Tremors in CARs

Like other former colonial powers, Russia has also always tried to keep in place pro- Russian rulers/ governments in the former Soviet states.

Post-Soviet period. Although Nazarbaev was widely credited with peaceful preservation of the delicate inter-ethnic balance in Kazakhstan. The abrupt shifting of Kazakhstan’s capital from Old Almaty to the extreme northern city of Astana in 2008 (named capital in 1997) with harsh Siberian weather was obviously done to create a shield against the plausible Russian expansion threat. However, the threats as projected by the European or Western writers as seen through the prism of Europe may reduce in probability due to a host of reasons. A number of countries have massive investments in resourcerich Kazakhstan; the major investors include the Netherlands, USA, Switzerland, China, Russia, Belgium, France, South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. As of January 2023, the stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) totaled $169.2 billion, including $43.83 billion from the U.S., according to official central bank statistics. Kazakhstan is a major wheat producer that mainly exports to Central Asian neighbours, Iran and Turkey, and to China, South Korea and Japan. Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Top Export (2022) is Crude Petroleum $47.6B and Top Destination (2022) is China $13.4B. That raises two important questions: How would both the USA / NATO react, and not only in the military domain, to any threat to Kazakhstan let alone a genuine act of war? And if China would oppose a Russian invasion of Kazakhstan, how might Chinese opposition manifest itself?

Any putative Russian annexation of Northern Kazakhstan, or any part of it, would likely be seen by the Islamic world and other CARs unifying in support, considering it as an aggression against their fellow Muslims by the Orthodox Christian Reconquista or Crusade. This may, therefore, suggest that any notional Russian thrust through to Northern Kazakhstan or the Kazakh Altai, would cut off overland access from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In other words, the costs of pursuing that path may far outweigh the gains. The true nature of the relationship between policy and decision makers belonging to three different traditional tribal groups – the Senior, Middle, and Junior zhuzes (a jüź also translated as “horde”) is one of the three main territorial and ethnic tribal divisions in the Kypchak Plain area that covers much of contemporary Kazakhstan. It may be assumed that there can be internal contradictions and political differences in the society; which may either prove as a force multiplier in the face of foreign aggression or alternatively may remain prone to exploitation.

Nevertheless, like other former colonial powers, Russia has also always tried to keep in place pro- Russian rulers/ governments in the former Soviet states both in Europe as well in CARs and other Baltic and Caucasian states. For example, only a few days after protests erupted in Kazakhstan in early 2022, the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, requested assistance from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Within hours, the CSTO approved Tokayev’s request and sent 2500 soldiers to safeguard critical infrastructure throughout Kazakhstan. Thereby, the armed forces of the other five CSTO member states participated in the effort to violently suppress the ongoing nonviolent protests in a foreign state. The first collective intervention in the CSTO’s thirtyyear history was over as quickly as it had begun. Moscow, having come to President Tokayev’s aid, not only helped him retain and consolidate his power but also reinforced its own ‘king-making’ role in Kazakhstan so much that there now were persistent talks that the Kazakh regime ‘actually rests on the CSTO bayonets’. Similar examples are available in other CARs too.

Nonetheless, according to Akhas Tazhutov, who is a political analyst from Kazakhstan: Russia, while reviewing its attitudes towards Northern Kazakhstan, is shifting increasingly from the model proposed by the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1989(proposed taking away Kazakhstan’s northern region, along with the Russians living there), to the model put into effect by the Governor-General of Siberia Mikhail Speransky back in 1822 (suggested abolishing the border between the Middle zhuz and Siberia as a political frontier and accept the so-called Siberian Kazakhs into Russian citizenship). Such a transformation means that the Russians are already casting the shadow of a ‘second Donbas’ over the northeast of Kazakhstan by provoking a split between the two main groups of Kazakhs – the Senior zhuz and the Middle zhuz.

At the end of 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order on granting Russian citizenship to citizens of the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Republic of Moldova. To cause deep tremors in Kazakhstan, a rather blunt statement was made by the Russian State Duma deputy Mikhail Delyagin, in January 2022: “The only point in bringing order to Kazakhstan is the return of Russian lands and the complete cessation of all Russophobia. So that for several generations to come they would be afraid to raise their eyes to a Russian, …unless Northern Kazakhstan, along with Central and Western Kazakhstan, rejoins their Homeland [Russia] as a result of the upcoming events, it will be like ditching Donbas”. Thus, in Kazakh’s view, Moscow’s plan for splitting up Kazakhstan is most probably already working; Kazakhstan holding the SCO Summit in Almaty during July 2024 shall serve to send the right signals to counter any overtures on Kazakh lands.

Saleem Qamar Butt

The writer is a retired senior army officer with experience in international relations, military diplomacy and analysis of geopolitical and strategic security issues.

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