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Opinion Putin can’t afford crises in both Kazakhstan and Ukraine

Russian paratroopers board a military cargo plane to depart to Kazakhstan as a peacekeeping force at the Chkalovsky airport, outside Moscow, in this image released Jan. 6. (Handout/AFP/Getty Images)

Even though the Kazakhstan government shut down that country’s Internet, shocking news continues to emerge of the violent protests there that have prompted harsh police retaliation nationwide. That, in turn, has resulted in dozens killed, government buildings aflame, a survival struggle for the ruling regime and a fresh crisis for that regime’s main benefactor, Russian President Vladimir Putin. The West should use Putin’s new problem to dissuade him from recklessly starting another crisis in Ukraine.

To be sure, Putin has long preached about reasserting Russian control over all the former Soviet territories, including Kazakhstan. Putin has said the country was artificially invented by former prime minister and president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who founded and ruled it for more than three decades as a thinly veiled dictatorship, mimicking Putin’s own model. Though still pulling strings behind the scenes, the now-81-year-old Nazarbayev has clearly lost control of the situation, forcing him to run to Putin for emergency help.

For the first time, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has deployed troops inside Kazakhstan, supposedly at Kazakhstan’s request, to fight regular citizens the government now calls “terrorists.” It’s still early, and much is unknown, but there’s a real risk that the Kazakhstan crisis could turn into a quagmire Russia wasn’t planning for.

“This is an unprecedented and an unimaginable scenario, where the government that prided itself as being strong and stable would appeal to this Russian-led organization to intervene, when this organization has never done anything like this before,” said Erica Marat, associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University. “This is basically Kazakhstan surrendering its sovereignty to a Russian-led military force. … It’s beyond anyone’s imagination.”

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Marat cautions that the causes of the Kazakhstan crisis are domestic, rooted in decades of social inequality, corruption, poverty and the government’s failure to honor its original promise of a more inclusive and diverse political system. It’s not really about Putin. It’s about socio-economic issues and the broken social contract between the people and the regime.

But now that Putin and Nazarbayev have turned the Kazakhstan domestic crisis into a geopolitical event, it’s impossible to ignore the implications for U.S.-Russia relations, which are reaching a tipping point over Ukraine. Putin’s amassing of 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s border was meant to force the West into negotiations over Moscow’s unreasonable demands, such as NATO retreating to its 1997 borders. As far as that goes, it worked. Top U.S. officials are headed into a series of meetings with Russian officials next week.

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But Putin could not have known Almaty would be burning to the ground just as his brinkmanship with Kyiv and Washington was coming to a head. Today, he cannot really know if he will need those Russian troops sitting on the Ukrainian border to deploy to Kazakhstan soon. His risk calculation has definitely changed — and not in favor of invading Ukraine.

“The unrest in Kazakhstan poses a question for Putin: Should he continue his intimidation campaign on his western flank, or should he address the dangers to his south? Or can he do both?” former ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan John Herbst wrote Thursday for the Atlantic Council. “At the moment, Putin is trying to have his cake and eat it too.”

The West should exploit this vulnerability to make sure Putin can’t hold Ukraine hostage and assume military control of Kazakhstan at the same time. Nobody is suggesting the United States intervene directly in Kazakhstan, which would validate President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s absurd allegations that the protesters are foreign-supported. Rather, we should increase support for Ukraine in both the military and diplomatic domains, to convince Putin that attacking Ukraine now would be disastrous for him.

On the military front, the Biden administration has still not agreed to give or sell Ukraine several items it needs to make the cost of an invasion prohibitively high for Putin. The Ukrainian military needs equipment for electronic warfare, air defense, intelligence support, anti-sniper systems, advanced communications technology and helicopters. In November, the Biden administration sent over two patrol boats.

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On the diplomatic front, Biden officials are warning Moscow of severe economic consequences if it invades. At the same time, Biden is sending a team led by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to meet with Russian officials in Geneva on Jan. 10. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Churchill said. But there’s no logic in granting Moscow concessions, essentially rewards for its aggression, at the very moment Putin’s leverage is waning.

Putin is an opportunist, evil but rational. If an aging dictator can’t hold on to power, that’s a bad precedent for Putin’s own near future. He has no choice when it comes to preventing Kazakhstan from falling under the control of Nazarbayev’s opposition, China or — even worse — its own people. But he doesn’t have to launch a new, costly war in Ukraine. For Putin, that’s a dire dilemma. The West should take advantage.