Kazakhstan uprising complicates Putin’s Ukraine calculus

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

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

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The latest: Violent clashes between security forces and armed protesters in Kazakhstan continued 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 U.S. and Russian officials are set to begin Jan. 10 in Geneva, followed by a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council on Jan. 12 and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Jan. 13.

  • Putin’s aims are either to extract concessions on NATO expansion, or potentially to invade Ukraine and reverse its Western drift by force.

Between the lines: Experts say Russia’s limited deployment of troops to Kazakhstan is unlikely to affect military planning on the Ukraine border, where Moscow is expected to maintain a strong force posture throughout next week’s negotiations.

  • It’s a strategic “bandwidth” issue, rather than a logistical one, says Max Bergmann, a European security expert at the Center for American Progress.

  • An enduring political and security crisis in Kazakhstan — Russia’s top military ally, the largest economy in Central Asia, and a strategic “buffer” state in the region — would require significant Kremlin attention.

  • In that context, a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which would be all-consuming and trigger a massive economic response from the West, could be too much for Putin to take on.

What they’re saying: “For Russia, this is an exceptionally delicate mission,” says Dmitri Trenin, 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 interference and where Russia’s own population, by a margin of 2 to 1, do not see a need to intervene militarily,”

Yes, but: The CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan, if successful, may present an opportunity for Putin to project strength and restore Russian influence over a neighbor that also has ties to China.

  • As in Belarus, where embattled dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko has become entirely reliant on Moscow, Putin could “turn a crisis into an opportunity,” Trenin tells Axios.

The bottom line: All that said, instability on his doorstep is the last thing Putin needs ahead of next week’s negotiations.

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