Putin taking a risk in Kazakhstan and may hope for reward

The old joke about the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was that it was the only military alliance to attack itself, after its tanks rolled into Prague in 1968 to crush a reform movement there.

With the deployment of troops from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to Kazakhstan on Thursday, some heard “eerie echoes” of the so-called Prague spring of 1968, and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

Meant as a mutual defence pact, the CSTO has not made any joint deployments since its founding in 1999. Now it has been called upon to quell internal unrest in one of its member states.

Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, claimed the revolt was inspired by foreign-backed “terrorists” to justify his appeal, but the call to the CSTO suggests he no longer felt he could trust his own forces. When Tokayev’s request came, the CSTO jumped into action in a matter of hours, and on Thursday morning Russian paratroopers were already arriving in Kazakhstan.

The general secretary of the CSTO told RIA news agency that the overall peacekeeping force would number about 2,500 and could be strengthened if necessary.

Some in Moscow praised the decision to intervene. Maxim Suchkov, the director of the Institute for International Studies at MGIMO, a leading Moscow university, dismissed comparisons with the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact interventions as “propaganda” and said a short mission could boost Russia’s standing in the region.

The events in Kazakhstan represented a “crisis in which Moscow can be instrumental and helpful,” Suchkov wrote on Twitter.

One definite similarity with the Warsaw Pact is that although the CSTO is an alliance, the decision to intervene was almost certainly taken in Moscow. It was cheered on by Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, who in 2020 was able to crush a huge revolution using his own domestic forces, but Vladimir Putin will have made the final call.

Putin may be hoping that a swift mission will quickly restore order and leave Kazakhstan grateful and indebted to Moscow, but the operation comes with risks.

The fact that the CSTO move is seen as a Russian intervention has caused dismay for many in Kazakhstan, where one of the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s main achievements was avoiding major conflict between the Kazakh majority and ethnic Russian minority in the country.

Kazakhstan has proudly pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy for years, and its close relations with Moscow were offset by good relations with western nations. As news broke on Wednesday of Tokayev’s request to the CSTO, the editor-in-chief of the state-run television station RT, Margarita Simonyan, set out a wishlist of demands.

“We should definitely help, but we need to lay down some conditions as well,” she wrote on Twitter. These included making Russian a second state language in the country and recognising Crimea as part of Russia.

It was a sign, perhaps, of how some in Moscow view the CSTO alliance. If Tokayev does succeed in crushing the protests with Moscow’s help, the Russians may expect favours in return.

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