Russia’s Putin Seizes on Crises to Assert Control Over Former Soviet Republics
The flood of Russian troops into Kazakhstan to help shore up the embattled government sends a clear signal to both the West and other former Soviet republics: Russian President Vladimir Putin will brook no threat to what he views as Russia’s inviolable sphere of influence.
The venture into Kazakhstan, at the request of the country’s leader, follows nearly 15 years of Russian interventionism in Georgia, Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere aimed at pulling these countries even closer to Russia, by propping up leaders aligned with the Kremlin, playing regional power-broker, or trying to weaken those who have shown deference to the West.
Mr. Putin’s determination to reassert Russian hegemony in the former Soviet sphere is largely based on his view that the demise of the U.S.S.R. was “a major geopolitical disaster.”
He sees mutual benefits in deeper integration between Russia and the former Soviet republics and is determined to rebuff what he sees as the threat of an encroachment eastward of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, analysts said. He is also eager to leave a legacy that positions Russia as a superpower to be both respected and feared, they said.
Mr. Putin’s efforts to assert Russia’s influence over its backyard have culminated in his current standoff with the West over Ukraine—a country sitting on the Russian border that seeks closer military and economic ties with the West and that has been the site of popular protests against pro-Russian leaders.
Mr. Putin, who contends that NATO and the U.S. have used Ukraine to extend military activities to Russia’s border, has amassed about 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. On Monday, Russian and U.S. officials will meet to discuss Moscow’s demands that NATO halt its eastern expansion.
In those talks, the Kremlin could take the opportunity to depict the crisis and the call for help from Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev as proof of Russia’s role as the protector of regional order and stability, analysts said.
Mr. Tokayev requested military help in quelling violent protests originally sparked by popular anger over a rise in fuel prices in his country. The Kremlin leader deployed thousands of troops to the country.
“Putin will be going to the meeting and saying, ‘See, this is why I need to have a special position in the regional security of the former Soviet space and other parts of our near abroad, because without me, things like this will spiral,’ ” said Maximilian Hess, a Central Asia fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a U.S. think tank.
Officials in Moscow and Kremlin supporters insist that Russia is simply offering help to what the foreign ministry described as a “brotherly neighboring nation” and Russia wants nothing more than to help restore peace in Kazakhstan, legally and through dialogue, “not through street riots and violation of laws,” the ministry said in a statement last week.
In recent years, a series of crises in Russia’s neighbors have undercut Moscow’s efforts to more closely integrate countries spanning from Central Asia to Eastern Europe, as citizens of some former satellite states protest stagnating economies, a lack of democratic freedoms and corrupt leadership.
The Kremlin has watched with concern growing pro-Western sentiment in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, ultimately intervening to help quash dissent and support pro-Russian sides.
In 2008, Russian forces rolled into Georgia, a staunch U.S. ally, after Moscow accused the Caucasus nation of aggression against South Ossetia, a pro-Kremlin breakaway region, where Russia still stations troops.
That move would portend more than a decade of Russian adventurism.
Revolts toppled a Putin protégé in Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin lashed back by annexing the Crimean Peninsula and throwing support behind pro-Russian separatists in a slow-burning conflict that continues in eastern Ukraine.
In neighboring Belarus, the Kremlin has offered financial and military support to authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who faced waves of popular protests. Moscow’s reward was a pact signed late last year to integrate the two countries into a formal union, a major step forward in the Kremlin’s long-held goal of exerting greater influence over Belarus.
Political upheaval in Kyrgyzstan—which has been the subject of competing interests from Moscow, Beijing and Washington since its independence in 1991—saw opposition parties in October 2020 try to wrest power from the pro-Russian leadership following allegations of voter fraud during parliamentary elections. The political upheaval continued for months but eventually landed in office a president who has agreed to maintain close ties with Russia.
A Kremlin-brokered peace agreement for Armenia and Azerbaijan in November 2020, following a conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, cemented Moscow’s leverage over both countries.
The Kremlin already has troops on the ground in the breakaway region of Transnistria, officially part of Moldova with which it fought a war in 1992 following the power vacuum left by the Soviet breakup. And concerns that terrorist organizations in Afghanistan that could infiltrate Tajikistan and cause insecurity across Central Asian states prompted Moscow to conduct joint military exercises on the Tajik-Afghan border last year.
“For Putin, it is almost paramount to ensure stability in the near abroad,” Mr. Hess said.
Ukraine and Kazakhstan hold special historical and strategic importance for Russia.
Mr. Putin repeatedly said he supports the redrawing of the boundaries of the late-19th-century Russian empire, which encompassed much of contemporary Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
“Modern Ukraine is entirely the brainchild of the Soviet era,” Mr. Putin wrote in a July treatise. “We know and remember that to a large extent it was created at the expense of historical Russia.”
When it was part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine boasted rich farmland that produced much of the wheat consumed in the U.S.S.R.
Its vast plains also acted as a buffer between the European powers and the Russian hinterland. Close historical, cultural and linguistic connections predating the rise of the Russian empire in the 18th century underscore Mr. Putin’s belief that the nations are “two parts of one and the same people.”
He has also long cast doubt on Kazakhstan’s autonomy, saying that Kazakhs “had never had statehood” and referring to the country as being an artificial state, invented by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who led Kazakhstan for almost three decades before resigning in 2019 and designating Mr. Tokayev as his successor.
But now the crisis in Kazakhstan could offer an opportunity to plant a deeper stake in an important region, some political experts said.
What began as street demonstrations over fuel-price rises has spilled over to demands for economic and political change. After Kazakhstan’s government resigned last Wednesday, protests continued to call for the ousting of Mr. Tokayev and the sidelining of Mr. Nazarbayev, who has wielded huge power in the country even after stepping aside.
Seeing political change forced from the street is unacceptable to Mr. Putin, who is loath to allow such dissent foment on Russia’s doorstep, analysts said.
“In general, he is sensitive to any uprising of the people against the ruler,” said Abbas Gallyamov, an independent political analyst based in Moscow. “He is afraid that this will inspire the Russian opposition.”
The Russian-led forces supporting Mr. Tokayev’s government are meant to guard critical facilities, airfields and key social infrastructure. But the presence of Russian troops in Kazakhstan could prove risky for Mr. Tokayev’s leadership, analysts said.
“We are certainly in a quandary because if the Tokayev government is able to restore stability, and if it stays in power, it will be eternally grateful to the Russians,” said Paul Stronski, former director for Russia and Central Asia on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama and now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at a briefing Friday that “one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”
The comment solicited an angry response from Russian foreign ministry officials, who on Saturday called them offensive.
“When Americans are in your house, it may be difficult to stay alive, not to be robbed or violated,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement posted on its Telegram messenger channel.