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Not yet occupation, but already intervention. Consequences of Russian troops entering Kazakhstan

Russian troops in Kazakhstan
The arrival of small groups of soldiers from other CSTO states was not reported by their governments, but by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Photo: Russian Military Department EastNews
Not yet occupation, but already intervention. Consequences of Russian troops entering Kazakhstan
Article by: Mykhailo Samus, Serhiy Sydorenko

On January 6, the first CSTO military units, consisting of mostly Russian troops with assistance from Belarus and Armenia, entered Kazakhstan. The intervention was officially requested by the Kazakh government in order to fight “gangsters and terrorists”.

There is little doubt that the recent events will almost certainly bring Kazakhstan’s government even closer to Moscow. The Kremlin will also use them in talks with the United States and NATO in order to divide the spheres of influence in Europe.

Pro-Russian bloc countries announce deployment of troops to Kazakhstan

No surprise to see Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Political experts have long discussed the possibility of a Russian invasion of Kazakhstan, especially after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Kazakh analysts have also wondered whether the Donbas or Crimea scenario could be repeated in their country.

Kazakhstan’s northern territories have a high percentage of Russian-speaking people, so it seemed quite plausible that Putin might one day decide to send in his “little green men” to support and protect the local population. In fact, former Kazakh president Nazarbayev also said that “Ukraine’s fate awaits Kazakhstan in the case of an overreach on the issue of language.”

Nonetheless, although Kazakhstan has always been part of Russia’s sphere of influence, Nazarbayev’s policy of nation-building and the transition from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet in 2017 has consolidated a national identity and awareness among the Kazakh people.

On the one hand, the CSTO military operation poses a challenge for Russia: if Russian troops remain in Kazakhstan for a longer period of time, local elites, intellectuals and civil society are bound to realize that they will eventually lose their state. On the other hand, if Putin plays his cards right, he will emerge unscathed and use the CSTO as Kremlin’s trump card in negotiations with the United States and NATO.

The role of the CSTO

The Collective Security Treaty Organization currently has six members – Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It was created in 1992 as a follow-up to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), formed after the Soviet Union collapsed. From the very beginning, Ukraine refused to participate in this organization and has never considered such a possibility.

The CSTO has been increasing its capacity since the 2000s, partly as a reaction to American presence in Central Asia. It has Russian military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, allows its members to buy weapons at Russian domestic rates and pursues a common air defense system. Moscow controls the organization, but countries have joined and then withdrawn (Uzbekistan joined in 2006 and then left in 2012). The CSTO’s rotating chair is currently Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

Formally, all CSTO member states are equal, but in fact the Kremlin imposes most of its decisions on the members, who are to some extent dependent on Russia.

Moscow has long argued that the CSTO can perform peacekeeping missions anywhere in the world, especially as part of the UN and OSCE.

However, the CSTO has been largely inactive, so Western powers have never taken it seriously. For example, Kyrgyzstan’s acting premier appealed to Russia in 2010 to send CSTO forces to quash fighting between Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnic groups. In autumn 2020, the CSTO refused to intervene in the renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding territories. In both cases, CSTO officials cited legal reasons for non-intervention, but Russia was obviously reluctant to be drawn into these regional conflicts. Thus, the Russian-led CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan changes the picture in Central Asia.

CSTO “peacekeepers” in Kazakhstan

The CSTO Charter and its rules are very similar to NATO’s.

Article 4 of the CSTO Collective Security Treaty is a near facsimile of Article 5 of the NATO Washington Treaty and depends on the principle of collective defence, i.e. an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.

Article 4 was used to bring CSTO troops into Kazakhstan. Present CSTO chair, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced the decision, but the Kremlin played a key role and deployed the largest contingent to Kazakhstan.

“In light of the threats to national security and sovereignty to the Republic of Kazakhstan, including from external interference, the CSTO agreed to send the organization’s collective peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan “for a limited period of time with the aim of stabilizing and normalizing the situation.” Pashinyan wrote on FB.

However, there was no “external interference” as such in Kazakhstan, which would have given the Kazakh government the right to request CSTO forces on its territory. In truth, it is highly likely that CSTO forces were deployed to Kazakhstan because both Russia and Belarus fear that massive protests similar to those in Kazakhstan might reverberate across the region (including in their own countries), especially if inspired or supported by foreign elements.

According to international law, the President of Kazakhstan Kassim-Jomart Tokayev met all the required formalities when he called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send in CSTO “peacekeeping forces”. In fact, Putin also underlined that “international terrorists” were operating in Kazakhstan, so the other CSTO members did not have grounds to object to the intervention.

Intervention by invitation

Social media often compare the events in Kazakhstan with Russia’s military invasion of Crimea and the Donbas after the Revolution of Dignity, allegedly “at the request of the legitimate president Viktor Yanukovych.” This is a fallacy!

First, Ukraine is not a member of the CSTO, while Kazakhstan is, and the Collective Security Treaty was ratified by the Kazakh parliament and remains in force.

Secondly, unlike the Ukrainian constitution, the constitution of Kazakhstan does not require the parliamentary approval for the introduction of foreign troops. In other words, formal procedures were observed when President of Kazakhstan asked foreign states for military assistance.

In addition, the Ukrainian people rose in protest against former president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Yanukovych quickly lost legitimacy when he fled Kyiv in February 2014 and the Verkhovna Rada legally removed him from office. In Kazakhstan, protesters rose first against rising gas prices and subsequently against Nazarbayev’s shadow government and 30 years of autocratic rule.

Of course, no matter what Russian and Kazakh authorities might say, this is definitely not a “peacekeeping mission”! There is no external enemy, no inter-social conflict, etc.

Furthermore, it cannot be called an occupation as a foreign entity or army has not as yet taken over the reins of the country.

But, it can definitely be called a military intervention.

The fact that Russian troops and its allies were invited to enter Kazakhstan does not change anything, as the concept of “intervention by invitation”, where a state invites/requests the military assistance of another state, is lawful under certain conditions.

However, it is more than probable that this intervention will turn into an occupation. It is not a certainty, but it cannot be excluded. Everything will depend on the development of events in Kazakhstan, on whether Russian forces will remain there for a long time and what rights they will have on the territory of Kazakhstan.

Tokayev’s Russian trail

The crisis in Kazakhstan is much more than protests and dissatisfaction. It also reflects a high-level power struggle between current President Tokayev and former president Nazarbayev.

For decades, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the “father of the nation”, maintained a tight balance between Russia and China, fostering ties with the United States, the EU and Türkiye. He officially resigned in 2019, but continued his influence as chairman of the country’s Security Council. His family and allies still control most of Kazakhstan’s strategic and extractive industries and resources.

By its intervention, Russia is signaling to the Kazakh security forces that power and authority firmly reside with Tokayev. So, could the events in Kazakhstan have been planned, prepared and organized by Moscow itself?

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is a Soviet diplomat, who, from the 1970s until the collapse of the Soviet Union, worked exclusively in the diplomatic field. In 1991, he trained at the Diplomatic Academy of the USSR, and in 1992 left Moscow for Kazakhstan and swore allegiance to Nazarbayev.

At the time, both the KGB and the GRU recruited such regional leaders to take up important positions in the former republics in order to have loyal people within the government. Tokayev rose quickly, becoming Deputy Foreign Minister, then Foreign Minister, Prime Minister, and Senate Speaker. In 2019, when Nazarbayev decided to step down and remain in the shadows, Tokayev became president.

It is not known whether Tokayev has maintained ties with Russia and its intelligence services. But, in December 2021, Navalny’s investigators found that Tokayev owned elite reaL estate in Moscow.

Rapid, tactical military intervention

The whole world was stunned by Tokayev’s announcement and Russian/CSTO military intervention just a few days after the start of the protests. Tokayev did not try to quell the riots using Kazakh security forces, but called Moscow instead!

Russia agreed immediately and dispatched up to 3,000 Russian paratroopers to Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that it is formally a CSTO contingent, the other states dispatched only a symbolic number of troops, and not immediately.

Russian general who led Crimea occupation charged with CSTO military mission in Kazakhstan

So, this can be qualified as a Russian intervention “under the umbrella” of the CSTO.

Today, Russia seems to be stabilizing and ensuring the Tokayev regime, which is pursuing a different foreign policy than Nazarbayev’s.

Tokayev’s policies will be beneficial to or even determined by Moscow. Russian business may simply come in and take full control of the oil and gas sector, of all the major economic projects being implemented in Kazakhstan.

In the beginning, the Kazakh people will perceive Russia’s presence as positive as it was able to stop the violent protests where Kazakh security forces failed.

Here, some other questions arise… Why did the Kazakh police and the forces of the National Security Committee fail to stop the protests? Where were the security forces on January 2, the day riots and protests erupted in Almaty? How did a few groups of looters capture Almaty airport so easily ? How did the protesters manage to seize so many premises of the National Security Committee in so many cities with so little resistance… and seize stacks of weapons?

What’s the endgame of Russian troops in Kazakhstan and where does this leave Ukraine?

The CSTO maintains that the “peacekeepers” will leave Kazakhstan in a few days or weeks. However, some units may remain as a “stabilizing force” that will prepare new elections and ensure Tokayev’s position.

In addition, Russia will use the CSTO operation in the international arena.

The Russia-NATO, Russia-US talks, etc. are in full swing in Geneva. And, this is where Russia might present the CSTO as a facsimile of NATO, a military force that can ensure stability in Europe through its “peacekeeping missions”, especially anywhere in the post-Soviet space, notably in Ukraine. This flurry of political events shows that Russia is stepping up talks, meetings and negotiations with the West, building new relations with the United States and NATO, etc.

On the other side, the fact that Ukraine is not a CSTO member is not a problem because if Kyiv expresses the desire to join, Ukraine will be accepted immediately!

Of course, this does not mean that NATO will agree with such a proposal, but the recent events in Kazakhstan have definitely strengthened Russia’s position and boosted its popularity in some circles.

On the other hand, some experts declare that Russia is now more focused on Kazakhstan, and not Ukraine. This is a total misconception as 6, 000 paratroopers deployed to Kazakhstan means little from the military point of view. Putin will maintain pressure on Ukraine.

These developments constitute additional challenges for Ukraine.

Indigenous leaders call on nations in Russia to boycott crackdown on protesters in Kazakhstan

Turmoil in Kazakhstan (update)

Protests erupted in Kazakhstan on January 2 after a twofold increase in prices of liquefied petroleum gas. Subsequently, the protesters began making political demands, including a return to the 1993 Constitution. The protests turned into violent clashes between protesters and security forces in most regions. In Almaty, opponents seized the local administration building, the presidential residence and the airport.

President Kassim-Jomart Tokayev first sent in special forces and the army, and then sought military assistance from the CSTO. A so-called “peacekeeping force” headed by Russian general Andrei Serdyukov consisting of Belarusian, Armenian, and Russian troops entered Kazakhstan.

On January 6, several armoured personnel carriers and dozens of military personnel entered the main square of Almaty and gunfire was heard. Later, it was reported that the military withdrew from the central Republic Square.

In the evening of January 6, President Tokayev held a meeting of the Security Council of Kazakhstan. He called the protesters “gangsters and terrorists” and ordered the army and law enforcement units to shoot. He categorically rejected the West’s offer of peace talks

In addition, Tokayev issued a decree, whereby Karim Massimov, a longtime associate of Nazarbayev, was relieved of his post as chairman of the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan. He was replaced by Ermek Sagimbayev, who worked as head of the State Security Service.

On January 8, the President of Kazakhstan announced a day of mourning for the people killed in the protests. According to the latest data of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, 26 protesters and 18 law enforcement officers were killed in clashes. Reportedly, 4,404 people were detained as of January 8.

After days of violent anti-government protests, the situation in most Kazakh cities appears to have stabilized, although explosions and sporadic gunfire can be heard in Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty.

President Tokayev has also proposed to hold a summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Discussions were held with Russian President Putin, self-proclaimed President of Belarus Lukashenka and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

China is willing to increase “law enforcement and security” cooperation with neighbouring Kazakhstan and help oppose interference by “external forces”, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, said in a call to Kazakhstan’s foreign minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi on January 10.

Mykhailo Samus is a military expert and Director of the New Geopolitics Research Network


Serhiy Sydorenko is an editor of European Pravda, a Ukrainian online newspaper about the country’s Euroatlantic integration.

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