The genesis of the crisis in Kazakhstan remains murky and could have domestic clan, foreign and local jihadi, Western, and/or Chinese origins. At this early juncture, I will not try to guess on the basis of insufficient information or to plug the crisis into a ready-made formula guided by biased assumptions as government officials, propagandists, and biased commentators will do. Instead, I will look at the competing scenarios and how Russia and other powers may perceive the events.
For decades, U.S. foreign policy has sought to remain on good terms with Kazakhstan’s leadership in part so that one day perhaps Washington might turn Kazakhstan against Russia and/or China and in part to keep the path open for American and Western energy companies to do business in Kazakhstan. Russia wants to keep Kazakhstan within its sphere of influence as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Both Russian and the West were able to maintain their interests in Kazakhstan as a result of a careful balancing policy carried out by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev – a soft authoritarian kleptocrat along lines of the Russian-Putin model. Kazakhstan’s illiberal regime type of authoritarian kleptocracy and strategic partnership with Moscow received little attention in Washington, as long as Nazarbayev and his hand-picked successor Qasym Iomart Tokaev keep the spicket open. A balance was in place.
With the recent upheaval in the Central Asian country there is a grave risk that one or the other side in the Russo-West power struggle will lose out the other or perhaps China. Indeed, Russia seems to have attained a greater edge, an even more inside track as a result of the CSTO rapid response forces’ contribution to the stabilization of the regime of Nazarbayev-Tokaev. This explains the criticism by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken of Russia’s dispatch of troops to Kazakhstan and various U.S. government and other beltway claims that Russian troops would remain in Kazakhstan and was a signal of things to come in Ukraine. Indicative of American bias is that the deployment was not a Russian deployment to quash the danger of the unrest getting totally out of control, it was a deployment also of contingents, smaller albeit, by Belarus, Armenia, and Kazakhstan’s close neighbors Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan—all members of the CSTO. American hawks of the type published a recent letter begging the Biden regime to sell offensive weapons to Kiev to deter the ‘Russian invasion’, which is coming, according to their ilk, by the end of the month. Their alarm will peak further in the days after the CSTO operation.
Perhaps if Washington and Brussels had not spent so much energy and blood on expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and instead had developed a working relationship with the CSTO, the U.S. and other NATO members could have joined the ‘Russians’ in restoring order and shaped the way CSTO peacekeeping forces undertake their missions, while leveraging such action to continue competing economically with Moscow in Kazakhstan? It seems that ensuring stability on Russia’s borders would be a better way to check Chinese influence. NATO-CSTO cooperation if begun in the 1990s also would have facilitated the war against jihadism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. At any rate, cooperation with the CSTO if begun in the 1990s would have been a far better use of the U.S. military than spending billions of dollars on gender studies in Afghanistan and then departing leaving an army’s worth of military equipment to the Taliban, ISIS (in Khorasan), and Al Qa`ida. This more ‘cynical’ or realist policy would also have been served if we had a common European home stretching from Vancouver to Vladisvostok instead of NATO expansion and the new cold war.
If the crux or source of the Kazakhstani crisis was not simply the failure of a kleptocratic regime to spread energy earnings more evenly across the population compounded by a doubling of natural gas prices for Kazakhstanis across the board as of the new year, but was a power struggle even an attempted coup plot, as Tokaev claims, by the Nazarbaev clan against Tokaev’s, then the West also would have had an ‘in’ with the post-crisis regime like Russia now has. The West would be in a better position to carry out reasonable democracy promotion by example. Of course, U.S. ability to actually preach clean governance is a bridge too far now, given our own massive corruption demonstrated by, among much else, the way we fostered it in Afghanistan (by paying bribes to advance ‘gender equality’ and other post-industrial values in feudal Afghanistan), Ukraine, and Kazakhstan itself. It is worth noting in this regard that U.S. President Joe Biden when vice president with his son Hunter did business with the head of Kazakhstan’s security services or KNB, Karim Massimov, whom Hunter described in an email as his “close freind.” Massimov was arrested by Tokaev-loyal forces as the unrest intensified last week and is accused by Kazakhstan’s president of “treason.” On the background of this factoid or in swamp-speak ‘data point’. From this, many in Moscow will conclude whether true or not that the U.S. undertook a ‘color revolution’ in Kazakhstan last week in order to divert Russian attentions from the ‘invasion’ preparations in the west–to open up another front, as it were.
There were some inconsistencies in Tokaev’s presentation at the first CSTO meeting convened to discuss the situation . For one, the description of the number of facilities attacked during the unrest by militants, which included all major government building, the airport, many other facilities, and hundreds of businesses does not square with the capture of only 118 weapons (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67568). Also, one wonders how in plotting and organizing his ‘coup’, Massimov managed to bring in or cover tens if not hundreds of presumably jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and the Middle East to Kazakhstan.
To be sure, Kazakhstan has had its experiences with global jihadism, as has all of Central Asia and Russia (https://gordonhahn.com/2012/04/16/islam-islamism-and-politics-in-eurasia-report-iiper-55/). The Iraqi and Syrian civil wars and the jihadism that they helped to embed in those two countries led to the formation of a crucible in those two countries for jihadi networking among Islamist extremists from across the world, including Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and even Crimea. The result of this networking has been evident in recent jihadi plots uncovered in Russia, where Central Asians played a prominent role. With the weakening of the Iraqi-Syrian refuge, jihadis were afforded a new haven when the U.S. undertook its catastrophic, botched full withdrawal from Afghanistan. The global jihadi revolutionary movement is now firmly ensconced in Afghanistan with new weapons left behind by the U.S. military and NATO-trained former Afghan army personnel joining groups like the local ISIS affiliate, the ‘ISIS in Khorosan’ or the ‘Khorosan Emirate’, which is also focused on Central Asia. This could also contribute to Russian suspicions about both the Afghan withdrawal and the Kazakhstani revolt. Further suspicion will be generated by Moscow’s awareness that Turkey has long been involved in increasing its influence across Central Asia and under Erdogan has declared a pan-Turkic policy, is selling weapons to Ukraine, and remains a NATO member. Some pro-Moscow journalists are attempting to link supposed Western and jihadi tracks in the Kazakh riots-turned revolt, but have provided no evidence other than ‘secret’ unidentified Kazakh intelligence sources.
However, something does not quite jive between Tokaev’s claim that ‘international terrorists’ — that is, jihadism — at the January10th meeting, on the one hand, and the arrest of Massimov, Tokaev’s taking Nazarbaev’s chairmanship of the Security Council, and Tokaev’s use of the word ‘coup’ later on, on the other hand. Even more curious is Tokaev’s claim that 20,000 well-trained insurgents attacked Alma Ata alone!
I cannot shake the creeping suspicion that the claim of a jihadi attack is a cover story to hide from the outside world an inter-elite power struggle — a coup — in which Nazarbayev and/or Massimov fomented or used the popular revolt as cover.
Contrary to some Western reporting and commentary, Putin has not expressed the view that the Kazakh revolt was an American venture, though he may very well hold it and certainly will attempt to find out whether there was any Western tracks behind the revolt. At the CSTO meeting after the rapid peacekeeping deployment, Putin seemed to go along with Tokaev’s claim that the demonstrations had been hijacked if not organized by jihadists from Afghanistan and the Middle East who had undergone training in Afghanistan and had carried out a plot that took at least one year of preparation. Only Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka implied that the unrest was instigated by the West. The other main speakers at the meeting contributed to the jihad scenario of the events. It remains unclear how the jihadi scenario jives with the coup scenario and Massimov’s treason (http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/67568). Many Russians will reiterate the myth that the U.S. ‘created’ Al Qa`ida’, and the Obama regime’s support for MB elements in Libya and Syria that, as some in the CIA and DIA warned, led to arms going to ISIS and AQ groups in Syria and Iraq only confirms their delusion. It is very likely that Putin is suspicious of this particular version of a jihadi scenario and will pursue investigation.
The Kazakh crisis could set off a free-for-all struggle between the West and Russia and/or China for influence in Kazakhstan. Russia will be the most committed competitor in such a game. It cannot afford another challenge on its border and on another ‘front’ no less. More than any other country, Moscow has important energy and other economic interests in Kazakhstan. Ethnic Russians make about a fifth of Kazakhstan’s population so any intensification of Kazakh nationalism in society or state of the jihadi threat in society will be exorcised. In the short term, the Kazakhstan episode complicates any possible, if unlikely building of trust that might occur, however unlikely and limited, between Russia and the West during the Strategic Stability talks. In the short- to mid-term, Kazakhstan threatens to become another focal point for Russian-Western competition and conflict. In the long-term, Russia and China will oppose each other there and the rest of Central Asia. Then perhaps China alone will become the master of Kazakhstan.
About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, http://www.canalyt.com.
Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021) He has authored four well-received books: Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution.