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Will The Crisis In Kazakhstan Affect Putin's Plans For Ukraine?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends an extraordinary meeting of the Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on January 10.

Russia's military intervention in Kazakhstan to support the country's embattled regime was an effort by Moscow to help head off a popular revolt attempting to unseat a friendly autocrat in a neighboring country.

And a week after mass protests and subsequent riots first swept Kazakhstan, the Kremlin’s gamble appears to be working.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who launched a crackdown to quell the unrest that he claims was the result of foreign-backed “terrorist aggression” and an attempted coup, says calm has returned and that Russian forces -- which arrived under the guise of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) at Toqaev’s request -- have succeeded in supporting the Kazakh government.

Now, as a series of high-level talks open between the United States and its European allies with Russia over mounting pressure from Moscow, analysts are divided over how the Kremlin’s response to the unrest in Kazakhstan could impact tensions with Ukraine, along whose border Russia has amassed some 100,000 combat-ready troops.

“It could make Moscow more open to compromise because it feels it needs a free hand to deal with a crisis in Kazakhstan. Or it could make Russia believe it needs to be more assertive after feeling its interests are threatened on another front,” former French diplomat Marie Dumoulin, a program director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL.

Ukraine and Kazakhstan are a continent away and separated by thousands of kilometers, but the two countries are linked by a shared Soviet past and complex relationships with Moscow as the Kremlin has used its military strength and energy influence to try and reclaim its lost geopolitical clout since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Leading into the talks -- which began in Geneva on January 10 between a Russian delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and a U.S. delegation helmed by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman -- the Kremlin has laid out a list of demands, such as seeking guarantees that NATO won’t look to expand any further eastward into countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

Those Russian demands for security guarantees are seen by some analysts as part of a larger bid by Moscow for a recognized sphere of influence, which Russia’s swift intervention into Kazakhstan may help support.

“In some ways, it strengthens [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s hand going in,” Angela Stent, a former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia and a professor at Georgetown University, told RFE/RL. “It reinforces the idea that Putin has been hammering home for years, which is that Russia has a special relationship with former Soviet states and that he wants the outside world to respect that.”

Watching Ukraine

The stakes are high for all involved, with Russia building up its forces along Ukraine’s borders in what U.S. intelligence says are preparations for another possible invasion.

Moscow occupied and annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and is also backing forces in the country’s east in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.

With that in mind, concerns over escalation of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine have followed the talks to Geneva and will also loom over discussions later this week at a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels and at the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe in Vienna.

The United States and other Western allies have pledged “severe costs” to Russia if it moves against Ukraine, with the United States and its allies reportedly assembling a punishing set of financial, technological, and military sanctions against Russia that would go into effect shortly after a renewed invasion of Ukraine.

An aerial view of Russian military vehicles waiting to be loaded onto a military cargo plane to depart to Kazakhstan on January 6.
An aerial view of Russian military vehicles waiting to be loaded onto a military cargo plane to depart to Kazakhstan on January 6.

Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said Putin “put himself in a corner” by issuing what he described as an “ultimatum” to the West over security guarantees and demands to curtail NATO expansion and that the intervention in Kazakhstan has provided a chance for the Russian leader to now calm tensions.

“Kazakhstan offers him now the opportunity to step back, if he believes that he's kind of overstepped his real abilities,” Danylyuk told an Atlantic Council conference on January 6. “[It] gives us Ukrainians some breathing space, but not for long.”

But while the crisis in Kazakhstan and Russia’s intervention through the CSTO may draw Moscow’s attention away from Ukraine, it may only be temporary, says Paul Stronski, a former director for Russia and Central Asia on the U.S. National Security Council who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Russian-led CSTO deployment is 2,500 troops and both Toqaev and Putin have said that their mission in Kazakhstan will be temporary.

“It certainly could be an off-ramp for the Kremlin,” Stronski told RFE/RL. “This adds to what is already on their plate, but it’s also a small contingent and shouldn’t affect what they’re doing along Ukraine’s borders.”

Spheres Of Influence

Putin has long accused the West of trying to curtail Moscow’s reach and the push for guarantees from the United States and NATO comes as Kremlin-friendly, authoritarian regimes in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, and now Kazakhstan have been toppled or threatened by popular revolts in recent years.

By moving into Kazakhstan at the government’s request, analysts say Putin opted to help quell the protests before they could threaten another government in a country the Kremlin views as strategic, while also building a deeper loyalty to Moscow in the process.

Russian soldiers disembark from a military aircraft as part of the CSTO mission at an airfield in Kazakhstan on January 7.
Russian soldiers disembark from a military aircraft as part of the CSTO mission at an airfield in Kazakhstan on January 7.

The action also marked the first time the CSTO, which was fashioned after the NATO military alliance and created in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, acted collectively to launch a mission on one of its members’ territory.

That marks a new identity for the organization, which Putin alluded to during remarks at a January 10 videoconference with other leaders from the CSTO, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

Echoing previous remarks by Toqaev, Putin then claimed the unrest in Kazakhstan that was reported to have killed some 164 people was the result of foreign meddling and said the CSTO should take steps to ensure that future attempts at interference in the region will fail.

“The measures taken by the CSTO made it clear that we would not let anyone destabilize the situation at our home and implement so-called color-revolution scenarios,” Putin said, in reference to the wave of protests that removed pro-Kremlin leaders from Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2005.

The fast-moving events in Kazakhstan took the Kremlin and other regional players by surprise, but Moscow appears to have adapted quickly.

“What the intervention in Kazakhstan shows is that Russia is a nimble actor and that it continues to surprise,” Stronski said. “Maybe this causes Moscow to refocus its attention for a bit, but the Kremlin can handle two things at once.”

RFE/RL senior correspondent Todd Prince contributed to this report.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.