The crisis in Kazakhstan – the former Soviet republic in Central Asia – combines geopolitical issues across Eurasia, from efforts to subjugate the West and Ukraine to sensitive relations with China. – all of which are having a huge influence on Russia.
Since the end of the Tajik civil war in the late 1990s, Central Asia has proven to be a buffer between major rivals such as Russia, China and India, as well as smaller powers such as Pakistan, and Iran.
The instability in Kazakhstan presents an empowering opportunity that these countries are trying to seize.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested and received a response from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance led by Russia, to send troops to help restore order.
This makes sense for two reasons. First, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of restoring Russian influence in the post-Soviet space is not limited to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. The Tokayev administration’s invitation gives Moscow the opportunity to do just that in Central Asia’s richest country.
Second, President Tokayev had another option: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China (which also includes Russia), but he did not seek it. Although Moscow and Beijing cooperate increasingly in opposing US policies globally, the two sides are competitors in Central Asia.
Given that the CSTO’s decision can be considered in fact the decision of President Vladimir Putin, this means that the Russian leader considers the goal of strengthening Moscow’s position in Kazakhstan more important than being close to China. Country.
While the choice is unlikely to have an immediate and obvious impact on Russia’s relations with China, it is a message to Beijing that Moscow has limits on bilateral cooperation. Over time, that choice will shape the relationship.
All of the above brings us to Moscow’s current military buildup near the Ukrainian border, as well as efforts to squeeze US, NATO, EU and Ukraine concessions with the threat of a big attack.
But President Putin’s current focus on Ukraine does not mean that he will be at the expense of other geopolitical goals in Eurasia. To the extent possible, the Russian leader wants to restore the Kremlin’s influence throughout the territory of the former Soviet Union.
Opportunities for Russia are very open
The unstable situation in Kazakhstan raises a question for President Putin: Should he continue his campaign to threaten the western flank or move on to tackle the dangers in the south? Or can he do both?
For now, President Putin is trying to get the matter out of the way, expecting the CSTO to impose order and strengthen Tokayev’s government without significantly reducing Russian forces on the Ukrainian border.
That is certainly what the Kremlin wants most, because the long-term military build-up and the morale of Ukraine have paved the way for negotiations with the US and NATO to achieve a series of huge concessions. Of course, Mr. Putin does not want the mounting pressure to subside. However, if the CSTO implementation fails, President Putin could face a dilemma.
The situation of military construction near the border of Ukraine will become a stalemate. Moscow’s position in Central Asia will deteriorate if an uprising topples the government, or if the Tokayev government turns to China and the SCO for help to stay in power.
At that time, the question was: Will President Putin withdraw his troops from the Ukrainian border to resolve the turmoil in Kazakhstan and enhance Russia’s position in Central Asia?
That option is certainly less risky than launching a major attack in Ukraine. President Putin could easily explain that the temporary halt in the West was to ensure a victory in the South.
Of course, then it will not be ruled out that Russia strengthens its forces for the third time on the Ukrainian border.
The stakes for President Putin in both Kazakhstan and Ukraine are large, but that situation may well prove that Russia is unlikely to succeed when busy on both fronts.