The Russian invasion of Ukraine has established new strategic realities in Eurasia and made it clear that Russia is willing to go to great lengths to advance its interests. While there are still no real signs of de-escalation in Ukraine, Central Asia waits with bated breath, wondering who Russia’s next target will be.
Russia seeks to regain the great power status it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union by undermining the current security architecture in nearby countries and revising the terms of the post-Cold War order. Putin’s repeated assertion that he must use military force to protect ethnic Russians serves as a warning to Russia’s other neighbors, particularly the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, which have significant Russian-speaking or ethnically Russian populations. Given Russia’s desire to reclaim its former glory, experts are now speculating about the country’s next steps. Many argue that Russia could see its southern neighbors as attractive and less risky targets in its near abroad.
Kazakhstan may be a likely target in Putin's efforts to reverse the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Kazakhstan’s sizable Russian minority, primarily concentrated in the north and east along its border with Russia, makes Kazakhstan appear quite vulnerable. Moreover, Putin has repeatedly described Kazakhstan as a part of the Russian world, going so far as to say that former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev “created a state on a territory where there had never been a state.”
The invasion of Ukraine may have seemed surprising, but the stage was being set for some time. Many assessed that Russia would be unwilling to absorb the perils and costs inherent to a military invasion. However, the attack on Ukraine, purportedly carried out to protect the ethnic Russian population in the east, has aroused considerable suspicion of Russia’s compatriot policy among Russia’s neighbors, particularly Kazakhstan. The word “compatriot” provides a wide scope for interpreting who constitutes an eligible recipient of Russia’s protection, and Russia claims to have a duty not just to protect ethnic Russians, but also Russian speakers and compatriots outside of Russia's borders. Importantly, Russian law on “compatriots abroad” includes "those born in the Soviet Union who now live in states that used to be part of the Soviet Union."
Russia has often blamed the Kazakh government for attempts to restructure its system of national stratification in favor of ethnic Kazakhs. Some experts believe that social trust between the authorities and the Russian-speaking population might be undermined if Kazakhstan continues to pursue the linguistic policies implemented by Education and Culture Minister Askhat Aymagambetov. If this happened, Putin could use the alleged need to protect ethnic Russians to justify a military intervention.
The Kazakh Response to the Invasion
Kazakhstan’s response to the Ukraine crisis has reflected its existential realities. Not wanting to either antagonize Moscow or allow a precedent for border revisions to become established, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has refrained from outrightly condemning the Russian invasion while also calling for Ukraine’s territorial integrity to be preserved as part of a negotiated settlement.
Under Tokayev, Kazakhstan has done well in maintaining a delicate balance, resisting overt Russian efforts to dominate its political sphere while at the same time allowing Russia to play a bigger role in regional trade and security issues. However, the political unrest in January 2022, which was put down by the collective efforts of Kazakh security forces and over 2,500 Russian-backed Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO) troops, provided Russia with considerable leverage over Kazakhstan. As a result, many analysts believed that Tokayev would be beholden to Moscow after the CSTO intervention cemented Tokayev’s grip on power in the face of violent upheaval.
Nevertheless, Tokayev's government has shown greater independence from Moscow than expected, taking a completely neutral stance and reportedly rejecting a Russian request for Kazakh troops to join the fight in Ukraine. Kazakhstan is seeking a balance between distancing itself from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and not upsetting its powerful ally and neighbor.
It is feared that any future protests may provide Russia with an opportunity to truly dominate Kazakhstan’s domestic sphere. If unrest triggered demonstrations in the Russian majority areas of northern Kazakhstan, Russia could have a justification to intervene under the oft-repeated pretext of protecting ethnic Russians. Experts believe that any Russian invasion of Kazakhstan would be swift, as Kazakhstan's limited military forces would be unable to offer significant resistance to Russia. The geographic reality arguably makes Kazakhstan even more exposed. Making matters even worse, it is also unlikely that NATO would support Kazakhstan militarily.
The Likelihood of an Invasion
Nevertheless, a Russian invasion of Kazakhstan appears to be an unlikely scenario. There are striking contrasts between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Ukraine was increasingly seen as a threat to so-called “Russian interests,” and Kyiv's debate over joining NATO provided Russia with plenty of material to construct an adversarial image of Ukraine. There is no such dynamic with regard to Kazakhstan, a country without the symbolic and geopolitical significance that Crimea and Ukraine have in the Russian consciousness.
Studies have shown that Moscow’s appeal to ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan is significantly hindered by the treatment of resettled Russian speakers in the Russian Federation. There is a growing acceptance of Kazakh traditions among young Russian speakers, which is furthered by close inter-ethnic contacts. Tokayev’s policies have, until now, managed to avoid any marginalization of the Russian minority. Moreover, Russia's ability to use the ethnic Russian population in Kazakhstan as a tool for its hybrid activities appears to be limited, as the ethnic Russian population seems willing to adopt the Kazakh national identity.
Beyond dynamics in Kazakhstan, the Russian economy is currently suffering under harsh sanctions, and the impending curbs on oil supplies may make any future military adventure prohibitively costly. Moreover, the cost of rebuilding a battle-worn army would considerably strain Russia’s ability to start a new venture elsewhere.
China has emerged as a key player in Kazakhstan, predominantly as a customer of Central Asian gas and oil. Today, around 20 percent of China’s gas imports come from and through Kazakhstan, and Beijing has provided the country with substantial loans and established many joint ventures with Kazakhstan. While China’s presence in Central Asia does not necessarily conflict with Russian interests in the region, any belligerent act against Kazakhstan would hurt Chinese interests in the region. In light of China’s support for Putin during the Ukraine crisis, the cost-benefit analysis is more significant for Chinese interests than any perceived threat to Russia is. Unless Russia faces an undeniable challenge to its interests in Kazakhstan that would put the existing borders into question, Putin may find himself in a predicament over any aggressive action against Kazakhstan.
Even if the Ukrainian script were to be used, Moscow would have to demonstrate that any instability is a direct and imminent threat to Russian-speaking communities in Kazakhstan—a very unlikely scenario. Otherwise, Russia’s immediate goals in Kazakhstan would be better served by focusing on preventing it from turning away from Russian integrative structures, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Union, rather than an outright military intervention.
Sajid Farid Shapoo is a Ph.D. scholar in Security Studies at Princeton University and a highly decorated Indian Police Service officer (Two Star General). The views expressed are his own.