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Tokayev Downplays January CSTO Deployment to Kazakhstan

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Tokayev Downplays January CSTO Deployment to Kazakhstan

In a recent interview, the Kazakh president again pushed back against those in Russia who say Moscow “saved” Kazakhstan in January.

Tokayev Downplays January CSTO Deployment to Kazakhstan
Credit: Kremlin

In an interview with Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 24, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev downplayed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) deployment to Kazakhstan in January. 

Tokayev said some people in Russia “misrepresent the whole situation.” They say, he continued, that Russia “saved” Kazakhstan and now Nur-Sultan must forever “serve and bow at the feet” of Russia. Tokayev called that reasoning “far from reality.” He noted that the CSTO deployment didn’t fire a single bullet while in Kazakhstan and left within 10 days.

The war in Ukraine, which began with Russia’s invasion on February 24, implicitly influences the framing of Tokayev’s comments. After all, Russian rhetoric about Ukraine — for example, President Vladimir Putin’s comments that its statehood is a “fiction” — echoes comments in the past about Kazakhstan. And Russian commentators continue to stir the pot, talking up Russia’s importance at the expense of its partners. In April, Russian filmmaker and TV presenter Tigran Keosayan (who happens to be married to Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT and Rossiya Segodnya) reacted strongly to Nur-Sultan’s decision to not hold a military parade on Victory Day by calling Kazakhstan “ungrateful,” among other nastier comments. “Look at Ukraine carefully, think seriously,” he said, a comment many interpreted as a threat. 

Nevertheless, Tokayev’s efforts to reframe discussion regarding the CSTO deployment pre-date the war. 

In early February, even as Tokayev heralded the CSTO deployment as critical, he had repeated the same details of their short deployment and marginal activity in Kazakhstan. In an interview with the Qazaqstan TV channel at the time, Tokayev defended his decision to request CSTO backup as “absolutely correct.”

“[I]f the peacekeeping contingent had not been brought in in a timely manner, the terrorists would have captured other cities,” he said, doubling down on the state’s unsubstantiated narrative that the violence seen in early January was the result of thousands of terrorists. 

But, even then, he pushed back on those who said Kazakhstan would “owe” Russia for the assistance. Tokayev in February said to Qazaqstan TV that the CSTO is not “ a personal army of Vladimir Putin or Russia.” He said the peacekeeping contingent was common to all member countries and its actions aimed at protecting comment interests. True on paper as that may be, Russian troops formed the bulk of the January CSTO deployment. And although CSTO members have previously requested assistance from the organization, the January deployment was the CSTO’s first — a detail analysts have scrambled to explain.

On January 5, as protests entered their third day across Kazakhstan and began to spiral into violence in Almaty, Tokayev declared a state of emergency and requested CSTO assistance under the organization’s collective security provision. The CSTO agreed to send a “peacekeeping force” under Article 4, which states that, “If one of the States Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty” and provides for other members to provide military assistance. 

The decision was a shock to many observers. Kazakhstan’s unrest in early January seemed very much an internal matter, not the product of an external threat to which Article 4 is designed to respond. This is the heart of commentary suggesting that Kazakhstan could “owe” Putin for the support in a moment of crisis. We don’t know what the internal CSTO discussions in early January were, but the organization had denied requests for Article 4 assistance from Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Armenia in 2021. Ironically, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is the current chair of the Collective Security Council, so he was the one who announced the deployment to Kazakhstan.

At the CSTO summit in Moscow last month, while Tokayev didn’t dwell on the deployment, Putin did. In his remarks he highlighted the CSTO deployment as showing “the maturity of our Organization and its real ability to adequately withstand acute challenges and threats.” He perpetrated the Kazakh state narrative, saying that the CSTO forces, “sent into Kazakhstan for a limited period of time, prevented extremists, including those directed from abroad, from seizing power and helped to quickly stabilize the internal political situation in the republic.”

The CSTO deployment perhaps meant more for Russia, as a way to signal its power and influence, the solidity of its partnerships, and their military might, than it did to Kazakhstan.