Putin’s Victory Against Revolt in Kazakhstan Poses Concern About Expanding Russian Influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a successful troop intervention in Kazakhstan after almost a week of the worst violence the Central Asian state has experienced since its independence in 1991. On Monday, January 10, 2022, Reuters reported that Putin declared victory after paratroopers from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) stifled the violent revolt in response to skyrocketing gas prices. Putin and Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev blamed foreign interference and radical Islamic terrorists for the unrest, which began as a protest and rapidly became deadly. Russia’s involvement in Kazakhstan has the potential to threaten Tokayev’s legitimacy and further expand Russia’s influence over the former Soviet satellite state.

Tokayev described the violence as an “attempted coup d’état,” in which “the main goal was to undermine the constitutional order and seize power.” He also blamed “individuals who have military combat zone experience in the ranks of radical Islamist groups” for the violence. Putin expanded on the supposed foreign threat and emphasized the role of Russia and the CSTO in Kazakhstan’s future stability. Accusing “internal and external forces” of taking advantage of the chaos, Putin promised to prevent further “colour revolutions,” which he claims are instigated by U.S. and western powers to attempt regime change.

This expansion of Russian influence concerns experts such as Alexander Cooley at Columbia University: “it’s hard to imagine that Moscow wouldn’t try to secure something in exchange from this activation.” Paul Stronski from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace suggests Tokayev’s request for CSTO assistance is evidence he distrusts his own security forces and lacks control over the government and military.

Putin’s deployment of CSTO troops in Kazakhstan, while initially quelling the violence between state police and civilians, may have concerning implications for the future of peace in the Central Asian region. First, Russia is already in a diplomatic standoff with NATO over Russia’s encroachment on Ukraine, and Axios reports the Deputy Foreign Minister is threatening “military-technical solutions” to the failed diplomacy. Russia’s expansion may extend from Ukraine to Kazakhstan as the image of a victorious Putin over foreign instigators in Kazakhstan adds to the seeming necessity of Russian control. Second, Putin’s commandeering of troops in Kazakhstan when Tokayev’s forces are unable to maintain control diminishes Tokayev’s legitimacy in the eyes of his people, leading to more potential unrest in the future. While Putin’s intervention may have been necessary for immediate peace, the most peaceful long-term solution would be the withdrawal of CSTO troops and reinstatement of Tokayev or a legitimately elected president in Kazakhstan. Lastly, Tokayev’s use of Islamophobic rhetoric could spark further persecution against Muslims in the region. 

The violence in Almaty, Kazakhstan exploded shortly after New Year’s Day when the government lifted the price cap on fuel and the cost of liquified petroleum gas increased exponentially. Demonstrations against these high prices turned violent, with rioters burning official government buildings and storming an airport, according to NPR. In response, the government limited access to the internet and social media, and President Tokayev reportedly authorized his forces to shoot to kill. Tokayev became president in 2019 when the former leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down after 30 years of power and relative peace. Before the riots, Nazarbayev still held a high-level security position in the government, and demonstrators believed he was equally to blame for the rising prices. According to the New York Times, more than 5,800 people have been detained, more than 2,000 injured, and 164 reported dead in a now-deleted social media post from Kazakhstan’s government.  

In addition to the CSTO intervention, Reuters reports China has also offered Kazakhstan security support to combat “external forces.” Like Russia, China fears colour revolutions in the Central Asian state, with which it shares borders. Both Russia and China are concerned about their access to Kazakhstan’s reserves of natural gas and energy. Putin’s undermining of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty is not an unprecedented move, given the current threats to Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s strategic position. Tokayev now faces the challenge of quelling distrust and anger at home while maintaining legitimacy in the face of Russia’s more dominant force.