News of the turmoil engulfing Kazakhstan has taken over front page news outlets across the world. The Kazakh Interior Ministry reported that more than 150 people had died in a week of violence that began with protests against the rise in energy prices in the country’s western regions. However, they soon retracted that owing to a “technical error”. The sudden about-turn from the country’s leaders indicates external pressures and influences, primarily from Russia.
While the cabinet resigned, the protests did not abate. Kazakh security forces proceeded to detain more than 10,000 protestors while clamping down violently on any dissent. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this situation seems to be the involvement of Russian troops in the country to quell the protests. Under the umbrella of the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization), Russia’s answer to NATO, about 2000 troops from Russia and former Soviet states entered Kazakhstan to help the government clamp down on the unrest while claiming that terrorists from the region, namely Afghanistan, have entered the country. This is the first time that the CSTO has officially involved itself in a regional conflict and there are a couple of reasons for that.
Firstly, with the fall of the Ghani regime in Afghanistan, Russian policymakers fear that a general unrest may engulf the region and eventually reach Moscow itself. Hence their current willingness to get involved militarily in a regional conflict, something that is more in line with the US’s foreign policy.
Secondly, since Russia and the US are currently participating in bilateral talks surrounding the Ukraine issue, the former may be using the Kazakh theatre as a means to improve their standing at the negotiating table. About 100,000 Russian troops are believed to have amassed at the Ukrainian border, prompting fears in the West that Putin may be looking to continue his annexation policies as seen in Georgia and Crimea. By increasing its presence in Central Asia, Russia may be signaling to the US that the days of unipolarity are truly over.
While observers may deduce that the CSTO’s involvement in Kazakhstan reflects the official dawn of a new multipolar world, others may find that the US is not as mortified as it should be in response to a “Russian NATO” being operationalized. There are two arguments that indicated that the US may actually benefit from the unrest in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.
Firstly, ensuring Russian troops are busy in Central Asia may take away resources from their campaigns in Ukraine, and to a lesser extent Syria. In both cases Russia and the US find themselves on opposing ends of the spectrum, indicating a zero sum game being played by policymakers in Washington. The argument goes like this: if Moscow is busy in other regions, they will be less likely to focus their full attention on conflict zones such as Ukraine and Syria.
Secondly, the American retreat from Afghanistan was by all intents and purposes conducted in a less than ideal manner. The question arises, why did they leave the country in such a manner knowing what was to come? According to their own intelligence agency, the CIA, Afghanistan was always headed for a rapid collapse if the Americans left without a proper plan. Yet they continued to push through and the rest is history. As a result, the Russians are now busy putting out fires in the neighborhood before they reach their own doorsteps.
Moreover, the US is not missing any opportunity to stoke anti-Russian sentiments in the region. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in comments last week that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”, indicating a larger campaign to blunt Russia’s influence in Central Asia, and in turn around the world. Hence, with the situation in Afghanistan still precarious and new fronts being opened vis a vis Kazakhstan, a new proxy war between the Russians and the US has begun. The involvement of CSTO forces may also risk, however unlikely, the outbreak of a conventional war. While all this takes place, the dragon in the East watches closely, reminding everyone the days of unipolarity, and even bipolarity, are over.