In that part of the last weekly press review by Radio Azattyk, which concerns my recent article, “Western Kazakhstan May Soon Turn Into The West’s Achilles’ Heel In Its Confrontation With Russia On the Ukrainian Soil”, the question is formulated as follows: Will Russia set its sights on Western Kazakhstan?
Such a formulation of the matter doesn’t seem to be quite representing the current reality. Since Russia already set its sights on Western Kazakhstan, and did so long ago. Over the whole period of time since the beginning of the Kazakhstani largest oil and gas fields’ development – Tengiz, Karachaganak and Kashagan – by the major western energy corporations, Moscow seemingly has been watching this Kazakh region with the eyes of an ex-master, who may be waiting for the right time to reassert his control over the territory that earlier belonged to him. Years of such waiting are seemingly over now, and the moment of truth appears to be arriving soon. It is not that the situation currently is in many respects shaping itself in a way advantageous for the Russian intervention in Kazakhstan.
It is just the opposite: the conditions for this appear to be rather unfavorable. But in this case something else is more important for Russia. The point is that further procrastination by Moscow over the choice of an action plan concerning Central Asia creates a risk of Kazakhstan’s and other Central Asian countries’ being brought by Turkey and the West out of the Russian dominant political and military, and economic influence, with the use of Western Kazakhstan as a crucial link between the region and the South Caucasus. Turkmenistan is officially a neutral country and unlikely to accept a similar role. And there is no other pathway that would link Central Asia and Europe while bypassing Russia and Iran.
Western Kazakhstan is economically the most important part of not only Kazakhstan, but the whole Central Asian region. This is a part of Kazakhstan that is closest to the Russian heartland (the Central Russia). Through it runs the shortest road from Russia to four other Central Asian nations. It also is a main potential bridgehead for Kazakhstan, as well as for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to establish and maintain bilateral and multilateral partnerships with Turkey and the West via the South Caucasus.
In short one can say that all these factors make Western Kazakhstan uniquely important for Moscow as a region of the Central Asian neighboring country, oversight of which in some form might enable the Russian leadership to continue to influence formation of the Kazakhstan’s (Uzbekistan’s and so on) relations with the West and Turkey and, most importantly, albeit indirectly, gain leverage over and put pressure on the Western energy companies, developing Kazakhstan’s three largest hydrocarbon deposits, and, accordingly, on the current Western political establishment.
The Russian policy and decision makers would probably not have rushed things in the normal course of events. Yet Russians are in a situation now, where they need to be hasty in their actions. Therefore, one can assume the following. Amid Russia’s war on Ukraine and its consequences, and Turkey’s feverish efforts to quickly get the Central Asian Turkic countries out of the Russian Federation sphere of influence through persuading them to join the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (known as the Middle Corridor, and aimed at becoming a viable alternative to the long-established northern route through Russia) and the creation of the ‘Turan Army’ (a kind of military alliance under Turkish leadership), it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that, with a high degree of probability, Western Kazakhstan can become the place at which Russia’s next outward action will be directed.
And here’s what’s important to note, too. Russia may not go for an open invasion – at least, with the current state of relations between the two nations. The repetition of what that has been used as a pretext to Russian intervention in Ukraine, is unlikely to be expected, either. Regarding Kazakhstan, the Muscovite policy makers seem to have decided to go the other way.
Let me explain, what this means.
As far as one can tell, the Russian authorities and Kremlin-backed media has been closely monitoring the socio-political situation in Kazakhstan, with special emphasis given to determining the social moods and cases that create tangible prerequisites for the growth of social tension and general displeasure among the people living in Western Kazakhstan. And they cannot help seeing that what even Western experts are already drawing their attention to. Here is an example about this, from an interview with Cheryl L. Reed, an American investigative journalist who spent four months visiting areas in Kazakhstan where the January 2022 protests erupted and interviewed local journalists who covered them: “But what I can tell you from having traveled 20,000 miles all over the country interviewing all these people [is that] I wouldn’t be surprised if another protest happens. Because what did this protest achieve? I mean, a lot of people would say that it didn’t change anything. I definitely feel that the situation and the circumstances which started the January  protests are still there, and that fire could be ignited at any point”.
It is an opinion of the person who came from afar to look into the situation in Kazakhstan and to formulate her own understanding of it. Her final conclusion may sound rather strident for those lulled to a sense of security by talk of reform and renewal in Kazakhstan. But in any case, it makes clear that the political and economic situation in the Central Asian country remains very difficult. For the Kremlin strategists and Russian experts dealing with the Kazakh issue, there is likely nothing new in what Cheryl L. Reed found out in Kazakhstan. They are in the position to gain much more insight into what has been and is going on in that nation.
It is therefore no wonder that, in a time when among the Western expert and media community, one can see not only those who heap praise on Tokayev’s democratic reforms, but also those who have now let themselves see the things in Kazakhstan, as they really are, their Russian counterparts are drawing up plans to turn such a development in the neighboring Central Asian nation to Russia’s benefit.
Here’s how one of The Iarex.ru writers think Moscow must act with regard to Kazakhstan in light of the developing situation in that country: “1. Military cooperation between Kazakhstan and NATO countries must be ended. In military terms, Kazakhstan (as well as other CSTO states, by the way) should be wholly tied up to Russia. 2. It is necessary to establish military bases on the territory of Kazakhstan. In terms of the combat composition, those bases have to be so that they can serve as a means of exerting pressure on the Kazakh leadership. 3. Kazakhstan should stop cozying up to Turkey. Without the participation of Kazakhstan, any ‘Turan’ in Central Asia is destined to fail. 4. Russia should become not just the first but the [only] leading player in the [Kazakh] economy. The Kazakh government should help our business to oust American (and as well as Chinese) partners from Kazakhstani market. 5. There should be carried out work on the federalization of the Republic [of Kazakhstan] with autonomy granted to the regions with predominantly Russian inhabitants (and, possibly, taking into account their [the Kazakhs’] tribal system). Russia must become the guarantor of the security of the Russian population.
Otherwise we will let Kazakhstan turn not even into a formal ally with the potential of putting an end to the CSTO’s existence, but into an enemy who would repeat the path of Ukraine. Yet will Russia have the capacity to carry out a new special military operation in the foreseeable future? And whether there is any point in doing that when there is the opportunity to avoid a forceful scenario through using clever diplomacy?”
The remarkable thing is that these are not just words. They seem to reflect the overall mood of the Russian expert and media community about nowadays Kazakhstan. The fifth task out of five ones listed by the Iarex.ru writer appears to be the key one. Since there can hardly be any question of the feasibility of the other four task, without the fifth one having been first done. Since the events of January 2022 in the Central Asian country, the Russian propaganda machine, feeling equally at home in the media space of Kazakhstan, has been increasingly active in promoting among the Kazakh public the idea of the need for transiting from the unitary system of government to the federative one. Such verbal assertions are far from being as harmless as they seem. This seems to be all the more worrying if one considers that, according to some experts in Kazakhstan, ‘in our country a huge number of officials are still in the grip of colonial thinking and watch Russia, the Russian ideology and media with open mouth’, and even ‘President Tokayev sees the situation in his country through the eyes of Russian propaganda media’.
When considering prospects for the development of the situation, some Russian experts and analysts come to almost the same conclusion as Cheryl L. Reed did – ‘the situation and the circumstances which started the January  protests are still there, and that fire could be ignited at any point’. The difference there is that the former, unlike the American investigative journalist, are offering to Kazakhstan their recipe for avoiding an impending crisis. Here are a pair of examples illustrating their way of thinking.
“There are very different kinds of relations between clans or zhuzes in Kazakhstan. They are represented differently in power. In the neighboring country, superimposed upon this are the specifics of Western Kazakhstan, a poor, radical region in which [social] tension flares up again and again. Last time, the protest was triggered by a one-time two-fold increase in the price of liquefied gas. And this is about the same thing that provoked the ‘Arab Spring’. It is necessary [for Russia] to establish control over Kazakh politics. I think the ideal option would be the federalization of Kazakhstan under Russian control. Our country is, unfortunately, facing here a situation of a Zugzwang. To intervene or to abstain from stepping in?! Either option does not bode well. [But in case of Russia’s interference] there should be carried out work on the federalization of Kazakhstan. In such a case, Russia’s interference will be justifiable”, said Ivan Zhukov, a Russian analyst.
And here is a view of Dmitry Kholyavchenko, a Russian publicist: “The unitary form of the state, which simplifies many internal management processes, becomes a problem and an obstacle in terms of localizing problems. In the normal course of life, these problems are not critical, but in a crisis, the only option is federalization”.
Representatives of the Russian expert and media community are thus attempting to lead the Kazakh political and public audiences to believe that in a situation where, according even to unbiased assessments by observers from the far abroad, a new Kazakhstani crisis seems unavoidable, ‘the only option is federalization’. It’s hard to say how successful they are in getting to their goal. But when the question arises of what is behind all of these, it is worth remembering what Alexander Nevzorov, a Russian television journalist and a former member of the Russian State Duma, recently said in that regard: “Let me remind you that not a single propagandist [in Putin’s Russia] ever speaks out without clear instructions from the presidential administration and without approval by it. So this is not a fantasy of a single idiot, but quite specific plans”.
Nothing to add here – well said.
Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst