I’ve written a short report for an American Enterprise Institute project on possible Russian interventions in neighboring states. I was asked to discuss possible reasons for and trajectories of a Russian intervention in Kazakhstan. You can access the full report through AEI, but here’s an excerpt.
- Kazakhstan’s size and Russia’s lack of significant military presence in the region make outright invasion unlikely.
- Nevertheless, the death or deposition of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev could generate regional instability, which may prompt Russia to intervene in support of a new regime or to undermine a newly empowered Kazakh nationalist one.
- The likeliest cause of intervention would be to put down an Islamist insurgency, either with or without a request from Astana.
Although a Russian military intervention in Kazakhstan is fairly unlikely, there are scenarios under which it could occur. This report first describes several possible scenarios that might result in such an intervention, considering potential Russian responses that range from providing assistance at the request of Kazakhstan’s government to an outright invasion. It then briefly examines the forces Russia could bring to bear in a conflict in Central Asia, looking in slightly more depth at the likeliest scenario—a Russian intervention to suppress an Islamist incursion or uprising.
Possible Scenarios for Intervention in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan’s size would make Russia reluctant to undertake a full-scale military intervention. Still, there are circumstances under which the Russian leadership would feel pressure to use force to intervene in Kazakhstan.
The greatest potential threat to political stability in Kazakhstan would come from the death or incapacity of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Such a situation could be followed by a succession crisis, with multiple groups jockeying for position.
If prolonged government weakness or conflict ensues, radical Islamist groups connected to the Taliban or the Islamic State could seize the oppor-tunity to launch an armed insurgency, potentially combined with an incursion from the south. A weak or divided Kazakhstan government might prove incapable of resisting a well-organized insurgency, especially if the anti-government forces are able to draw on the support of local inhabitants in the more religious (Islamic) southern parts of the country. In such a situation, Kazakhstani leaders might request assistance from Russia. Russia might also intervene on its own without a request for help, but only if Kazakhstan were largely engulfed by instability and Russia wanted to protect its borders or ethnic Russians living in areas near Russia that were under threat.
Although the threat from religious extremist groups is real, it requires some degree of state weakness or division to develop. While scholars have long argued that a crisis precipitated by the death of an aging leader could provide such an opportunity in any of the Central Asia states, the two cases so far of leaders dying in office in Central Asia (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) have both resulted in fairly smooth leadership transitions.
A second, though relatively unlikely, possibility is that Nazarbayev’s death coincides with a difficult period in Russian domestic politics for the Vladimir Putin regime. Whether because of economic problems or political weakness vis-à-vis younger politicians, Putin and his circle might choose to reenact the Crimea scenario in Kazakhstan. The goal would be to boost the regime’s popularity through another injection of militarized patriotism by annexing a territory with a predominantly Russian population. Such territories are located in the north and northeast of the country, directly adjacent to Russian territory. Counting on support from at least some of the local ethnic Russians, Moscow could seek to annex the territories around Petropavlovsk and Kustanay in the north or the territory around Ust-Kamenogorsk in the northeast.
Somewhat paradoxically, a third scenario for Russian intervention could follow a smooth transition of power. In this case, Nazarbayev could be succeeded by a leader who begins to implement a Kazakh nationalist agenda, acting aggressively to remove Russian language from the public sphere and ethnic Russians from positions of authority inside the country. Government policies under such a leader might also shift financial resources away from the northern and eastern parts of the country where ethnic Russian inhabitants predominate.
The leadership might undertake policies to reduce Kazakhstan’s ties to Russia, perhaps going so far as to suspend membership in the Eurasian Union. In doing so, the leadership would bank on expanding already close economic ties with China into the political and security spheres. Such a development would worry Russian leaders, who are comfortable with a division of influence with China in Central Asia as long as Russia continues its primacy in the security sphere—they would be concerned about a Kazakhstani government bent on severing political and security ties to Moscow.
Finally, Russian intervention might also be triggered by mass protests leading to a color revolution, similar to Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine in 2004–05 and 2013–14. The population might be outraged by corruption and repression during tough economic times. As in the first scenario, Kazakhstan’s leadership would need to precipitate the intervention by requesting assistance from either Russia directly or the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Russian leaders would then act in support of this request.