What Is Putin’s Ultimate Plan With Regard To Kazakhstan? – Analysis


In an opinion piece of 16 February 2023, titled “Russia’s appetite may extend beyond Ukraine”, published in the Hill, William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, said: “In 2022, Putin claimed that prior to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s reign, “Kazakhs never had statehood”… Russian forces could attempt to invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan that host significant Slavic minorities. Russian revanchists have long called for incorporation of these areas, as did the late Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Kremlin might view the West as unable to do much to help faraway Kazakhstan repel an invasion… Russia could seek to capture Caspian energy assets in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Unlike other possible land grabs, the Kremlin might think this one would be a financial boon. A Russian naval armada in the Caspian Sea could strike coastal targets and help protect energy assets from collateral damage. The Kremlin would expect strong Western political opposition and tougher sanctions. But despite huge Western investments in Caspian energy, the Kremlin might not expect large-scale military intervention so far from NATO’s main sources of power”.

Having great esteem for the former American envoy to Kazakhstan and being grateful for his efforts to reveal the essence of the Caspian post-Soviet countries’ security problems in much the same way that this author did it before, he yet sees fit to point some matters in the above extract, that raise questions.

First thing to say is that William Courtney’s assertion that “in 2022, Putin claimed that prior to President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s reign, “Kazakhs never had statehood” does not correspond to reality. Most likely, this may be a typesetting error. Nursultan Nazarbayev announced his resignation from the presidency back in March 2019. “The Kazakhs never had any statehood”, Vladimir Putin saidto an audience of young people in Russia on August 29, 2014. He meant that ‘there had never been a country called Kazakhstan, that the republic was purely the product’ of the then president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan, Russian president noted, was “part of the large Russian world that is part of the global civilization in terms of industry and advanced technologies. I am confident that that’s the way things are going to be in the medium – and long-term”.

President Vladimir Putin talked about all that shortly after the annexation of the Crimea and the beginning of the Russian intervention in the Donbas. It felt as if he called into question the legitimacy of the post-Soviet state of Kazakhstan while ordering the Kazakhs to be on their best behavior when it came to serving Russian interests. Like, otherwise they were going to be involved in a situation that was similar to the one in Ukraine. So it came as no surprise that his remarks sent shock waves through the Kazakh society… 

That was a long time ago, but perhaps the lesson remains. Some ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan are acting now in the same way as did Russians in Donbas and Crimea prior to the Ukrainian events of 2014. They are increasingly whipping up anti-Kazakh, separatist sentiments on social networks, i.e. in the public space. 

Last year, the Kazakhstani authorities were actively taking measures against such actions. The press at the time reported: “The Kazakh authorities are pursuing a policy of zero tolerance against rhetoric that threatens the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine”. In summer 2022, a married couple in Petropavlovsk was charged and then convicted of the propaganda regarding the annexation of the northern territories of Kazakhstan by Russia. In the autumn of that year, Maxim Yakovchenko, a native of West Kazakhstan province, was charged under Penal Code, sections 174 (‘inciting hatred’) and 180 (‘separatism’).

However, this year the situation appears to be different. Here is what the Kazakhstani press is now reporting: “The Kazakh police did not qualify as a crime the calls by the residents of the West Kazakhstan region to give away the city of Uralsk to Russia”. Here’s another story on a similar theme: “The Akmola police [the police of Akmola province] do not consider it a crime to support the idea of joining Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation”. In both cases, the men in question also express their readiness to take up arms and go to battle [voluntarily] against the Kazakhstani army on the side of Russia, should it decide to carry out a special military operation against the Central Asian country similar to what is being done in Ukraine. So they got off easy.

Amid all this, one can’t help but wonder how such a development could be explained. But there seems to be no actual answers to this question, only hypotheses. It remains to be content with only what is available. In this regard defense analyst Vitaly Sokolenko once said the following: “The Kremlin is making efforts to intimidate the leadership of the Republic of Kazakhstan into taking no action to eliminate potential threats. This will allow pro-Russian organizations in the country to strengthen their positions”. He then warned that “the events in Crimea and Donbas have shown that the absence of resistance at the first sign of external interference does not warrant the non-resort to aggression, but, on the contrary, contributes to the accelerated implementation of a negative scenario”.

But does this really mean that Russian forces, as William Courtney claimed, ‘could attempt to invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan that host significant Slavic minorities’? Well, forming the answer to this question depends on how one judge things related to it. Now, based on the experience of the last year, one can, of course, expect anything from the Russian Federation. So by and large, nothing can be ruled out. 

Yet common sense suggests that the odds of Russia attempting to ‘invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan’ in the foreseeable future are quite low. This can be explained by means of a few sensitive factors related to socio-economic, political, geopolitical, and security issues. Moscow can ill afford to ignore them. Let’s consider them in order.

Well, let’s first turn to the socio-economic aspect of the matter. It is quite conceivable that Northern Kazakhstan on its own has been and still is of little interest to Russia. The region can be compared with neither the Donbas that used to be the heart of Ukraine’s industrial economy, nor the Crimean Peninsula on which the Russian Black Sea Fleet is based. In the event of its annexation by Moscow, the Russian Federation would get another depressed and donation-dependent region with the shrinking and aging ethnic Russian (Slavic, European) population, which, besides that, do not already form a majority. Only 18 per cent of the provinces are the donors in Kazakhstan. These are the provinces of Atyrau and Mangystau, the cities of Nur-Sultan and Almaty. 82 per cent of the provinces are in need of help from the national budget. These include all four provinces of Northern Kazakhstan. 

Yet it is true that there is a small section of the Central Asian country that Russia cares much about. We are here talking about the city and the railway station of Petropavlovsk at the northern tip of Kazakhstan through which the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting European Russia to the Russian Far East runs. The Russian Trans-Siberian trains dip into Northern Kazakhstan and pass through Petropavlovsk several times a day. That is why this northern tip of Kazakhstan is especially important to Russia even from the point of view of the interests of domestic economic policy and internal security policy. But really, the Russians have nothing to worry about. The Trans-Siberian Railway section that runs through the northern tip of Kazakhstan, as well as the station of Petropavlovsk are subordinated to the Yuzhno-Uralskaya Railway, a subsidiary of the Russian Railways headquartered in Chelyabinsk, and being operated by it. This means that what is most essential for Russia with regard to Northern Kazakhstan is already under its control.

As for the rest of it, well, things are not so simple. So there is now a need to address the political aspect of the matter. People representing different segments of Russian society ranging from politicians, public figures and journalists to ordinary citizens regularly raise the issue of Northern Kazakhstan’s being a historical Russian territory, populated before mainly by ethnic Russians. This has been going on ever since the appearance of the relevant vision first set out by Russian Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his 1990 essay ‘Rebuilding Russia’. And the USSR’s most famous dissident, as far as is known, advocated a ‘Russian Union’ encompassing Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and the ethnic Russian parts of Kazakhstan, i.e. Northern Kazakhstan. 

People in the first two post-Soviet countries can already see the ‘fruits’ of the actions of pursuing such a vision. And meanwhile, the adherents of the idea first publicly expressed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn are again and again actually demanding Russia take over Northern Kazakhstan. This did not start yesterday, of course, and most probably will not end tomorrow. As Casey Michel, an American investigative journalist, noted, in the early post-Soviet period, “there were four regions Moscow eyed for potential border revision. The first, Georgia’s Abkhazia region, Russia invaded in 2008. The second and third – Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas regions – Russia invaded in 2014. The fourth is the only region Russia hasn’t yet seized: northern Kazakhstan”. Here, however, is an important point to note: the Kremlin decision makers, which at one time supported the ‘Russian separatism’ in Transnistria (Moldova province partly populated by Russians), and in Crimea and Donbas, as well as the ‘anti-Georgian’ separatism in the Southern Caucasus, did not even once express their readiness to afford to take real similar actions with regard to Kazakhstan.

Moreover, Russian authorities themselves discovered and suppressed a plot by Eduard Limonov, a Russian writer and political activist, and his supporters to break off part of northern Kazakhstan for Russia a while back. Well, then one can guess there is something that is holding back the realization of the above vision as regards the Central Asian neighboring country. But what exactly is it? According to Sergei Aksenov, an ally and supporter of Eduard Limonov, the thing was and maybe still is that ‘Russia needs Kazakhstan just as much as the latter needs Russia’. It sounds plausible. Kazakhstan has been and still remains in the orbit of the Russian Federation. Astana is involved in all Moscow-led integration projects in the post-Soviet space. And plus, Kazakhstan perhaps has always been and is the most non-confrontational (with respect to Moscow) ex-Soviet country.

In the event of the repetition of the Russian experience with, say, Crimea and Donbas in Northern Kazakhstan, the above format of relations between Russia and Kazakhstan will lose relevance. In such a scenario, [the rest of] Kazakhstan, which the Russian leadership has been used to consider as the foothold they need to sustain the other four countries of the Central Asian region under its control, hardly will remain friendly and constructive with regard to Moscow. This may, therefore, suggest that a Russian thrust through to Northern Kazakhstan and/or the Kazakh Altai (a part of Eastern Kazakhstan), should this happen, 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 gain.

As Vladimir Pozner, a French-born Russian-American journalist and presenter, said a short while ago, ‘President Putin is anything, but crazy’. And the Kremlin master’s endgame with regard to Kazakhstan seems to lie in binding the whole Central Asian country, without exception, with Russia, based on something like the American model of making Puerto Rico unincorporated territory of the United States. In doing so, Moscow is apparently driven by the desire to keep a long-standing metropolis-colony relationship between these two post-Soviet nations.

There’s yet another factor that speaks in favor of the idea that Russia is not likely to invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan and that a lot of people underestimate. It is related to geopolitical and security issues. If the Russian forces went for such confrontation with the neighboring Central Asian country, it would be a deep blow to the very heart of Kazakhstan.  As the Kazakh capital of Astana is located in this region. A Russian invasion of Northern Kazakhstan, should it happen, will be actually aimed at undermining governability or overwhelming the State. So if Russia does that, it’ll compromise the security of its 7 500-km land border with the Republic of Kazakhstan that separates it from Central Asia, including Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

Besides, Russia’s annexation of Northern Kazakhstan, or any part of it, should this occur, would likely be seen by the Islamic world as an open incursion into the Kazakh territory, that is, as an aggression against their fellow Muslims, as a kind of the Orthodox Christian Reconquista or Crusade. 

And there’s one more thing to consider. Should such a move be allowed by Moscow to go, it would involve the risk of causing what was at the time described by  Giancarlo Elia Valori, an eminent Italian economist and businessman, as ‘the future destabilization of the Urals and Central Siberia’ – in which case, according to him, China would have problems, too.

Proceeding from all this, it can be concluded that this continual talk coming out of the mouths of those known as occasional mouthpieces for the Kremlin about Russia’s possible intention of attempting to invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan that host significant Slavic minorities  are more of a means of keeping the Kazakh authorities and society under constant pressure, than a blueprint for action.

But time goes on, the situation changes. So here is another important point: the ongoing decline of the share of ethnic Russians in overall number of the population of Kazakhstan further reduces the possibilities for the Russian minority-related factor’s use by Moscow as a means to exert pressure or as a pretext for interfering in the internal affairs of the Central Asian country. It is obvious, however, that Moscow wouldn’t want to let the situation in Kazakhstan go by chance. The Russian decision makers seem to be afraid of this likely turn of events and willing to do anything to prevent it from happening.

In such conditions, the Russian propaganda machine – presumably at their suggestion – begins to use another technique, the one that Russian imperial officials and Communist Party functionaries employed widely during tsarist and Soviet times. This trick is to pit some groups of Kazakhs against others. Moreover, it is already being used in practice by the Russian propaganda machine. Here and here and here and here are just some evidences of that. All these efforts are aimed at provoking a split between the three main groups of Kazakhs, as well as at ‘transforming Kazakhstan into a federation’. What’s next? A rather direct has been State Duma deputy Mikhail Delyagin, when speaking on this matter: “Unless Northern Kazakhstan, along with Central and Western Kazakhstan, rejoins their Homeland [Russia] as a result of the upcoming events, it will be … well, like ditching Donbas [non-admission of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic to Russia]”.

Ukraine and Kazakhstan are the two most important post-Soviet countries for Moscow. Ukraine’s Donbas region is of particular importance to the Russian side. That’s pretty clear. In Kazakhstan, only its western region, Western Kazakhstan, can be compared with the Ukrainian Donbas in terms of economic prowess, mineral wealth and geographical proximity to the Russian capital, Moscow. So it is understandable that the Russian side might also be willing to meddle in the internal affairs of the region that plays a key role in the economy of Kazakhstan. They seem to be already doing that, albeit in discrete forms.   

In this context William Courtney made the following point: “Russia could seek to capture Caspian energy assets in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Unlike other possible land grabs, the Kremlin might think this one would be a financial boon”. This forecast seems to be quite realistic as regards Kazakhstan. As to William Courtney suggestion that Russia could seek to capture Caspian energy assets in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, it looks rather unrealistic.

As Turkmenistan is the largest supplier of natural gas to the Chinese energy market, and Azerbaijan is being strongly supported by Turkey  under the motto ‘One nation, two States’. West Kazakhstan is strategically important to the US and EU, so the attempts by Moscow to oust the Westerners from the region cannot be excluded. 

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *