The Russian government sent military forces earlier this week to Kazakhstan after the Kazakh administration made a request to the Kremlin to help it quell the massive popular protests against them. The Russian troops were sent under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and will soon be accompanied by military forces from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The massive protests against the government of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev began after a gas prices hike. The demonstrations became violent as protesters occupied many crucial government buildings throughout Almaty (including the presidential residency), the capital of the Central Asian country. In fact, the entire cabinet resigned just a few days ago as a result of the fiery protests throughout the country.
According to government sources, there have been a total of 12 security forces personnel killed as a result of the violent clashes, while the Interior Ministry said that at least 2,000 protestors have been arrested during the urban clashes.
Although the street demonstrations were initially triggered by gas prices, the discontent towards the government runs deeper, as the country has been ruled by the same political party since its separation from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. In fact, Kazakhstan had the same president in power for almost thirty years, as Nursultan Nazarbayev left office just two years ago and after handpicking Tokayev as his successor and remaining as an influential figure in the government.
The protests in Kazakhstan come only a year after a similar massive popular movement against the Belarussian dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko and eight years after the deposal of the Russian-aligned government of Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine.
Russian troops sent against “armed incursion by terrorist groups trained abroad”
As the situation clearly became too much to handle for the Almaty government, Tokayev decided to call for Russian military assistance against what the government calls “an armed incursion by terrorist groups trained abroad.” Kazakhstan requested military assistance through the CSTO, a military alliance composed of six former Soviet Republics: Russia, Armenia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kirgizstan. Although the alliance has existed since the fall of the Soviet Union, this is the first time that this type of military operation is deployed.
The Russian Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement explaining the Kremlin’s decision to send its military to defend the Tokayev regime, saying that “We view the recent developments in this friendly country as externally provoked attempts at disrupting the security and integrity of the state through violent means, including trained and organized armed groups.”
The spokesman of the United States Department of State, Ned Price, also issued a statement informing that Secretary Blinken had spoken with the Kazahkstani Foreign Ministry, where Blinken “reiterated the United States’ full support for Kazakhstan’s constitutional institutions and media freedom and advocated for a peaceful, rights-respecting resolution to the crisis.” Moreover, he “raised the priority of promoting stability in Europe, including support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in response to Russian aggression.”
Putin’s decision to help quell the popular uprising in Kazakhstan comes at a time when the Kremlin has amassed thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border as part of the growing tensions between Kyiv and Moscow. The Russian government has long argued that the West has developed a coordinated campaign to surround Russia with its allies. In this sense, one of the key requests by Putin during the negotiations over Ukraine is that NATO should not expand eastward and that the military alliance should not deploy any military equipment in the countries that joined NATO after 1997.
Historically, this is not the first time that troops have entered, under the command of Moscow, other country to suppress popular uprisings, as the Soviet Union infamously conducted similar operations in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. The latest move by the Kremlin showcases the willingness of Vladimir Putin to deploy the Russian military might in areas where he considers Russian interests are at stake, actions the Kremlin has already followed in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Syria (since 2015), and now in Kazakhstan and Ukraine.