A common theme in Western discussions of the Sino-Russian relationship is that a “wedge” must be driven between them. The argument goes that such a wedge would reduce Russia’s and China’s collective threat to the West by forcing the two countries to expend time and resources countering one another. Last week’s unrest in Kazakhstan has been analyzed in these terms, with commentators arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been forced to react to the instability to prevent a further expansion of Chinese influence in Central Asia and reaffirm Russia’s role as the regional hegemon.
This perspective is only partially accurate. Russia does act assertively in its near abroad to justify its claims to regional hegemony and great power status. But events in Kazakhstan do not demonstrate divisions within the Sino-Russian relationship in Central Asia; rather, they show the durability of the relationship even after the withdrawal of the United States and other Western countries from Afghanistan last summer. Both Russia and China win in this situation, at the expense of the Kazakh government and, ultimately, the Kazakh people.
The geopolitical relationship between Russia, China, and the five post-Soviet Central Asian states has variously been described as “matrioshka hegemony” or, more recently, an “authoritarian security community.” What links these ideas is that the relevant actors all share an alignment of core interests far stronger than any specific disagreements that may arise between them. Consequently, even as China’s influence in Central Asia rises, Russia’s declines, and the Central Asian states attempt to balance the two, unexpected events such as the unrest in Kazakhstan can do little to derail long-term cooperation. This durability is aided by the extent to which the region is politically and culturally connected to Moscow as the former imperial metropole, with China being in a poor position to take over the mantle of regional hegemon from Russia at present.
The cooperation between Russia, China, and Central Asian governments is primarily security-driven. All three share an interest in maintaining the stability of the region, limiting violent religious extremism, and opposing Western interference in the form of democratization and human rights promotion. Motives between actors differ, but there is a high degree of cooperation toward these ends.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) focuses its military cooperation on anti-terrorism and, as a vehicle for Chinese security involvement in the region, has been used to fund the internal security apparatus of, for example, Tajikistan. The recent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has worried regional governments, including Russia and China, insofar as radical Islamism combined with discontent amongst the young toward post-Soviet leaders is undermining domestic social cohesion.
Meanwhile, though the West has drastically limited its involvement in the region following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, concerns linger in Moscow and Beijing about Western influence; Western aid to Central Asian states was, in the 2000s and 2010s, often linked to human rights promotion. Central Asian leaders proved adept at making such promises without fulfilling them, in part to build economic relationships with the West as well as to balance against Russian and Chinese influence. Moscow and Beijing are therefore particularly suspicious of grassroots protest movements, which, to them, can appear to be repeats of the color revolutions that have periodically rocked post-Soviet countries.
In security terms, China has proven willing to accept Russia’s hegemony over Central Asia. Its engagement has been through the SCO, which Russia is happy to accept because it institutionalizes Chinese participation in the region’s security arrangements and forces Beijing to adopt a multilateral stance. In addition, Chinese training and funding supports the goals Russia pursues. As China’s power continues to outstrip Russia’s, the latter has tried to diplomatically counter by drawing India into the SCO as a Russian partner (though China also succeeded in bringing in its ally, Pakistan).
So long as Russia remains the primary security guarantor to Central Asian states, it can continue to accrue the status of a great power with concomitant rights of intervention in the region. Central Asian governments benefit from this arrangement in that the continuation of authoritarian rule is guaranteed while they retain a modicum of freedom of maneuver by counterbalancing Russia and China.
Tension in Central Asia arises mostly from China’s expanding economic influence. It is here that China’s rapid growth is most obvious, as investments in the Belt and Road Initiative offer more rewards to Central Asian states than membership in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union does. This economic imbalance is replicated in the Sino-Russian relationship itself, as Russia becomes increasingly dependent on Chinese investment and Chinese markets.
Nevertheless, these concerns are not enough to derail the Sino-Russian relationship within Central Asia because, for Moscow, the regional priority revolves around security. Specifically, so long as Russia remains the only country with an automatic right of intervention in the region (and the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan is, essentially, a Russian intervention under the cloak of multilateralism) then they can justifiably call themselves a great power. In other words, Russia’s priority is to have the right to define the limits of sovereignty for the states in its near abroad. So long as China is only the second most important security guarantor in Central Asia – and that looks likely to be the case for a long time – Russia can cope with disagreements as they stand.
What does this mean for the unrest in Kazakhstan?
First, it is a domestic issue that should not be conflated with current tensions in Eastern Europe between Russia and the West. Doing so misrepresents the source of the anger amongst Kazakh citizens, who are frustrated at their country’s poverty, corruption, and political stagnation. Such conflation also provides Russian and, to some extent, Chinese commentators with justifications for their claims of Western interference in Central Asia, allowing them to legitimize the violent crackdown.
Second, the deployment of Russian troops is in the common interest of both Moscow and Beijing. Western countries, having withdrawn from Afghanistan and deprioritized the region, have little leverage with which to manipulate the situation to suit their strategic goals. A corollary of this point is that Central Asian governments lack a third major power in the region if they wish to counterbalance joint Sino-Russian interests.
And third, it means that the biggest losers of the past week will be the Kazakh government and, ultimately the Kazakh people. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev knows now that his position – and the position of the wider Kazakh political elite – is reliant on active Russian support, and that China is complicit in that support. Some analysts suggest that Tokayev requested CSTO assistance in part because his own security forces could not be trusted. He will not be able to balance the two powers in order to maintain the freedom of maneuver he is accustomed to.
The “multi-vector” foreign policy of Kazakhstan has been severely degraded by the week’s events. And that means that the political space in Kazakhstan has shrunk. Protests, which were initially met with Tokayev’s acceptance of the protesters’ demands, will now be treated as a security threat not only to Kazakhstan, but to the wider region.