Kazakhstan : The Broader Reasons for Russia’s Response and American Interference

On the 5th of January 2021, Russia intervened in the name of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in Kazakhstan after its president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, requested its help in quelling the protests that erupted in his country, after the price of liquefied gas doubled, and then suddenly swelled. Russia accused external forces, especially America, of interfering in the country’s affairs and inciting protests. It was also announced that the director of the National Security Committee had been accused of orchestrating an attempted coup. This analysis explores the background to these protests, the reasons why Russia intervened so quickly in the name of CSTO, and what was the American role and response to the situation. It argues that for Russia it relates to the security of its strategic space and key energy interests, whilst for the American’s Kazakhstan forms a broader policy of encircling and weakening Russia and China.

Kazakhstan, as part of West Turkestan in Central Asia, is a large Muslim dominated country with an area of ​​more than 2.7m km2, but its population is small in relation to its area, as they number only 19 million, 75% of which are Muslims.

There is a large Russian minority in Kazakhstan, estimated to be around 20% of the population, or about 3.5 million. The country is important to Russia economically and geopolitically, as it was under direct Russian control during the Soviet Union, until its independence in 1991, but remained linked to Russia within what is known as the Group of Independent States, as well as the CSTO and the Shanghai Treaty. The Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan, is at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, from which rockets carrying spacecraft are launched. Russia was controlling its vast wealth as It is rich in oil constituting 21% of the country’s GDP, producing more than 1.5 million barrels of oil per day.

The country is also one of the largest producers of uranium in the world with reserves of 1.5 million tons. It contains large quantities of manganese, iron, chromium, coal, as well as natural gas. So far, about 2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas have been discovered. As a result, Kazakhstan is extremely important for Russia, as it is just below Ukraine in what Russia considers to be its vital area of influence in the former Soviet space. For this reason, she exerts every effort to maintain her grip over the country, so that what happened to Ukraine, which became independent from it not just by name like Kazakhstan, is not repeated.

America is also aware of the importance of Kazakhstan, as its location on the southern borders of Russia, and on the western borders of China, is very important to America, and hence she aspires to extend her influence in the country to encircle Russia and deprive it of regional influence. This being in addition to the policy of encircling China. With the hope by the American’s that the removal of Kazakhstan from the hands of Russia may also lead to the departure of the other the Central Asian countries from Russian control, influence, and orbit.

This American interest was set in motion since Kazakhstan’s declaration of independence, as it was the first country to recognize Kazakhstan’s independence, after which American companies began to enter Kazakhstan and acquired much of the oil and gas industry in the country. For example, the American company Chevron acquired 50% of the Tengiz oil field, which constitutes a third of the country’s annual output. European companies also began to acquire part of Kazakhstan’s energy resources. It is stated that about “90% of Kazakhstan’s exports are energy resources such as oil and gas, almost all of which are restricted and owned by Western capital, and the largest American and European oil companies” (Russian Sputnik Agency 8/1/2022).

America’s attempts were not limited to oil and gas companies but went beyond that to signing some military agreements during the Nazarbayev administration, which ruled from 1989 until he announced his resignation in March 2019. This continued under his successor. However, their close relationship with Russia prevented America from concluding effective military agreements.

America did not despair despite her failed attempts. During his testimony before the Senate in February 2019, the commander of the US Central Command at the time, General Joseph Votel, said regarding the US-Kazakhstan relations: “It is considered the most mature relationship in Central Asia” Al-Jazeera 6/1/2022). Communication between the US and Kazakh armies constitute an important aspect of the bilateral relations between the two countries. Since 2003, Kazakhstan has hosted multilateral military manoeuvres, including one which was conducted in south-eastern Kazakhstan in June 2019, in which US forces participated. Although it was closer to normal exercises,  it indicates a strong continuing American interest in Kazakhstan, which Russia was and remains very concerned about.

Consequently, Russia’s fear increased when the recent protests occurred and suddenly expanded. These events began spontaneously, as it seems, with protests towards the virtually doubling of liquefied gas prices, from residents in the cities of Zanauzin and Aktau in the west of the country on 5/1/2022. The protests then expanded and spread to other cities to Almaty which is the old capital of the country and its largest and one of the most important commercial cities. It was reported that the fire consumed the presidential residence in the city, as well as the municipality building. The Russian Sputnik agency reported that “the security forces imposed a security cordon around the capital’s administration building, Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), and that the residents of the capital rushed to withdraw their money from banks on a large scale, amid the cessation of non-cash payments due to the interruption of the Internet.”

Local media reported that “mining workers in the eastern Balkhash region joined the protests and stopped working.” The protests began to turn into violence. The Kazakh ambassador in Ankara commented on the events of his country, saying, “The beginning of the protests was with the aim of demanding better living conditions and opposing the rise in liquefied gas prices. After moving to the city of Almaty, it took a different path and became punctuated by inflammatory and illegal practices” (Anadolu Agency 6/1/2022). As a response, the resignation of the Kazakh government was announced on 5/1/2022 to calm the situation and lower the prices of liquefied gas. but the protests did not stop, but rather expanded and developed.

From the internal perspective, this expansion of the protests prompted Russia even before Kazakhstan to accuse two sides for the following reasons.

a- The motive behind it, was that news was reported that some security men were turning a blind eye to the protests and disturbances, and then accusations were directed to the director of the National Security Committee (intelligence service) Karim Masimov, responsible for maintaining security in the country, ss if he had taken advantage of the situation to seize power. Consequently, he was dismissed on 8/1/2022 and accused of treason. The National Security Committee of Kazakhstan announced the arrest of its former head, Karim Masimov, on suspicion of “treason.” According to the statement of the National Security Committee: “On January 6 of this year, the National Security Committee launched an investigation for the purpose of the high treason trial, according to Article 175 of Part One of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan”(RT 8/1/2022). Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, former advisor to the former President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, recently stated that one of the reasons of the crisis in the country is the betrayal of some senior officials. He described what happened in the country recently as an “attempted coup and armed rebellion,” and said, “The scale of this coup attempt and armed rebellion is shocking, and it is an organized and strong attempt, which was impossible to implement without traitors in the highest levels of power, especially the executive authorities” (RT, 8/1/2022).

b- Kazakh President Kassem Tokayev, later announced his request for the intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organization led by Russia, stating that, “his country was subjected to a terrorist attack and an organized and premeditated act of aggression with the participation of foreign militants…”. He added that “acts of violence by terrorists resulted in the fall of many victims among the members of the security services and civilians. About 1,300 business facilities were damaged, more than 100 trade and banking centres were attacked, 500 police cars were burned, and losses ranged between 2 and 3 billion dollars.” Also announcing,  “The arrest of 10 thousand people, and announced the stability of the situation, and that it is under control, the centres of terrorist threats have been neutralized, and important strategic installations and places for storing weapons and ammunition have been secured” (Russia Today 10/1/2022).

c- President of Kazakhstan Tokayev asked Russia to intervene, and the Russians responded quickly, as if they had decided to intervene before he asked them to. They initiated the military intervention in Kazakhstan through the CSTO, which it established in 1992, and it sent the first military battalion on 6/1/2022 (Al-Jazeera Net 6/1/2022). Then, in the next two days, 2500 soldiers with their equipment and military vehicles were shipped by air. More than 70 Russian military cargo planes participated in this emergency mission, including the transfer of troops from Armenia and Kyrgyzstan into Kazakhstan, and for this Tokayev said: “I address special expressions of gratitude to Russian President Putin, who responded quickly to my request for assistance” (Russia Today 7/1/2022).

After that, Putin stated in a video conference of the Collective Security Council of the CSTO on 10/1/2022, that, “Some external and internal forces have taken advantage of the economic situation in Kazakhstan to achieve their objectives. The CSTO was able to take important measures to prevent the deterioration of the situation in Kazakhstan. I have taken the necessary decision on time and that these forces will remain in Kazakhstan for a period determined by the presidency of this country. The events in Kazakhstan are not the first and will not be the last for external interference. The countries of the CSTO have shown that they will not allow colour revolutions. And the recent event in Kazakhstan confirms that some forces do not hesitate to use cyberspace and social networks to recruit extremists and terrorists and form sleeper cells of militants” (Russia Today 10/1/2022).

As for the external perspective.

Although Putin did not mention in his statement directly during the organization’s collective security conference, that America had anything to do with the events, but this is clearly understood from the meaning. What was reported by the Russian media before confirms this understanding as they spoke about an assumed American role in the protests. It is also confirmed by the response of White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki when describing what was reported by the Russian media as, “crazy allegations by Russia”, with regards to the supposed responsibility of the United States in the riots that rocked Kazakhstan, stressing that these allegations are “completely untrue”, and exposing “Russian disinformation strategy” (The Independent Arabia, 7/1/2022).

To justify the Russian intervention through the CSTO, the current head of the organization, the Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, confirmed that the coalition had responded to a request that came because of “external interference” (The Independent Arabia 7/1/2022). All these statements indicate that Kazakhstan, with Russia not behind it, but rather in front of it, sees that these events are inspired not only for internal reasons, but that America is clearly involved in them. This American involvement in these events is evident from the review of the following American statements:

  1. Blinken called, during a telephone conversation with his Kazakh counterpart, to find a peaceful solution to the turbulent situation in Kazakhstan and respect media freedom. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that “Blinken stressed the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis.” He said, “America is concerned about events in Kazakhstan, but believes that the republic can deal on its own without the help of the Collective Security Treaty Organization” (AFP 6/1/2022)
  2. Blinken said, commenting on Kazakh President Kassym Tokayev’s statements about shooting at protesters (“I condemn that statement. And if that is the national policy, I condemn it.” (CNN 9/1/2022). The Kazakh President had declared, “I issued orders to shoot terrorists without warning,” he added, “20,000 terrorists participated in the attack on the city of Almaty.”
  3. America demanded the departure of the Russian forces from Kazakhstan. The US State Department spokesperson said: “The CSTO forces must promptly leave Kazakhstan… and their presence raises questions. to uphold their commitment to promptly depart Kazakhstan” (RIA Novosti 11/1/2022).

From these statements it can be clearly understood that America’s opposition to summoning Russian forces to Kazakhstan demanded that its problems should be resolved without Russia’s intervention, and that it must not use violence against the protesters. America is aware that this strengthens the Russian presence in Kazakhstan and the regime’s association with Russia. It denied accusations against it of meddling in the events, but the tone of its speech was calling for the protests not to be suppressed and for human rights to be observed.

It is clear from the above the extent of the importance that Russia attaches to Kazakhstan. Russia stood behind activating the provisions of the Collective Security Treaty to quell Kazakhstan’s protests with iron and fire, and this is the first time since the establishment of the organization of the same name in 1992, despite the events that afflicted some countries of that treaty without the intervention of the organization, and this indicates the extent of that importance.

On the other hand, the disruption of the security situation in Kazakhstan has exposed new weaknesses with regards to the Russian influence in the former Soviet region, and this may tempt the West to surround Russia with a ring of crises extending from Central Asia to Belarus.

Nevertheless, America was not able to achieve everything it wanted from its attempts to extend its influence in Kazakhstan, and it appears that it was satisfied with the progress of the protests and wanted to use it, and took advantage of it to have men inside, and then be able to put pressure from inside and outside.

Copyright © LCIR 2022

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