Kazakhstan Crisis and Challenges For Russia

On 2 Jan, 2021demonstrations started in the Zhanaozen, an oil hub station of Kazakhstan, and the same site witnessed the deadly clashes between protesters and police about a decade ago. Then protests spread across the country. Approximately 1,000 people have reportedly been injured, with 400 being treated in hospital. More than 8,000 people have been taken into custody; according to the Kazakh government,  curfews was declared and mass gatherings banned. The information ministry says that 44 deaths have been confirmed (earlier, the number was 164 but then claimed this was a “technical mistake”).[i] The protests erupted when the government lifted its price subsidy on Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). Though rioters also voiced other concerns. They have contended that the rise in prices would lead to a steep increase in food prices and further deepen the income inequality that has plagued the nation for decades. To appease these demonstrators, Mr Nazarbayev was removed from the post. And ex-national security in charge, Karim Masimov, has been detained and charged with treason.

Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev requested Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help suppress protests. Thousand of troops led by Russia landed in Kazakhstan on 6 Jan 2021. On 15 May 1992, six post-Soviet states belonging to the Commonwealth Independent States-Russia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—signed the Collective Security Treaty (also referred to as the Tashkent Pact or Tashkent Treaty).[ii]  The current CSTO members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan. Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is an international territorial organisation with primary objectives of maintaining and fostering peace, global and regional security and sustainability, safeguarding independence on a collective basis, territorial integrity and sovereignty of member states.[iii]

The Republic of Kazakhstan, located at the centre of Eurasia, emerged on the geopolitical map in 1991. The name Kazakh is of Turkic origin, which denotes-free man. Appropriately, this land has been inhibited by freedom-loving people. The historic Silk Road, Sable Route, and expensive furs passed through the region. This made Kazakhstan an essential cultural, trade and economic bridge between Asia and Europe. The people of Kazakhstan are proud of their diversity. Currently, around 130 nationalities populate Kazakhstan. About 66% are Kazakhs, 21% are Russians, and the remaining 13% constitutes Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans and Tartars. The predominant religions are Islam and Christianity.[iv]

Wedged in between Russia and China, Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country, more extensive than the whole of Western Europe, though with a population of just 19 million. It has vast mineral resources, 3% of global oil reserves and important coal and gas sectors. It is the top global producer of uranium, which jumped in price by 8% after the unrest. The western world has sensed that new political realities are emerging in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, which shares a 7,600 km border with Russia and a 1780 km border with China along the Xinjiang area. Russia’s InterContinental Bilastic Missiles are located in Kazakhstan.

Russia’s stake in Kazakhstan.

There is more at stake for Moscow than cementing its influence in a neighbouring country shaken by unrest. These two former Soviet republics share one of the world’s most extensive national borders at 7,600 kilometres (4,722 miles). The neighbouring regions have been militarily significant since the Soviet era. Important sites include the Kapustin Yar missile test-firing range, partly located in Kazakhstan, and the many weapons factories in and around the Ural mountain range. Geopolitically, Russia considers Kazakhstan, much of the entire region, as its backyard.[v] Russia has to secure its interests because this unrest in Kazakhstan has severe implications for the security of Russia.

The significance of Kazakhstan for Russia can hardly be overstated. It’s the most significant and most prosperous former Soviet republic in Central Asia, which also has the closest ties with Moscow. Along with Russia and Belarus, Kazakhstan pushed for creating the EU-style Eurasian Economic Union in 2015, a prestigious project for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Moscow’s opinion is the most strategically significant cooperation with Almaty regarding outer space. Kazakhstan got the Baikonur spaceport from the Soviet Union, which Russia leases for $115 million (about €101 million) a year. Moscow has since commissioned its spaceport in the far east but intends to continue using Baikonur.

Russia is also involved in uranium mining in Kazakhstan and hopes to build its first nuclear power plant. Kazakhstan’s electricity needs have skyrocketed in recent years, and the government has asked Moscow for aid supplies.

Fear of colour-revolution,  in any case, the unrest in Kazakhstan is a nightmare for the Russian president. The Kremlin has called such events “colour revolutions” — modelled on the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine the subsequent year and blamed the West for engineering them. The last successful uprising was in 2018 in Armenia, which has close ties with Russia. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko held on to power by force in 2020.

All of Russia’s significant neighbours have been rocked by social unrest. Kremlin would start worrying whether Russia could be next for such an uprise.

China and Kazakhstan. Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, has seen an expansion of Chinese influence in recent years, with Beijing fostering deep economic ties with its neighbours. China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Kazakhstan, primarily into its lucrative energy sector, and used it as a début for the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature infrastructure and foreign policy project.

However, anti-China protests have been noticed there in the years. This is mainly due to Kazakhstan’s increasing debt to China, the growing presence of Chinese enterprises and goods, the inevitable trading of oil for technology, and the persecution of Muslim Uighurs in neighbouring Xinjiang. These are the unavoidable issues that strengthen the fear of Kazakhstan’s people against China. Unhappiness with the country’s increasing dependence on Beijing has been mounting in Kazakhstan for some time now.

The US and Kazakhstan. Geopolitically and strategically, Kazakhstan occupies a vital positioning; it shares a border with Russia and China and has a significant presence for carrying the counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan. After the pullout of the US-led NATO troops from Afghanistan, the US required some space to influence Afghanistan and Kazakhstan to fill the void. In recent years, Kazakhstan has played a critical counterterrorism role. There is also China. In recent years, there has been burgeoning economic and energy cooperation between Kazakhstan and China – something the US has been keeping an eye on. Millions of Kazakhs live in China’s western Xinjiang region, and likewise, Uyghurs live in Kazakhstan. This ethnic overflow across the border needs careful management – another factor in Kazakhstan’s prudent management of foreign policy.[vi]

The containment strategy adopted by the US so far has failed to check Russia and China both. This strategy is more of rhetoric. Further, the US is advocating the policy of ‘bifurcation’, that is to say, ‘either with the US or not’ and has been nudging the swing states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and India, especially after the Russia-Ukraine standoff.


Central Asian republics are of substantial importance to  Russia, and Moscow’s policy attributes great importance to this region. Volatility in the Central Asia region is expected and can easily catch fire on the Russian border. Furthermore, Russia is also concerned about the consequences of developments in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s support of the Chechen insurgents. For Russia, the Central Asia region’s economic importance originates from its rich natural resources and trade relations. Keeping in view the profound historical legacy of Russia’s control over the area, its irresistible superiority in military strength and geographical proximity creates a lasting condition where Russia’s role in the Central Asia region cannot be eroded for years to come.

The geo-strategic location and abundance of rich natural resources attract countries like China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, Korea, and others. The West, particularly the US, has considerably increased its effect over these states. The participation of the US and China in this region indeed imperils Russia’s influence in this strategically significant region. Given the geographical closeness, historical links and existence of a multi-million Russian diaspora in this region, Russia contemplates  Central Asia as vital to its interests.

Kazakhstan in the area of Central Asia assumes greater importance. But people of Kazakhstan don’t trust China and don’t want to follow the Russian model of development. All Central Asian Republicans have this attitude. Then the question arises:  Can India play its role in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan? India contemplates Central Asian countries as its extended neighbourhood. Central Asian republics need India’s help to fight terrorism. The CAR holds tremendous geopolitical importance and is the gateway to Europe and Russia. From Chabahar, India will have access to Russia and Europe through Central Asia.

[i] Internet returns to Almaty following a five-day outage – BBC › news › world-Asia-59927267 accessed on 1oth Jan 2022.

[ii] WIKIPEDIA, retrieved on 11 Jan 2021.

[iii] Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) › collections

accessed on 11 Jan, 2022

[iv] About Kazakhstan – Air Astana › Uae › Travel-to-Kazakhstan accessed 8 Jan 2022.

[v] Kazakhstan protests: A nightmare or an opportunity for Russia? › Kazakhstan-protests-a-nightmare. Accessed on 13 Jan 2022

[vi] Why the US Cares About What Happens in Kazakhstan. › News › Best Countries. Accessed on 13 Jan 2022.

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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