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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Russia’s «expansion» to Kazakhstan in the mirror of Russian propaganda

Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

On January 6, 2022, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sent the troops its of member states to Kazakhstan. Russia’s CSTO contingent included airborne units that arrived at the invitation of President Kasim-Zhomart Tokayev to fight the insurgent population. By sending troops into Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation has demonstrated that the CSTO, which ignored the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, is not an alternative to NATO but a successor to the Warsaw Pact. Similarly, in 1956 and 1968, Soviet intervention took place in Hungary and Poland.

For 30 years of independence, Kazakhstan, despite participation in Russian integration projects and significant Russian influence, has tried to pursue a multi-vector policy. The country maintains friendly relations with both the Russian Federation and the United States and China. In addition to the United States, Russia and China, Turkey is increasingly trying to influence politics in Central Asia. The main foreign policy instrument of Turkey in the region is the Turkic Council, which on November 12, 2021 at the summit in Istanbul was renamed the Organization of Turkic States, of which Kazakhstan is a member. The summit adopted an ambitious communique, which in particular notes the intention to remove trade barriers between the participating countries, harmonize cultural, youth and educational policies, promote a common Turkic identity, create a common information space and increase political solidarity and mutual support in vital issues of national interest, as well as regional and global issues. This event has caused great concern in the Russian Federation, which believes that Kazakhstan has traditionally been within its sphere of influence.

Over the last 30 years, nationalist sentiments have intensified in the country, the proportion of citizens who communicate in the Kazakh language has increased, as well as the number of ethnic Kazakhs: according to the 2009 census, there were 63.1% of them, and already 69% in 2021. Such internal transformations create an essential basis for the further distancing of the Republic of Kazakhstan from the Russian Federation. This is possible, however, only with internal political stability and development, because any weak state next to the Russian Federation will be drawn into its political orbit. Therefore, in destabilization of Kazakhstan, the Russian leadership saw an opportunity to spread its influence and strengthen its positions in the neighboring country.

Among the great states, the Russian Federation has shown greatest activity with the beginning of the protests. The Russian media were especially active, which, together with some Russian officials, spread fakes about the involvement of the US, EU and Ukraine in organizing the protests. For example, the Russian media massively circulated a statement by political scientist Andrey Suzdaltsev, who said that the Ukrainian special services had allegedly been working in Kazakhstan for several years, «stimulating Kazakh nationalism and inciting groups in the government against Russia». Within Ukraine, a number of experts also unreasonably promoted the narrative of Ukraine's involvement. The platform spreading their misinformation was the pro-Kremlin TV channel «NASH».[1]

In order to prevent manipulation of Ukraine's role, the SSU conducted inspections of Kazakh opposition organizations whose members were in Ukraine at the time of unrest. Together with restrained position of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, this allowed Kyiv not to be involved by Russian propagandists in the conflict that occured. This is evidenced by a statement issued by the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Kyiv. «We now feel that Ukraine empathizes with us. Unfortunately, there are some insinuations aimed at casting doubt on our trusting relationship. There is a spread of misinformation about the «Ukrainian connection» with events in Kazakhstan. But we see that the competent authorities of Ukraine respond to these signals in a timely manner», the Kazakh embassy pointed out in a statement. It should be noted the delayed statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine was, first, focused on the importance of compliance with international law, independence, sovereignty and national law of Kazakhstan, while the presence of foreign troops, according to the Foreign Ministry, should not go beyond term. Secondly, the importance of respect for human rights was emphasized. However, in the line of duty, SSU officers used force against Zamanbek Tleuliyev, a Kazakh opposition activist, thus discrediting the position of the Ukrainian government, which after that was criticized by a number of political groups and activists inside the state.

Besides blaming the West and Ukraine for the events in Kazakhstan, the Russian information field was filled with proposals for the best policy options the Russian Federation should choose. In particular, the editor-in-chief of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan suggested that in exchange for assistance through the CSTO, Russia should demand Kazakhstan to recognize the occupied Crimea as Russian territory, return the Cyrillic alphabet, and recognize Russian as a second state language. Simonyan also considers it necessary to expel «anti-Russian NGO’s» from Kazakhstan and demand an end to «flirting with the Nazis». At the same time, Russian telegram channels called the introduction of Russian «peacekeepers», but in fact - special forces, which according to the international intelligence community InformNapalm, fought against Ukraine in the Donbas and participated in the occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, a «brilliant operation» that will provide Russia with control over Kazakhstan. In addition, this intervention takes place under the leadership of General Serdyukov, who also participated in the Crimea occupation operation.

However, after Kasim-Jomart Tokayev announced his decision to withdraw the CSTO forces by January 21, Russian political scientists began to discuss if Russia should have saved Kazakhstan? And aggressive Russian propagandists began to circulate materials that Tokayev's actions were «a series of demonstrative spit in Russia».[2] The biggest of them is the appointment of Askar Umarov as Minister of Information and Social Development. In the Russian media, Askar Umarov was dubbed a «Russophobe» for promoting the Kazakh language in the country and cooperating with nationalist movements of Kazakhstan.[3] This appointment is probably Tokayev's attempt to demonstrate his independence, because after the internal destabilization and intervention of Vladimir Putin, Russia will try to strengthen its influence in the neighboring state.

Given the negative reaction among the population of Kazakhstan caused by the introduction of Russian troops, the Kremlin has probably rejected the Crimean scenario for the territory of North Kazakhstan, where a large proportion of the Russian-speaking population lives. China's position, which has a significant economic presence in the country, also influenced Russia's decision. However, it is likely that the unhurried withdrawal of Russian troops will not be completed within a defined period of time and Russia will leave certain infrastructure and/or telecommunications facilities under its control. The United States and the European Union had no influence on the events in Kazakhstan, and the restrained statements of Western officials show their weak position in the region. Moreover, American investments in Kazakhstan's oil and gas sector now do not look as secure as before. The Ukrainian government, in turn, successfully overcame the challenges that had arose in the context of the Kazakh crisis and was not drawn into the conflict with Kazakhstan by the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin propaganda.


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