Kazakhstan uprising complicates Putin’s Ukraine calculus

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Russian paratroopers descended on Kazakhstan’s largest city on Thursday to help quell the largest insurgency in the former Soviet republic’s history – with potential strategic implications for Russia’s plans in Ukraine.

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Why this matters: Collective intervention for the first time by the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) complicated Putin’s strategic focus in early 2022, when Russia’s military threats against Ukraine were expected to reach an inflection point.

Latest: Violent clashes between security forces and armed demonstrators in Kazakhstan continued on Thursday, as an initial 2,500 soldiers from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan arrived for a “limited” operation to restore peace.

  • Meanwhile, high-level security talks between US and Russian officials are set to begin in Geneva on January 10, followed by a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on January 12 and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on January 13.
  • Putin aims to either make concessions on NATO expansion, or potentially invade Ukraine and reverse its westward drift by force.
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Between the lines: Experts say Russia’s limited deployment of troops to Kazakhstan is unlikely to affect military plans on the border with Ukraine, where Moscow is expected to maintain a strong force posture during next week’s talks.

  • This is a strategic “bandwidth” issue, rather than a logistical one, says Max Bergman, a European security expert at the Center for American Progress.
  • A lasting political and security crisis in Kazakhstan – Russia’s top military ally, Central Asia’s largest economy and a strategic “buffer” state in the region – will require significant attention from the Kremlin.
  • In that context, a massive invasion of Ukraine, which would be all-consuming and trigger a massive economic backlash from the West, could be too much for Putin.

What are they saying: “For Russia, this is an extraordinarily delicate mission,” says Dmitry Trainin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Russia has essentially intervened in a domestic crisis in a major neighboring country where people do not welcome foreign intervention and where Russia’s own population, by a 2 to 1 margin, does not see the need to intervene militarily. ”

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yes but: The CSTO’s intervention in Kazakhstan, if successful, could give Putin an opportunity to show strength and restore Russian influence over a neighbor that also has ties to China.

  • As in Belarus, where embattled dictator Alexander Lukashenko has become completely dependent on Moscow, Putin can “turn a crisis into an opportunity,” Treinin tells Nerdshala.

Bottom-line: All that said, instability at his door is the last thing Putin needs before next week’s talks.

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