WASHINGTON (AP) – Russia’s decision to send paratroopers to Kazakhstan, where dozens of people were killed in crackdown on violent protests against the government, adds additional uncertainty to upcoming talks over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The question is whether the unrest in Kazakhstan changed the calculations of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he weighed his options in Ukraine. Some say Putin may not want to participate in two conflicts at the same time, while others say Russia has the military capacity for both and that he will decide separately whether to attack Ukraine. The instability in Kazakhstan could make Putin’s desire to strengthen Russia’s power in the region even more pressing.
Both Kazakhstan and Ukraine are former Soviet republics that Putin has tried to keep under Moscow’s influence, but with very different results so far. Ukraine, a burgeoning democracy that has firmly turned to the West, has been in a deadly conflict with Russia since Putin’s conquest of Crimea in 2014 and supporting an uprising in the eastern Donbass region. Kazakhstan, on the other hand, has been ruled by autocrats for the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, who have maintained close security and political ties with Russia.
Russian troops invaded Kazakhstan Thursday after Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enlisted the help of a Russia-led military alliance. The next day, while Russian troops were helping restore control of the airport and guarding government buildings, he ordered his troops to shoot to kill any demonstrators who did not surrender.
As a result, Washington and Moscow exchanged new barbs on the eve of a week’s meeting on Ukraine, which begins Monday with talks between senior US and Russian officials in Geneva.
When asked about Kazakhstan and Ukraine on Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he would “not bring these situations together”.
“As I said, there are very special driving forces behind what is happening in Kazakhstan, both economically and politically,” said Blinken. “What is happening there is different from what is happening on the borders of Ukraine.
“But I think a lesson in recent history is that once in your house, it is very difficult sometimes to get Russians to leave,” he added.
The Russian State Department fired back with a statement referring to past US wars and interventions in other countries. “If Antony Blinken is into history class that much, then this occurs to me: When there are Americans in your house, it can be difficult to stay alive, not to be robbed or raped,” the statement said.
The US has been warning for weeks that Putin has stationed troops near Ukraine with the aim of possibly launching a new invasion. Putin is said not to have moved significantly more troops towards Ukraine in the past few weeks, say two people familiar with the latest assessments who were not authorized to speak publicly. However, at least 100,000 Russian soldiers remain in positions where they could potentially attack parts of Ukraine, people said.
In response, Washington and Kiev have stepped up their intelligence and security cooperation, People said.
In return for easing tensions with Ukraine, Putin is calling for NATO to halt membership plans for all countries, including Ukraine. The US and NATO have rejected this request.
Legislators and long-time Russian observers disagree on how the situation in Kazakhstan could affect Ukraine.
Fiona Hill, former senior director for Russia and Europe at the US National Security Council, said she believed the violence in Kazakhstan “is likely to accelerate Putin’s desire to do something” in Ukraine.
She said Putin may want to reassert hegemony in the region by both propping up the president in Kazakhstan and undermining the democratically elected leader of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi.
“The Russian circle around Putin really wants to teach the Ukrainians a lesson,” said Hill. “And they don’t shy away from killing a lot of people or seeing how many people get killed.”
She noted that while Kazakhstan is in Central Asia, the northern part of the country was settled by Russians and Ukrainians during the Soviet era as part of the Virgin Lands campaign, and the Russians use it “very much as part of their country and not just as a species” consider sphere of influence. “
“And so northern Kazakhstan … is seen as an extension of Russia, as is Ukraine, Donbass and Belarus and the entire industrial and agricultural complex,” said Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In recent years, Russia has entered into conflict with other neighboring former Soviet countries to conquer territory or to strengthen Moscow-friendly governments. When protests broke out in Belarus in 2020 against the re-election of the long-time strong man Alexander Lukashenko, Russia stood by him in a brutal crackdown and offered to send troops. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia and took control of two separatist regions.
In Belarus, and now Kazakhstan, Hill said, frustration with Russian-backed elites and inequality is growing along with growing nationalism. These factors are also present in Ukraine, while discontent is growing in Russia as well.
“This is deeply worrying for Putin because it shows that protests can get out of hand over social issues,” she said. “And even if you marginalize the opposition and look like you are in charge, one day suddenly you are no longer in charge.”
Some also see Kazakhstan as an opportunity for Russia to consolidate its regional power.
Fyodor Lukyanov, a leading Moscow foreign policy expert, said that by intervening with military force, Moscow had made itself a “guarantor, the position of which will depend on further events.” He said the situation was similar to Armenia in 2020, when Russia sent peacekeepers to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area after a war with Azerbaijan.
“This is not a final situation or solution, but it provides an effective toolbox for the period ahead,” he wrote in an article published Thursday.
With this event on the eve of the talks with the US, “Russia is reminding of its ability to take quick and unconventional military-political decisions in order to influence what is happening in parts of the world that are important to it,” said Lukyanov.
US MP Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican who serves on the House of Representatives’ armed services and foreign affairs committees, is among those who see the Kazakh uprising as Russia’s deterrent in Ukraine.
“I do not see Russia in a position to deal with two crises at the same time,” said Green. “I think it will deter their ability to have a major conflict in Ukraine.”
A harsh critic of the Biden government, Green said he supported Blinken’s public statements in support of Ukraine and his pursuit of a diplomatic solution.
“If Blinken’s actions are in line with his rhetoric, then you’re fine here,” he said.