Opinion: For Putin, Kazakhstan is a domino too big to fall

The about 100,000 Russian troops posted near Ukraine poses the biggest security crisis in years for Europe and its allies, including the United States. While Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Kazakhstan, this month’s brutal repression of regime president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took as an opportunity remind the protesters revolutions will never be allowed to spread in the region, and by deploying Moscow-led security alliance troops to help quell the unrest, the Central Asian country remains firmly in his sphere of influence.
The tone of Putin’s rhetoric and the course of military deployment leaves little doubt as to his intentions: to regain control of a broad piece of the former Soviet Union – even to the point where the footprint of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is rolled back. to the years of the Cold War. In fact, the US chief negotiator, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, told CNN that Moscow had made no commitment to de-escalate at the Ukrainian border during the NATO-Russia negotiations in Brussels last week.
Overhanging the US negotiations is a wish of the Biden administration to avoid a distraction from its intended turning point to the Indo-Pacific, in particular to reset relations with China. But with many analysts agree threats of new, stinging sanctions have not deterred Russia’s adventurousness in Europe, Western diplomats may be negotiating with a largely empty toolbox.
Putin’s stakes are just as high. In less than two years, Russia has had to cope with two surprising uprisings right outside the door: in Belarus and Kazakhstan. But from the Kremlin’s point of view, Kazakhstan, the largest of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, is a domino too important to fall into.
Letting Kazakhstan slip further into a Western circle – for example, allowing Western-style democratic elections or responding to the popular outcry with more political freedoms – would be a blow to Russian pride and would indicate that Moscow is loosening its grip on an area rich in natural resources that have attracted billions in investment from the US and China. Kazakhstan has the world 12th-largest proven oil reserves and are 14. for gas. In 2019, it produced almost half of the world’s uranium, according to the World Nuclear Association. The last thing the Kremlin wants is for another so-called color revolution to flourish, which can inspire protest movements in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
The recent unrest in Kazakhstan was prompted by rising fuel prices and frustrations over everything from unemployment and inflation to corruption. It developed into protests that reflected “anger, mismanagement against a corrupt government that has been very authoritarian and social inequality,” said Edward Lemon, president of the government. Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs. The subsequent government defeat resulted in at least 164 deaths and thousands of arrests.
Putin's big miscalculation
True to form, tactics used to suppress uprisings in Belarus were used in Kazakhstan: a brutal crackdown, sowing disinformation, blaming non-specific foreign troublemakers, throttling social media – including for the first time the popular Chinese app WeChat – and does not create space for dialogue.
Moscow quickly agreed to President Tokayev’s request that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led regional security alliance, send “peacekeeping forces” to help restore order. Putin had every reason to step in. If Russia loses Kazakhstan from its sphere of influence, it could inspire pro-democratic movements in other former republics.
But of great importance is what the rest of the world – especially China – learns from how the current drama unfolds. Chinese President Xi Jinping is likely to observe closely how far Putin can push the West, and will almost certainly apply this learning to Taiwan and other potential territorial adventures. Russia’s participation in high-level diplomatic meetings, while maintaining a threatening stance, simply to go away and declare that the negotiations had hit a “dead end“and it must Act “eliminating unacceptable threats to our national security” is a masterful outburst of tantrums that are potentially being applauded in Beijing.
Now that Beijing and Moscow are increasing their coordination effort on foreign policy, China can gain useful experience by seeing how far Putin can test the West’s determination. For a China set on “reunification” with Taiwan – the breakaway island where the United States is a security guarantor – and pushing its territorial claims in the South China Sea, it is worth observing closely where the West sets its red lines and how it maintains (or not) them.
Although Kazakhstan may be a shaky domino on Putin’s regional playing field, the country has also become an important piece in China’s geopolitical strategy for energy dependence, which means that the unrest there is of direct significance to Beijing. China-affiliated companies reportedly has as much as $ 26 billion in investments in Kazakhstan, including in an oil pipeline that crosses the roughly 1,100-mile Sino-Kazakh border. In 2017, Kazakhstan was also a major recipient of Chinese money from its multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s economic interests in Kazakhstan may lead Western diplomats to hope that Beijing encourages the Kremlin to exercise restraint while maintaining stability in the country. China said it supported the Russian-led forces inserted to Kazakhstan to quell the uprising.
Meanwhile, the United States, which has plenty at stake like leading foreign investor in Kazakhstan and with three decades of good bilateral relations, must continue to engage with the new circle of officials created around Tokayev and talks about why repression of free speech creates a toxic investment climate. But the United States does so with the realization that investors from countries accused of violating human rights, such as China, will happily fill any business vacuum.

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