Long adept at stoking unrest within the West, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent troops to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan on Thursday to attempt to extinguish the newest in a sequence of harmful fires to engulf the lands of the previous Soviet Union, territory that Moscow views as its personal sphere of affect however has struggled to preserve calm.
But if the turmoil in Kazakhstan has as soon as once more uncovered the vulnerability of the strongman leaders the Kremlin has trusted to preserve order, it has additionally introduced Russia with yet one more alternative to reassert its affect in its former Soviet area, certainly one of Mr. Putin’s most cherished long-term objectives.
The arrival in Kazakhstan of two,500 troops from a Russian-led army alliance amid persevering with spasms of violent protest was the fourth time in simply two years that Moscow has flexed its muscle in neighboring states — Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine being the opposite three — that the West has lengthy tried to woo.
The spectacle of a rustic like Kazakhstan “that seems big and strong” falling into disarray so rapidly has come as a shock, stated Maxim Suchkov, appearing director of the Institute for International Studies on the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. But it has additionally proven how, except for Ukraine, within the former Soviet republics which have tried to steadiness between East and West, “boom, you get a crisis and they turn to Russia.”
And as soon as Russian troops arrive, they seldom, if ever, go residence. Mr. Suchkov stated that the unrest in Kazakhstan will be seen as a “serious crisis that Russia is interested in turning into an opportunity.”
Yet, many query what number of brush fires can spring up round Russia’s borders earlier than an identical conflagration is ignited at residence.
“If something like this can happen in Kazakhstan,” stated Scott Horton, a regulation lecturer at Columbia University who has suggested officers in Kazakhstan and different Central Asian nations over 20 years, “it can certainly happen in Russia, too.”
Other analysts say that as a lot as Mr. Putin delights at unrest in Europe and the United States as proof that democracy is failing, he takes little pleasure in turmoil on Russia’s personal doorstep, it doesn’t matter what the short-term alternative.
All the identical, Mr. Horton stated, “Putin is playing, or perhaps overplaying, a weak hand very well.”
It wouldn’t be the primary time.
After providing in August 2020 to present what he referred to as “comprehensive assistance” to assist President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of neighboring Belarus halt a wave of huge protests, Mr. Putin then despatched “peacekeepers” to cease a vicious struggle over disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has stationed greater than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine to press calls for that Kyiv abandon its yearslong flirtation with NATO.
Among the troopers despatched to Kazakhstan had been members of the 45th Brigade, an elite Spetsnaz, or particular forces, unit notorious for its operations within the first and second wars in Chechnya, the as soon as restive however now brutally pacified Caucasus area of Russia. The brigade has additionally been energetic in South Ossetia, a area of Georgia on the middle of that nation’s 2008 struggle with Russia; in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014; and in Syria.
How a lot this assertive position actually contributes to Mr. Putin’s longstanding objective of restoring Russian dominance over a lot of the previous Soviet sphere is a matter of heated debate.
In Ukraine, it has primarily achieved the other, turning what had been a typically Russia-friendly inhabitants in giant components of the nation right into a sworn enemy. It has additionally set nerves on edge exterior the previous Soviet house and performed into the palms of anti-Russian hawks, reviving a previously dormant debate in Sweden and Finland about whether or not they need to be a part of or no less than extra carefully affiliate with NATO.
When Kazakhstan bolted from the Soviet Union three many years in the past, it held the world’s fourth-biggest inventory of nuclear weapons, huge reserves of oil and a lot promise and peril that Secretary of States James A. Baker III, rushed to the brand new nation to attempt to cement ties by ingesting vodka with its chief, Nursultan Nazarbayev, within the sauna and accepting blows from a tree department.
“Get me the president of the United States on the phone,” the American ambassador to Moscow on the time, Robert S. Strauss, who was additionally there, joked to the safety element. “His secretary of state is buck naked, and he’s being beaten by the president of Kazakhstan.”
Since then, Kazakhstan has given up its nuclear arms, welcomed American vitality giants like Chevron and Exxon Mobil to develop its oil fields and turn into such a trusted associate that, in a message to its present chief final September, President Biden informed President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev that “the United States is proud to call your country a friend.”
Throughout, nevertheless, folks have been overwhelmed, not simply playfully within the sauna however viciously in detention facilities and on the road. While its document of repression could also be much less extreme than in different former Soviet republics in Central Asia, like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, in accordance to Amnesty International, it does embrace widespread “torture and other ill treatment in penitentiary institutions.”
But within the post-Soviet revival of the Great Game, the 19th-century battle between colonial powers throughout Central Asia, human rights have by no means been a very vital issue within the calculations of the United States — and even much less so in these of its fundamental rivals within the area, Russia and, over the previous decade, China.
Understand the Protests in Kazakhstan
For Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh tycoon who fled into exile after falling out along with his former patron, Mr. Nazarbayev, the present wave of protests and the Kazakh authorities’s enchantment to Moscow for army assist to crush them is proof that the West miscalculated and handed Russia an enormous win.
Kazakhstan, he stated on Thursday as Russian troops deployed, succeeded in “putting the international community to sleep” with guarantees of massive contracts. “The result: Kazakhstan is now under the boot of Putin, who takes advantage of this to extend his power.”
Steve LeVine, the writer of “The Oil and The Glory,” a chronicle of the battle between Moscow and Washington within the area after the collapse of communism, stated America’s understanding of Kazakhstan in its early years as an impartial state was “almost entirely” via the Tengiz oil fields.
But, he added, Kazakhstan nonetheless developed into a much more secure, affluent and tolerant nation than its neighbors. “Kazakhstan is not a democracy, but it is a Central Asian democracy,” he stated. “The region is run by strongmen.”
Such leaders, to Mr. Putin’s dismay, have proved surprisingly brittle, a incontrovertible fact that has repeatedly confronted the Kremlin alongside its borders with eruptions of the sort of discontent it has sought to preserve bottled up at residence. But their weak spot has additionally made Mr. Putin the indispensable protector that they flip to in occasions of disaster.
Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College and an authority on Central Asia, stated that Russia is unlikely to demand quick concessions from President Tokayev however has gained robust leverage, upsetting Kazakhstan’s earlier efforts to keep away from tilting too far towards both Moscow or Washington.
“Kazakhstan always tried to maintain a balancing act,” he stated. “This is all about regime survival. State security needs have been reconfigured to fit the needs of those in power.”
The Kazakh authorities say that dozens of protesters have died within the unrest thus far with many extra injured, and that 18 safety officers have been killed. If the clashes drag on, the Kremlin may wind up alienating a broad swath of the Kazakh inhabitants, which in giant cities like Almaty typically speaks Russian and had been comparatively pro-Russian. That would repeat the situation in Ukraine, the place anti-Russian sentiment has turn into so robust it’s unlikely to subside for years or many years.
But Mr. Tokayev, who took over as president in 2019 from Mr. Nazarbayev, the chief Mr. Baker joined within the sauna, is now beholden to Russia each for help in suppressing protesters and in eradicating Mr. Nazarbayev from his final put up as head of the National Security Council on Wednesday. Such help is seldom provided freed from cost, significantly not by as canny a tactician as Mr. Putin.
Valerie Hopkins in Moscow and Andrew Kramer in Kyiv contributed reporting.