Putin on two fronts

I’m sometimes reluctant to write about Russian foreign policy because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a supporter of Vladimir Putin. I’m not; although I respect his skills, I think his influence on the world (as on Russia itself) has been mostly negative.

But I don’t share the common narrative of Putin as a scheming mastermind who poses an incessant threat to his neighbors. I see him much more as an opportunist whose primary aims are defensive and whose occasional offensive moves are driven by circumstances and limited in scope. Nor do I think his grievances against the west are entirely imaginary, although of course they should not be taken at face value.

Putin’s intentions have been the subject of much speculation for the last month or two due to the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border. I’ve written about the Russian-Ukrainian dynamic before (see here, here and here for recent examples), and my view hasn’t really changed: I still think, as I said last April, that Putin doesn’t want war and that “[d]étente in Ukraine is a win-win proposition.”

And now there’s a new factor, with an uprising last week in Kazakhstan. For those who haven’t been following, Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested and received Russian military assistance (under the label of the “Collective Treaty Security Organisation”, a Russian-led counterpart of NATO) to suppress opposition that started with protests over fuel prices but quickly escalated into widespread attacks on Tokayev’s regime.

Unlike the superficially similar cases of Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and Afghanistan 1979, this Russian intervention was not to overthrow a neighboring government but to support one. But the basic idea is the same, namely to keep Russia’s borderlands in friendly hands as much as possible.

So in a broad sense there is some analogy with the 2014 Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine, as Lena Surzhko Harned argues in the Conversation. But the analogy should not be pushed too far; Ukraine was an offensive operation, contrary to international law, in which Putin has become bogged down, whereas his troops are in Kazakhstan at the request of a government that still controls its own territory.

It’s not as if Putin has been looking for an excuse to intervene in Kazakhstan – he would much prefer that Tokayev stay in power without his assistance. But he can’t afford for him to fall, and he equally doesn’t want to see him negotiating with the opposition, which would set a dangerous precedent.

It’s only a couple of weeks since western hawks were eagerly fantasising about the possibility of simultaneous attacks by Russia and China on (respectively) Ukraine and Taiwan. Now instead it’s Putin who faces commitments on two fronts, with masses of troops still close to Ukraine (even if only for show) even while 70 planes are reportedly ferrying soldiers into Kazakhstan.

It’s not clear whether the Russians are participating in the actual crackdown on the Kazakhs, but either way it has been exceptionally violent, with more than a hundred people killed and thousands arrested. But although both Putin and Tokayev describe the opposition as “bandits” and “terrorists” with whom it would be unthinkable to negotiate, Tokayev has already given them a large part of what they want with the departure of long-term ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Nazarbayev was president of Kazakhstan from its independence in 1991; he resigned in 2019 but stayed on as chairman of the security council and was generally seen to have remained in charge, with Tokayev as his stooge. Last week, however, he was removed from that post and his close ally, intelligence chief Karim Massimov, was arrested and accused of treason. Some reports say Nazarbayev has left the country, although that has been denied.

There is some suggestion that, rather than any sort of popular movement, the uprising was just part of a struggle for power within the ruling elite. That seems unlikely, but it certainly looks as if Tokayev has taken the opportunity to break free from his predecessor’s control and establish his own authority – with the aid of his powerful neighbor.

Meanwhile, Russian negotiators in Geneva have reiterated that there is no plan to invade Ukraine, and the Ukrainians seem to be mostly going about their normal business in the knowledge that while some further Russian incursion cannot be ruled out, it remains extremely unlikely.

Putin may hope to win some concessions from the west by making threats, but he knows he has nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from carrying them out.

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