“One lesson in recent history,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned earlier this month, “is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.” As he was speaking, troops from the Moscow-led Collective Treaty Organization (CSTO) were touching down in Kazakhstan amid unprecedented unrest in the country.
Widespread protests that initially broke out over a spike in the price of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), used by many Kazakhs to fuel their cars, saw thousands turn out across the country to protest the decision to end government subsidies. However, issues like poverty, corruption, and a glacially slow transition of power from the 30-year rule of veteran strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev quickly drove more and more people onto the streets. In a series of rapid escalations, which even those inside the Central Asian nation are still struggling to understand, the initially peaceful marches deteriorated into violence.
According to the Kazakh government, 225 people were killed in the clashes and almost 800 are now being held on criminal charges. Despite presenting little evidence to support the claim, the embattled government of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev immediately chalked up the unrest as the work of “foreign terrorists,” with his claims that militants had broken into morgues to steal the corpses of their comrades and cover their tracks being met with derision from analysts. However, the declaration that Kazakhstan was under attack from outside forces provided the pretext for Tokayev to call in the CSTO, the mutual defense pact that binds the armed forces of six former Soviet Republics.
Speaking alongside Tokayev as the crisis was still unfolding, Russian President Vladimir Putin backed his version of events and the use of CSTO troops to maintain order, arguing that “the emerging threat to Kazakhstan isn’t from spontaneous protests over fuel prices, but from the fact that destructive internal and external forces have taken advantage of the situation.” According to Putin, “well-organized, well-managed groups of militants were deployed” and “Maidan technologies” were put into use, referencing the 2014 riots that brought down the Ukrainian government, which the Kremlin has argued amounted to a Western-backed coup.
However, within a matter of days, Blinken’s fears that the stage could be set for Moscow to maintain troops in the country indefinitely appear to have been unfounded. Barely a week after the first Russian, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Armenian, and Belarusian soldiers had put boots on the ground, the Kremlin confirmed that the CSTO’s withdrawal would begin in earnest, with the Kazakh government in control of the country and the mission’s objectives having been completed.
The bloc’s forces may have left as quickly as they arrived, but the episode has polished the CSTO’s credentials as a major power in Central Asia. Its effectiveness and willingness to deploy had previously been called into question with its effective refusal to become embroiled in 2020 in the bloody Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia, a member state requesting help, and Azerbaijan, which withdrew from the pact in 1999. The rationale, officials said, was that as fighting was taking place inside territory considered to belong de jure to Azerbaijan, it had to be defined as an internal conflict and didn’t meet the criteria to trigger Article 4, the mutual defense clause. Both nations are key regional partners for Moscow, which dominates the CSTO and ultimately struck a peacekeeping deal with Yerevan and Baku that saw Russian troops deployed to the region, sidelining the military bloc.
However, as skeptical as many are about Tokayev’s arguments that the Kazakh crisis was the result of external aggression, it circumvented the problem Armenia encountered and sets a precedent for intervention. The fact that Kazakhstan was not facing off against another major Russian ally, and the prospect of destabilization in a geopolitically sensitive region, likely contributed to the decision, but the CSTO has shown it is prepared to act, and that it can make a timely withdrawal at the request of national governments. Both of those things make invoking Article 4 far more of a viable prospect for the primarily Central Asian countries that make up its membership, but may have been skeptical of whether the CSTO could be relied upon to send troops when needed, and to take them away again when asked.
There are no end of potential hot spots where such an intervention is within the realms of possibility. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have had fractious border disputes with each other and with neighboring Uzbekistan, a former member of the CSTO, since the demarcation lines came into force following the collapse of the Soviet Union. While much has been done to settle tensions in past years, the recent showing from the bloc makes further violence even less likely and tips the scales in favor of those inside the pact. Likewise, there have been predictions for several years now that global warming is driving drought in Central Asia, and that there could easily be a return to violent clashes seen as a result of water scarcity. Again, Moscow working through an increasingly assertive CSTO goes a long way to reduce the risk of an all-out conflict and unrest.
However, there is another major power in the region that could easily see its nose put out of joint by a Russian-led coalition. China has spent decades strengthening its hand in Central Asia and wields enormous influence as a result. But there has historically been an unspoken agreement between the world’s largest nation and its most populous nation that Moscow handles regional security while China has free run of the economy. Indeed, Beijing has a lot to lose from destabilization in the region, but — as Igor Denisov pointed out in a piece for The Diplomat last week — China was relatively muted as the violence broke out in Kazakhstan, expressing no concerns about the CSTO mission and backing the diagnosis that a foreign-sponsored coup could be in progress.
That said, China’s strategic irrelevance when it mattered most to Tokayev hardly underlines the swing in power from Moscow to Beijing in the years since the collapse of the USSR, and the fact Russia appears to have acted regardless of China’s wishes highlights the reality that the two nations are far from united allies with no competing interests. The CSTO may have acted in exactly the way Chinese officials might have hoped for this time, but it will serve as a reminder that there are still forces dominating the former Soviet Union that it can do little to control.
As the dust settles on the brief and bloody Kazakhstan crisis, major questions remain about the reasons behind the violence and what it means for the country’s nebulous network of elite infighting. What is clear, though, is that the CSTO likely isn’t finished with Central Asia yet.