For three decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, oil- and uranium-producing Kazakhstan was, to all appearances, the most prosperous and stable of its former Central Asian republics. To be sure, President Nursultan Nazarbayev monopolized political power, using it to enrich himself, his family and his friends. Now 81, he has remained influential even after stepping down in favor of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev nearly three years ago. The Kazakh people, better off economically than most others in their region, seemingly went along. The United States — valuing Mr. Nazarbayev’s support on nuclear nonproliferation and the Afghanistan War as well as his welcome to Western oil companies — adopted a friendly attitude toward the regime, too.
Events since Jan. 2 have shown how brittle the status quo really was. A fuel price hike triggered protests in one town that day, and the uprising quickly grew into an all-out national insurrection. Eighteen police officers were killed, according to official reports. Meanwhile, forces loyal to Mr. Tokayev used violence, including live ammunition, against demonstrators — whom he called “terrorists” — claiming dozens of civilian lives and sending hundreds to hospitals, according to reports trickling out despite a government-imposed Internet shutdown. Mr. Tokayev has not only issued a shoot-to-kill order but also cast blame on what he called “supposedly free media outlets,” portents of a coming crackdown on peaceful dissent.
Also ominously, the regime has made false charges of foreign subversion to justify a military intervention by Kazakhstan’s closest ally, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Russian boots on the ground, like Mr. Putin’s support for Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko against protests in 2020, demonstrate the strategic priority he places on propping up fellow autocrats, so as to preserve a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. To be sure, the Belarusian protests were nonviolent and Putin’s assistance to Mr. Lukashenko relatively discriminate. The goal, though, is consistent: prevent a repetition of the 2014 revolt that toppled a corrupt, authoritarian, pro-Moscow ruler in Ukraine. Mr. Putin undoubtedly calculates that, if it survives, Mr. Tokayev’s government would be beholden to Russia.
Kazakhstan’s sudden crisis might also reverberate in Ukraine, on whose borders Mr. Putin has massed roughly 100,000 troops, making accusations and demands against the United States and its allies — and refusing to rule out an invasion. Kazakhstan could make an invasion of Ukraine less likely, by diverting Russian military resources and consuming Mr. Putin’s attention. Or the Russian leader could seize on the events in Central Asia as yet another purported Western-instigated destabilization in Russia’s “near abroad” and — as such — a fresh rationale for direct Russian domination of Ukraine.
No matter how Mr. Putin plays it, the Kazakh crisis provides the Biden administration a reason to double down on the principles it has already articulated ahead of U.S.-Russian negotiations Sunday and Monday in Geneva. Russia’s neighbors have a right to self-determination, and their peoples are entitled to human rights. Moscow has no right to impose its will on Ukraine or any other country through force. Any attempt to do so should be met with a swift, strong and unified Western response.
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