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Kazakhstan unrest curtails Moscow's aggression

Gurkov Andrey Kommentarbild App
Andrey Gurkov
January 6, 2022

The Kazakhstan crisis makes war in Ukraine less likely. If Russia were to insist on "taking back" Ukraine, it would "lose" Kazakhstan, says DW's Andrey Gurkov.

A man walks past a car that was burned during the protests triggered by fuel price increase in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan's nationwide protests came as a surpriseImage: Pavel Mikheyev/REUTERS

Ongoing mass protests in Kazakhstan have briefly diverted attention away from the biggest geopolitical question that has vexed Europe in recent weeks —whether Russia will wage war against Ukraine.

Although the issue will soon return to the agenda, it has lost urgency in light of the unrest unfolding in Kazakhstan, Russia's large Central Asian neighbor.

DW correspondent Andrey Gurkov
DW correspondent Andrey Gurkov

A Russian military operation on Ukrainian territory has now become less likely. There are two reasons for this. One is that a Russian military intervention could lead to domestic instability inside Russia similar to the unrest unfolding in Kazakhstan.

The other stems from the fact that Russia must now dedicate much more attention to its southern neighbor, Kazakhstan.

A seemingly stable Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan's nationwide protests came as a surprise; the fierce clashes and countless fatalities will have rattled Moscow. Until now, Kazakhstan was considered a largely stable country with a dependable government.

Belarus, too, was regarded as a stable country — until the 2020 revolution and subsequent repression. That two post-Soviet states with similarly authoritarian government structures could experience such instability suggests that Russia should at all costs avoid anything that could spark such developments at home.

Minsk, Almaty, then Moscow?

A large Russian military operation against Ukraine, without a clear objective and scores of dead soldiers, could certainly spark mass unrest within Russia. Especially if the US and EU impose far-reaching sanctions — as has been threatened — leading to a sharp rise in the already horrendously high consumer prices and possible supply shortages.

This scenario looks even more menacing against the backdrop of spiking omicron cases and Russia's seriously overwhelmed health care system.

Domestic fallout

The fact that thousands of frustrated Kazakhs are now venting their anger should be a warning to the Kremlin. It should compel Russia to consider the domestic implications of a threatened or alleged military operation with which it is currently trying to intimidate the US and NATO.

So far, Russia only seems to have weighed up what impact such a move would have on its foreign policy and trade. Given the crisis in Kazakhstan, however, Russia may now also have growing doubts over whether its population would back it.

It will most likely make Russia even less inclined to wage an actual military campaign, rather than a mere propaganda campaign, against Ukraine. 

The Kremlin must devote more energy to assisting Kazakhstan. It is, after all, one of Russia's few real allies, and an integration partner in the post-Soviet sphere and on the international stage.

Russia to focus on Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan finds itself undergoing major changes. Moscow must now dedicate considerable attention, effort and time to influencing this difficult and complex political process — especially now that Russia has dispatched troops to Kazakhstan at the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev for an indefinite period.

The move could have unpredictable consequences. Several days ago, nobody would have expected this development.

Kremlin will avoid fighting on two fronts

If Russia gives in to the illusory idea of "taking back" Ukraine, it will risk "losing" Kazakhstan. Doing so would also burden the Russian military and populace with a "two-front campaign."

One would expect the Russian leadership to be sufficiently pragmatic and show enough political survival instinct to throw out such an idea.

Even so, Moscow may continue conjuring up the specter of a major war against Ukraine in the hopes of securing big concessions in upcoming negations with the West.

This commentary was originally written in German