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.
Get market news worthy of your time with Axios Markets. Subscribe for free.
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.
Like this article? Get more from Axios and subscribe to Axios Markets for free.