev and his allies like Masimov retained powerful positions within the security agencies. The firing of Masimov shows that Tokayev is no longer beholden to Nazabayev, and a full-blown split and crackdown on the former president's family may be coming. The arrival of Russian troops to support the current government shows that Putin's Russia is backing President Tokayev over the old regime.3

What remains unknown is what deals that Kazakh President Tokayev made with Russian President Vladimir Putin in return for Russia's support. After Russia and Ukraine, Kazakhstan is the country with the largest Russian population in the world. Kazakhstan's ethnic Russian minority amounts to nearly 20 percent of the population, mostly in the north. The ethic Kazakhs majority generally speaks Kazakh in the home, especially in more rural areas.

Yet both of Kazakhstan's leaders have been careful not to fan Kazakh nationalism, and instead preach ethnic harmony. This is less out of high minded ideals than a desire not to antagonize Russia or its own Russian population. Northern Kazakhstan is a vast steppe indistinguishable from neighboring Siberia, and ethnic Russians live on both sides of the meandering border. In order to forestall a Russian land grab, former President Nazarbayev moved the Kazakh capital from the main city of Almaty in the far south to the mostly Russian city of Astana in the north in 1997. When Putin seized the Russian-populated Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, that trick looked genius. How can Russia annex northern Kazakhstan when that's where its capital is located?

But while Nazarbayev's strategically held Kazakhstan together, his successor's reliance on Moscow to maintain power will likely erode the country's independence. Don't be surprised when Kazakh troops make an appearance with Russia in Ukraine -- if Putin decides to mount an invasion of its disobedient neighbor to the west. And Kazakstan most certainly will not be protesting any Russian military action any time soon.

In the meantime, President Tokayev will need to minimize Russia's visible presence so as not to inflame tensions by ethnic Kazakhs against ethnic Russians. Kazakhs are already apt to perceive Russians as colluding with the regime to suppress the uprising. Indeed, Tokayev announced today that Russian troops would be out of the country within 10 days.4

Whether or not the troops really do go, Russia's influence will remain. Tokayev clearly owes Putin a big favor for backing him against his rivals. And as history is shown, Putin is not shy about calling in favors. With tensions mounting in Ukraine as Russia tries to reassert its sphere of influence over the former Soviet Union, the unrest in Kazakhstan has handed Putin a golden opportunity to shore up his control in Central Asia.


1. Reuters, Russia Sends Troops to Put Down Kazakhstan Uprising as Fresh Violence Erupts, January 6, 2000

2. New York Times, In Kazakhstan’s Street Battles, Signs of Elites Fighting Each Other, January 7, 2022

3. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Is A Battle For Power Raging Within Kazakhstan's Government? January 9, 2022

4. Insider, Kazakhstan President Says Russian Troops Will Start to Leave in 48 Hours, Citing calm After 164 People Killed and 8,000 Detained, January 11, 2022