In an op-ed piece of February 7, 2022, titled “Only Place Russia Could Expand Without Disaster Is Northern Kazakhstan”, published in the Eurasia Review, Paul Goble wrote: “Various Russians close to the Kremlin like Vladislav Surkov are suggesting that the territorial expansion of the country is something existential for Russia and Russians. But an examination of the countries around Russia show that the only real possibility for this is in Kazakhstan, Mikhail Khodarenok says.
The retired colonel who earlier worked in the Russian General Staff says that if one considers all the countries around Russia, Russians would find it difficult if not impossible to expand or would have to pay a price greater than anyone is willing to in all directions except Kazakhstan”.
What is at issue in this piece is an article by Mikhail Khodarenok of 16 December 2021, published in Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Yes, the retired Russian colonel said about it [Kazakhstan] being the only direction that Russia could expand on. Immediately thereafter, he added: “It should be emphasized – that’s exclusively a version some members of Russia’s political class are kept up with. This country’s comparatively small population and armed forces comparable to a West European army corps allow ‘those who seek to expand Russia territorially’ to look forward to some level of success. But this kind of geopolitical aspirations and fantasies by some political experts resembles only the format of the conquest of Siberia by Ataman Yermak [leader of an expedition that laid the basis for Russia’s annexation of Western Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan], or the Asian [military] campaigns by General Kaufman [who conquered, among other territories in Central Asia, Southern Kazakhstan] and General Skobelev [who became famous for his conquest of the western part of Central Asia, including Ustyurt, a clay desert now shared by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan]. There is, however, every reason to believe that such methods of action were at least one century, or even two out of date”.
In a word, Mikhail Khodarenok made it clear he did not share the opinion that “only place Russia could expand without disaster is Northern Kazakhstan”. Judging by the retired colonel’s statements and comments in the media, it is fitting to say that he is very critical of the Moscow expert community’s continuing belief that expanding into Ukraine or Kazakhstan would be a military walkover. And he calls those people, relentlessly fuelling Russian expansionist sentiment, ‘bloodthirsty politologists’, ‘enthusiastic hawks’ and ‘hurrying cuckoos’.
In his Nezavisimaya Gazeta article in question, Mikhail Khodarenok wrote, with regard to the potential aggression of Kazakhstan by the Russian Federation, the following: “In theory, Kazakhstan may be annexed through great bloodshed and military means, but the unambiguous result would be an embittered population, hellish sanctions from the world community and huge budget problems. Calculations about expansion based on nothing but theoretical understandings can lead (and, unfortunately, are already leading) to a significant deterioration in the military and political situation all along the borders of the Russian Federation. We could ask those who are focused on expanding [Russia’s] territory: do you have personal experience in dealing with geopolitical issues related to territorial expansion?”
The retired Russian colonel further makes the following conclusions: “I repeat: on their own, the suggested ideas regarding the expansion of Russia mean deteriorating the relations with all neighbors sharing common borders with the country. And practical steps in these directions will lead inevitably to wars and subsequently to a nationwide disaster”.
Speaking about the dangers of trying to move from rhetoric to action in this regard, he didn’t made an exception for the Kazakhstani vector. According to him, should the Kremlin decide to embark on an expansion in whatever direction it choose, the Russians will be embroiled in a war and will suffer a nationwide disaster.
There’s one more point in the context of the topic that should not be ignored. Mikhail Khodarenok suggested the theoretical (imaginary) possibility of annexing not only Northern Kazakhstan, but also all the other parts of the Central Asian country. He could hardly have been misspoken. 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.
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. 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’.
On the other hand, it emerges increasingly clearly that the current Russian leadership, entertaining agendas of territorial aggrandizement, does not try to come up with a new expansionist strategy, but merely remain faithful to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author and Putin’s favorite guru, wished Russia to be. 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. In all likelihood, the Kremlin has been, is and will continue to be following his advice. Yet what decisions the Kremlin strategists may make on that part of it [Solzhenitsyn’s advice] which concerns Kazakhstan is nowadays a separate matter. Conditions in the world and within what was the territory of the USSR at the time of the Solzhenitsyn essay’s publication [in September 1990] have radically changed in over 30 years.
Regarding Kazakhstan, the Nobel Prize-winning author wrote in his ‘Rebuilding Russia’ the following: “About Kazakhstan. Its current huge territory was mindlessly set aside [for the Kazakh Republic] by the communists: all those places where the nomadic herds had been appeared once a year were accepted as falling with the territory of Kazakhstan… It had been assembled from Southern Siberia and the Southern Ural region, plus the sparsely populated central areas which had since that time been built up and transformed by the Russians, by inmates of forced labor camps and exiled people. Today, the Kazakhs constitute noticeably less than half the population of the entire inflated territory of Kazakhstan. They are concentrated in their long-standing ancestral domains along a large arc of lands in the south sweeping from the extreme east westward almost to the Caspian Sea; the population here is indeed predominantly Kazakh. And if it should prove to be their wish to separate within such boundaries, I say Godspeed”.
By 1990, Kazakhs indeed ‘constituted noticeably less than half the population’ and just slightly outnumbered Russians in Kazakhstan – 39.7% vs. 37.9%. During the first decade of independence, significant numbers of ethnic Russians, Germans and other European peoples in Kazakhstan emigrated abroad. This exodus, along with a return of ethnic Kazakhs to the fatherland from other countries, changed the demographic makeup of Kazakhstan: by the mid-1990s the Kazakh proportion was approaching half the total population, while that for the Russians was closer to one-third. The trend persisted into the 21st century. And up to now it has continued to contribute to the growth of inequalities in ratio of Kazakhs and Russians.
According to provisional data from the 2021 census, the proportion of Kazakhs increased from 63.1% in 2009 to 70.2% last year, and correspondingly the proportion of Russians went down from 23.7% to 18.1%. Azat Akhunov, an expert based in the Russian city of Kazan, says that ‘it is already clear that Kazakhstan is actually turning into a mono-ethnic state’. This nation isn’t what it was when Alexander Solzhenitsyn, later awarded the State Prize of the Russian Federation by Vladimir Putin for devoting ‘practically all his life to the Fatherland’, was writing his essay entitled ‘Rebuilding Russia’. So now the question is: how the master of the Kremlin and his entourage, who still are, in all likelihood, determined to heed the behest of the writer and who now are carrying out tasks set by him and related to Belarus and Ukraine, will behave further with regard to Kazakhstan? That issue has already been cleared up thanks to statements made recently by Vladimir Putin and by one of those known as occasional mouthpieces for the Kremlin.
On 23 December last, the Russian president announced for all to hear that ‘Kazakhstan is a Russophone State in the full sense of the word’. This seems to be an attempt by Mr. Putin to give out desirable for valid. But he ends up meaning what he want the Central Asian nation to be. The question arises as to what he wants it for. The answer to this is surely related to Mr.Putin’s program for Russia which is, by his own admission, ‘largely in tune with what Solzhenitsyn has written’. The Russian politicians make no secret of that. Just following Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s rebel regions, Leonid Kalashnikov, a State Duma deputy, said that Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine ‘will become one with Russia’ in the future. Hence the conclusion: the Russian side seems intent on making Kazakhstan fit to Mr.Putin’s program for Russia, based on the essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, through turning the Central Asian country into ‘a Russophone State in the full sense of the word’. It must therefore be assumed that just this indeed was the purpose behind a large-scale campaign against the Kazakh governmental policies on raising the authority of the State language and promoting the learning of Kazakh by ethnic minorities, waged last year by the Moscow politicians and Russian media.
The results are there, so to speak. The Vzglyad paper, in an article titled ‘Tokayev refused to tease Russia with the transition to the Latin alphabet’, quoted Vladimir Lepekhin, а political expert, as saying: “Tokayev indeed is a serious pragmatist. Why would it be necessary, in the present circumstances, to tease Russia with Nazarbayev’s initiatives on switching to the Latin alphabet?”. Mr.Tokayev decided to ‘freeze this transition [to the Latin alphabet] and leave everything as it is’, the expert added, particularly as ‘the language issue is increasingly being raised by Russia’.
Yet the thing here seems to be not only the pragmatism. On January 28, Mr.Tokayev spoke only Russian during his first televised interview since the early January crisis. Some 20 days after that, the Kazakh president gave his first ever big TV interview in Kazakh. The Kazakh public got the impression that he was not able to freely carry on a conversation, while using the State language.
So, Mr.Putin seems – not without reason – to largely rely on Russophonic Kazakh President Tokayev in imposing Russophony on Kazakhstan.
*Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst