In Kazakhstan, Putin again takes advantage of unrest to try to expand his influence| Latest News Headlines

In Kazakhstan, Putin again takes advantage of unrest to try to expand his influence

| Latest News Headlines | World News

Long adept at stoking unrest in the West, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday sent troops to the central Asian country of Kazakhstan to try to put out the latest in a series of dangerous fires that have engulfed the land of the former Soviet Union, a territory Moscow considers its own sphere of influence but has struggled to keep its calm.

But while the unrest in Kazakhstan has once again exposed the vulnerability of the strongmen the Kremlin trusted to maintain order, it has also offered Russia a new opportunity to reaffirm its influence in its former Soviet domain. , one of the dearest to Mr. Poutine. long term goals.

The arrival in Kazakhstan of 2,500 troops from a Russian-led military alliance amid continued spasms of violent protests was the fourth time in just two years that Moscow has exercised itself in neighboring states – Belarus, Armenia and Ukraine being the other three – which the West has long tried to court.

The sight of a country like Kazakhstan “which seems big and strong” falling so quickly into disarray was a shock, said Maxim Suchkov, acting director of the Institute for International Studies at the State Institute of Moscow’s international relations. But it also showed how, with the exception of Ukraine, in the former Soviet republics that tried to balance east and west, “boom, you get a crisis and they look to Russia.” .

And once Russian troops arrive, they rarely, if ever, return home. Mr Suchkov said the unrest in Kazakhstan can be seen as a “serious crisis which Russia wishes to turn into an opportunity”.

Still, many wonder how many bushfires can break out around Russia’s borders before a similar conflagration breaks out at home.

“If something like this can happen in Kazakhstan,” said Scott Horton, a law professor at Columbia University who has advised officials in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries for two decades, “it may certainly arrive in Russia too “.

Other analysts say that while Mr Putin welcomes the unrest in Europe and the United States as proof that democracy is failing, he takes little pleasure in the unrest at Russia’s gates, no matter what. the short-term opportunity.

Nonetheless, Mr Horton said: “Putin is playing very well, or maybe overplaying, a weak hand. “

It would not be the first time.

After offering in August 2020 to provide what he called “comprehensive assistance” to help President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of neighboring Belarus end a wave of massive protests, Mr. Putin then sent “helmets blues ”to stop a vicious war in the disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has stationed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine to demand that Kiev renounce its long-standing flirtation with NATO.

Among the soldiers sent to Kazakhstan were members of the 45th Brigade, an elite Spetsnaz unit, or Special Forces, infamous for its operations in Wars I and II in Chechnya, the once turbulent Caucasus region of Russia. now brutally pacified. The brigade was also active in South Ossetia, an area of ​​Georgia at the center of that country’s 2008 war with Russia; in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014; and in Syria.

To what extent this asserted role actually contributes to Mr. Putin’s long-standing goal of restoring Russian rule over much of the former Soviet sphere is a matter of heated debate.

In Ukraine, he mainly achieved the opposite, turning what was a population generally favorable to Russia in much of the country into a nemesis. It also strained nerves outside of the former Soviet space and played into the hands of the anti-Russian hawks, rekindling a previously dormant debate in Sweden and Finland over whether to join or at least join more. closely to NATO.

When Kazakhstan left the Soviet Union three decades ago, it held the world’s fourth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, vast oil reserves, and so many promises and dangers that Secretary of State James A. Baker III s rushed to the new country to try and cement ties by drinking vodka with his boss, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in the sauna and accepting blows from a tree branch.

“Call me the President of the United States on the phone,” joked then-US Ambassador to Moscow Robert S. Strauss, who was also there. “His State Secretary is naked and he is beaten by the President of Kazakhstan.”

Since then, Kazakhstan has given up on its nuclear weapons, welcomed US energy giants like Chevron and Exxon Mobil to develop its oil fields, and has become a trusted partner such as, in a message to its current leader in Last September, President Biden told President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev that “the United States is proud to call your country a friend”.

All along, however, people have been beaten not only playfully in the sauna, but viciously in detention centers and on the streets. Although its record of repression may be less severe than in other former Soviet republics in Central Asia, such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, according to Amnesty International, it includes “torture and other widespread ill-treatment in penitentiary establishments ”.

But in the post-Soviet revival of the Great Game, the 19th-century struggle between colonial powers across Central Asia, human rights were never a particularly important factor in America’s calculations – let alone those of its main competitors in the region, Russia and, over the past decade, China.

For Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh tycoon who fled into exile after falling out with his former boss, Mr Nazarbayev, the current wave of protests and the Kazakh government’s call in Moscow for military aid to crush them are proof that the West miscalculated and handed Russia a great victory.

Kazakhstan, he said Thursday as Russian troops deployed, has managed to “put the international community to sleep” with promises of big contracts. “The result: Kazakhstan is now under the boot of Putin, who takes the opportunity to extend his power.”

Steve LeVine, author of “The Oil and The Glory,” a chronicle of the struggle between Moscow and Washington in the region after the collapse of communism, said that the American understanding of Kazakhstan in its early years as a Independent state was “almost entirely” through the Tengiz oil fields.

But, he added, Kazakhstan has always become a much more stable, prosperous and tolerant country than its neighbors. “Kazakhstan is not a democracy, but it is a Central Asian democracy,” he said. “The region is ruled by strong men.

Such leaders, much to Mr Putin’s dismay, have proven surprisingly fragile, a fact that has repeatedly confronted the Kremlin along its borders with eruptions of the kind of discontent it has sought to contain at home. But their weakness has also made Mr. Putin the indispensable protector to whom they turn in times of crisis.

Alexander Cooley, a political science professor at Barnard College and an authority in Central Asia, said Russia is unlikely to demand immediate concessions from President Tokayev, but has gained strong influence, thwarting earlier efforts of the Kazakhstan to avoid leaning too much towards Moscow or Washington. .

“Kazakhstan has always tried to maintain a balance,” he said. “It’s a question of the regime’s survival. The security needs of the state have been reconfigured to meet the needs of those in power.”

Kazakh authorities say dozens of protesters have died in the unrest so far and many others have been injured, and 18 security guards have been killed. If the clashes drag on, the Kremlin could end up alienating a large part of the Kazakh population, who in large cities like Almaty often speak Russian and were relatively pro-Russian. This would repeat the scenario in Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment has grown so strong that it is unlikely to subside for years or decades.

But Mr Tokayev, who took over as President in 2019 from Mr Nazarbeyev, the leader Mr Baker joined in the sauna, is now indebted to Russia for both its support in cracking down on protesters and for the removal of Mr Nazarbayev from his last post at the head. of the National Security Council on Wednesday. Such assistance is rarely offered for free, especially not by such a shrewd tactician as Mr. Putin.

Valerie Hopkins in Moscow and Andrew Kramer in Kiev contributed reporting.

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