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Timothy Ash: What Kazakhstan unrest means for Ukraine amid upcoming US-Russia security talks

January 5, 2022 9:05 PM 2 min read
Protesters storm the mayor's office in Almaty, Kazakhstan's biggest city, on Jan. 4, 2021. Mass demonstrations broke out in Kazakhstan in early January following a spike in fuel prices. (Courtesy)
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Editor’s Note: The following are the analytical notes that Timothy Ash, senior strategist at Bluebay Asset Management, distributes to his subscribers. The Kyiv Independent is reposting it with permission.

Despite fighting talk from Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, it’s unclear whether he has the support of enough of the security forces to re-impose control in the country where demonstrations have erupted over the weekend following a spike in fuel prices.

Reports are of security forces surrendering to the demonstrators and of Almaty airport also falling.

In the end, the question is whether Kazakh security forces are willing to fire on their own people, and as of writing the answer seems to be no.

So Tokayev’s days in office seem to be numbered unless he gets outside support.

He could get external security support from Russia, Belarus or less likely Uzbekistan (Kazakhs and Uzbeks are regional rivals and going to Tashkent for support would be seen as almost treacherous by most Kazakhs).

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely furious by events on the ground and will no doubt blame the West/CIA.

This is a threat to Putin on multiple fronts:

  • He hates coloured revolutions as these make him fearful that Russians could in turn rise up to overthrow him.
  • He hates the prospect of a more liberal Kazakhstan turning to the West - he still sees Kazakhstan as falling under the Russian strategic umbrella.
  • He fears political instability in Kazakhstan could provide a breeding ground for Islamic extremism feeding then through to southern Russia.
  • He is fearful of the security and status of Kazakhstan’s large ethnic Russian population which is largely located in northern Kazakhstan adjacent to Russia.
  • This is an afront to Putin’s vision of a Eurasian Union, which Kazakhstan has been a member of. Unrest in Kazakhstan implies things are not all sweetness and light and people in the Eurasian Union are discontented - unrest in Belarus underlines this image of the common economic space between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan not working.
  • It’s an afront to his vision of autocracy and sovereign democracy.
  • Kazakhstan had been presented as a model for Putin’s own retirement - following former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s move to the position of father of the nation, a position that has clearly proven unsustainable. Putin now should worry about his own retirement.

If Tokayev is unable to deploy sufficient security forces to stabilize the situation then Putin will. Expect little green men to appear soon on the streets of Kazakhstan.

Failing that, expect Russian forces to annex northern Kazakhstan to protect ethnic Russians.

And how does this play to the Geneva talks between Biden and Putin on Ukraine?

Putin is likely to be smarting about developments in Kazakhstan and hence less likely to compromise over Ukraine - he will just see developments in Kazakhstan as another Western plot against him. He is also likely to be smarting and looking for a big win on Ukraine as a diversion from his humiliation in Kazakhstan.

Biden will likely see the situation in Kazakhstan weakening Putin - the US will appraise the situation as making it less likely that Putin would risk a crisis on two fronts. So Biden is less likely to compromise. So I would surmise that this makes the situation in Ukraine more, not less dangerous. Putin the wounded leader and Biden feeling to be in the ascendancy.

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