Putin and Tokayev’s camaraderie in the January crisis in Kazakhstan

  • Kazakh President Tokayev and Russian President Putin’s camaraderie emerged in January when Russia led CSTO troops into Kazakhstan to push back fighters. 
  • The intervention has given Tokayev full power in Kazakhstan but will also likely increase Russian influence in the country. 
  • It is yet to be seen how Tokayev will manage to manoeuvre Kazakh foreign policy in the face of the Sino-Russian entente and waning Western influence in the region. 

Why are Tokayev and Putin in camaraderie? 

Answer: Kazakhstan’s​​ President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev seizes full control of the country, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s help. 

After the Kazakh government cut subsidies for fossil fuels in the beginning of January, the price of liquified petroleum gas more than doubled and mass protests erupted in the country. In order to better address the crisis, ​​President Tokayev began to undertake a series of drastic reforms to the power sharing arrangement he had with his predecessor, former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. 

On January 5, Tokayev declared that he would be taking over the powers of the Security Council of Kazakhstan, which had been headed by Nazarbayev until then. He also fired the head of the National Security Committee as well as his deputy, the former a Nazarbayev loyalist and the latter Nazarbayev’s nephew. Many viewed that Tokayev was in fact using the present crisis to oust Nazarbayev and secure himself full power. 

The very same day, well organised and trained fighters took over certain key locations in the country such as the headquarters of the National Security Committee, the presidential palace and the airport in Almaty. Nazarbayev and forces loyal to him seemed to be behind these attacks. However, Tokayev was able to maintain control thanks to the military backing he received from Russia and other Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) members. 

On the night between January 5 and January 6, forces began arriving first from Russia and then from Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. CSTO troops effectively pushed back the fighters and restored the functionality of key state facilities. This in turn allowed the Kazakh forces to then quell the unrest and re-establish stability in the country. On January 11, only a few days after the arrival of CSTO armed forces, Tokayev declared that the CSTO mission was complete. 

The final remaining CSTO troops withdrew on January 19. The CSTO, headed by Russia, helped Tokayev gain full power in Kazakhstan. It also gave him legitimacy by showing that Kazakhstan’s allies supported him. This was a major change for Tokayev, who had until then mostly been viewed as an interim figure rather than Nazarbayev’s true successor. 

Putin was equally eager to give Tokayev a helping hand as it consolidated Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan and confirmed its status as security guarantor and thus major regional power. At first glance therefore, Tokayev and Putin seem to have equally gained from their recent cooperation. 

However, Tokayev did not wait long to declare that the CSTO mission was complete, fearing that the public would quickly grow annoyed with the prolonged presence of foreign armed forces in the country. Indeed, greater Russian influence in the country is not only unpopular among the Kazakh population but also constrains Tokayev’s space for diplomatic manoeuvre.   

What is driving Putin?

Answer: Putin seeks to illustrate Russia’s resolve to defend its spheres of influence and have leverage in the region.

Putin has been driven by a desire to bring back Russia’s international prestige. He believes that Russia’s diminished standing in the world stage after the Cold War is largely due to a set of injustices inflicted by the West but also weak leadership in Russia that has failed to prevent or respond effectively to these events. Although Putin has rarely if ever criticised Gorbachev and Yeltsin directly, it is clear that he does not view the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and later Russia in the 1980s and 1990s in a positive light. 

Throughout his political career, Putin has sought to show the West that he will regain or protect Russia’s control over what he considers to be its sphere of influence. This is evident from Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as recent events in Kazakhstan. The quick deployment of CSTO troops and push back of armed protesters showed the West that Russia will not refrain from using military force to protect its interests during the time of negotiations over Ukraine. 

Aside from the symbolic purpose of Russian interference in Kazakhstan, the decisions had more tangible reasons with regards to China. Being the regional security provider benefits Russia, as it allows it to counterbalance China’s significant economic influence and maintain its status as a great power with the right of intervening in the region.

It also seems to benefit China. China’s President Xi Jinping, like Putin, has an aversion toward any social unrest that has the potential of growing into a colour revolution. He therefore does not take issue with Putin’s interference as it puts a check on civil unrest that threatens to undermine government stability and spill over into other countries of the region.

Putin and Xi Jinping hence seem to have an agreement for Russia and China to divide military and economic influence among them. Moreover, the Sino-Russian entente is likely to remain stable, as it suits both leaders in the face of increasing rivalry with the West. However, should Xi Jinping decide that China should play a more salient role as a security provider in the region, Putin may respond by using Russia’s leverage to set the price of Kazakh oil and gas exports to China.

What is driving Tokayev? 

Answer: Tokayev seeks to balance between competing foreign influences in Kazakhstan and handle his own shortcomings in order to push forward social and economic reforms.

Tokayev has close ties with both Russia and China. After graduating from his hometown Almaty in Kazakhstan, Tokayev went on to study foreign relations at the Moscow state institute. During his studies Tokayev specialised in Chinese affairs and learned to speak Mandarin fluently. He went on to serve as a Soviet diplomat in the 1980s in the embassy in Beijing. This experience equips him well to deal with Russian and Chinese influence in Kazakhstan. 

A shrewd diplomat, Tokayev has also sought to secure an independent foreign policy for Kazakhstan by triangulating between Moscow, Washington and Beijing. Tokayev’s decision to accept Putin’s help could be viewed as jeopardising such a goal. However, it must be borne in mind that US influence in the region has decreased, thus making it far more difficult for Tokayev to resist Russian influence, especially as Russia and China further align their interests.  

Tokayev is also a vastly different profile of leader than Nazarbayev which has both its benefits and costs. For instance, unlike Nazarbayev, Tokayev does not come from Kazakhstan’s working class. During the protests in January, Tokayev stated that if Kazakhs continued protesting they would “destroy their own future.” However, Kazakhstan has a rapidly deteriorating standard of living and many Kazakhs do not feel that they have a very bright future in the country anyway. 

These statements helped reinforce the perception that due to his origins, Tokayev has a disconnect with the working class. Yet at the same time, Nazarbayev has accumulated great wealth in recent years by way of the oil industry. The fact that Tokayev is not a wealthy businessman renders his promises of economic diversification and income redistribution through new tax models more credible.  

However, there is one thing that Tokayev will struggle to compensate for and that is that Nazarbayev’s historical role in Kazakhstan’s independence made him a unifying figure. Moreover, while Nazarbayev has sought to repopulate Kazakhstan with Kazakhs in areas with larger Russian populations, he was also good at creating a sense of brotherhood among the various ethnicities in Kazakhstan. 

In sum, Tokayev will need to rethink how to act in the face of great power redistribution in the region. He will also need to find a way to move away from the previous regime in order to restructure Kazakhstan’s society and economy while at the same time not alienating Nazarbayev completely so as not to disrupt the stability in the country.

What is Tokayev doing?

Answer: How Tokayev will handle increased Russian influence is unclear but domestically it is obvious that he has opted for negotiation with Nazarbayev. 

With regards to foreign issues, Tokayev is using foreign influence for domestic purposes. Unable to push back armed protestors on his own, Tokayev had no choice but to accept the aid of the Russian led CSTO. What the price of Russian support will be is yet to be seen, and heavily depends on whether the US will decide to re-engage in the region.

Kazakhstan is an important country in Central Asia for the Biden administration as the US has billions of dollars of energy investment in Kazakhstan. For instance, Chevron and ExxonMobil have interests in Kazakh oil and gas fields. Kazakhstan is equally important for US strategic interests considering that it shares borders with Russia and China. Many Russians as well as Ughirs live in Kazakhstan. 

Kazakhstan is also important for US efforts to deal with terrorism in the region, especially following the seize of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan in August, 2021. However, the US influence in the region has slowly declined as the US became a bystander in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, withdrew chaotically from Afghanistan in 2021, and did not take action in the face of the 2022 crisis in Kazakhstan. 

With regards to domestic issues, on January 14, Samat Abish, the deputy head of Secret Services and Nazarbayev’s nephew, returned to his post. However, the head of security services himself did not. A few days later, on January 19, Nazarbayev made his first televised appearance since the crisis in January had started. He condemned the terrorist attacks undertaken by “organised extremist groups” and stated that Tokayev now had full power over the country. 

It seems that Tokayev decided to opt for negotiation with Nazarbayev and those loyal to him. Moreover, a compromise appears to have been reached between Nazarbayev and Tokayev. On the one hand, Tokayev agreed not to purge Nazarbayev’s family from power. On the other hand, Nazarbayev recognised Tokayev’s full control. This allows Tokayev to keep domestic stability by showing the public he has amicable relations with Nazarbayev while at the same holding the power to undertake the reforms he desires.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: Central Asia will continue to be a stable region but at the cost of reduced state independence in the face of waning Western influence. 

Many factors threaten to destabilise the region including terrorism and extremism, especially after the fall of Kabul in August. Putin and Xi Jinping are both aware of these challenges and view them with great concern. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that they will not allow for a cooperative relationship to be replaced by competition. 

For instance, increasing Chinese presence in Tajikistan has not generated backlash from Putin. In October of 2021, Tajikistan announced that China would build a Police Academy for the Tajik Ministry of Internal Affairs, allegedly in exchange for full control of a military base in Tajikistan. Putin seems to have understanding for such actions, having once stated that China needs to build a defence policy in the region in order to defend its national security.  

Equally, Xi Jinping has not criticised Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan. After Tokayev requested aid from the CSTO on January 5, Xi Jinping sent him a verbal message on January 7. He praised how Tokayev had handled the crisis and offered China’s own assistance. There is therefore no indication that China was in any way hurt by Putin’s intervention. 

While the region is therefore likely to remain stable, a historical trend of greater state independence will probably end. Countries such as Kazakhstan were able to successfully push forward their state interests by triangulating between Russia, China and the West. However, Kazakhstan will now see its independence reduced as Russia asserts its influence with no Western action to constrain it.