Vladimir Putin’s lightning deployment of troops took less than a day to help turn the tide against anti-government protesters in Kazakhstan. Ahead of high-stakes security talks with the U.S., it also sent a reminder of just how determined the Russian president is to defend what he sees as his own neighborhood.
“If it made an impression, that’s all for the better,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, deputy speaker of the upper house of Russia’s parliament.
The dramatic operation — the first of its kind by the Russian-led military bloc Moscow sees as its version of NATO — came just days before the U.S. and its allies sit down with Kremlin negotiators to try to address Moscow’s concerns about the Western alliance’s expansion toward its borders and head off an invasion of Ukraine that the West fears the Kremlin is planning.
Moscow says it’s not, but has massed about 100,000 troops near the border, according to Western officials, underlining a fundamental challenge for the U.S. and its allies. While the West would like to see former Soviet states around Russia outside Moscow’s orbit, NATO isn’t ready to use force. Putin, as he showed again in Kazakhstan this week, is.
The Russian paratroopers, who were on the ground just hours after Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested them Wednesday, helped retake key strategic points like the Almaty Airport that had been seized by protesters, whose discontent over rising fuel prices quickly spilled into political demands. By Friday, Tokayev said he wouldn’t negotiate and ordered his security forces to shoot opponents without warning.
“All these events are unexpected but very well timed on the eve of the negotiations with the U.S.,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. “Russia has given a reminder of its ability to make quick and nonstandard decisions in the military-political sphere to influence events in places in the world that are important to it.”
The Kazakh deployment marks the second time in as many years that Putin has successfully stepped in to help save an ally facing a popular uprising. In 2020, Kremlin support for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko helped him crush protests and weather the U.S. and European sanctions that followed.
Putin’s boldness in using force abroad has grown in recent years as he’s seen Western outrage over his operations fade rapidly. To be sure, the Kazakh deployment is much more modest than the 2014 annexation of Crimea or the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Still, 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia now enjoys greater influence over its neighbors than at any time since the Soviet era. And the Kremlin continues to pull strings further afield, including the Balkans and the Mideast.
In Kazakhstan, Tokayev’s appeal to Russia for help draws him more closely into Moscow’s orbit, leaving less room for the policy of balancing interests between Russia, China and the West that his predecessor and patron, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had perfected.
Nazarbayev, who had retained many of the reins of power even after he installed Tokayev as president in 2019, hasn’t been seen since the protests this week. Tokayev took over the former president’s last remaining government post on Wednesday.
“Russia took advantage of the situation and moved into a country that it considers part of its strategic security,” said Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consultant. Though publicly, Russia says the military mission is temporary, “the temptation to remain is great and that’s a possibility,” she said.
Involving only about 2,000 soldiers, the Kazakh deployment isn’t big enough to distract from Russia’s much larger buildup near Ukraine. But it does provide a guarantee of loyalty, according to Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat who’s now a foreign policy analyst.
“It ensures their long-term alliance with Russia irrespective of who comes to power there,” he said. “Like the Warsaw Pact states,” he added, referring to the Soviet Union’s allies in eastern Europe in the Cold War, which have all now joined NATO.
“Sending troops raises the stakes” ahead of the negotiations with the U.S., Stanovaya said. “Russia has shown itself that it can do more than it could a year ago.”
The Kazakh crackdown won an endorsement from China, where President Xi Jinping hailed Tokayev’s tough line against what he called a “color revolution.” That’s what Beijing and Moscow call the popular protests that have overthrown dictators elsewhere, often with Western support.
Since 2008, Russia has twice sent troops into countries where it claimed the West engineered such coups, blocking first Georgia’s and then Ukraine’s efforts to tighten ties with Europe and the U.S.
In the talks with the U.S. and its allies this week, Moscow is demanding legally binding guarantees that NATO won’t expand into the region it sees as its sphere of influence and pull back from countries once part of the Soviet empire.
Western officials say the proposals Russia has made in public so far are nonstarters, but have agreed to talks this week to see if diplomacy can come up with more modest ways to reduce tensions. Moscow is showing little inclination to compromise.
“For 30 years we’ve been retreating,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who will lead the talks with the U.S. in Geneva Monday, said in an interview this week. “Excuse me, but it’s finally time to advance.”
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