Streetwise Professor

January 7, 2022

Kazakhstan: Putin Putting the Band Back Together

Filed under: China,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:51 pm

Kazakhstan has been rocked by days of massive unrest, including attacks on government buildings (including the presidential palace), and large numbers of killed among both security forces and civilians.

The supposed catalyst for the uprising was a rise in liquid petroleum gas (LPG) prices–LPG being a fuel widely used for cooking, heating, and transportation.

This is plausible. Authoritarian regimes can persist despite a deeply unhappy populace because of coordination problems, exacerbated by preference falsification. A rise in the price of food and fuel hits the entire population, and can serve as a focal point on which masses can rally in coordinated opposition. Many rebellions and revolutions start for such reasons, but once they start they are difficult to contain even if the government reverses the initial catalyst, as Kazakh president Tokayev did with LPG. The opposition has coalesced. People know that many share their broader disgust with the rulers. And their is courage in numbers. So even though the spark has been extinguished, the fire can continue to burn.

But I suspect there is more to it than that. Intra-elite conflict is also likely an important driver. Tokayev had succeeded Nazarbayev, but the latter remained powerful, chairing the Security Council. Shortly after fighting erupted Tokayev fired Nazarbayev. Shortly after that, Nazarbayev and his family fled the country. Tokayev also restored the name of the capital (Astana) in lieu of Nur-Sultan (which was an homage to Nazarbayev). It is therefore likely that a conflict between factions is the real underlying cause of the uprising.

One striking thing is that the oppositionists appear to be fairly heavily armed. That would make sense if many of them are effectively militias for one of the elite factions.

Russia, using the beard of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a poor simulacrum of the USSR), has intervened, sending paratroops to assist Tokayev in crushing the revolt. Apparently ground troops are also massing at the border, and units from the Far East are also being mobilized.

The speed with which Russia reacted is intriguing. It suggests considerable foreknowledge. Perhaps they had good intelligence, could see what was developing in the country, and were ready to act lickety-split if things went pear shaped–as they did.

Or perhaps the Russians knew because they were behind it. They have exploited unrest in Belarus to bring that country largely under Russian control. They are likely to do the same here. It wouldn’t be the first time a country stoked a revolution in another in order to provide a pretext to move in.

But regardless of whether gaining greater control over Khazakstan by intervening to stamp out a rebellion they stoked is part of a plan, or the uprising merely presents an opportunity to do so, there is little doubt that this will be yet another step in Putin’s ambition to put the band (i.e., the USSR) back together.

And Putin does believe he’s on a mission from God.

That’s the goal, surely. But it is easier said than done. Kazakhstan is an immense country. In point of comparison, it four times the size of Afghanistan. Unrest has already spread to all major cities. Yes, it looks like the capital of Astana (at least the government areas) is back under control, but securing many far flung cities and maintaining lines of communication would require far more troops than Russia has. (Recall how quickly it secured Kabul in 1979. Recall how securing Kabul did not translate to controlling the country.) And securing the countryside–forget about it.

Indeed, the immensity of the task is one reason to believe Russia did not foment the uprising, but is instead extemporizing.

Further, this presents a great opportunity for the United States to wage asymmetric warfare against Russia. You know that will be alleged–hell, the government has already blamed it on foreigners. In this case, it is likely to be true. Which will increase the cost of Russian intervention.

Another couple of points. First, although Russia has garnered all the attention, the elephant in the room is China. China borders Kazakhstan. Crucially, Xinjiang borders Kazakhstan, and China is neuralgic about that Muslim province. Moreover, China has extensive economic interests in Kazakhstan. Even though Putin and Xi have been lovey-dovey of late, that’s only been where their interests aligned. There is some alignment of interests in Kazakhstan–neither wants to see it descend into chaos or worse yet assert its independence–but Xi also has no interest in seeing Russia become dominant there and muscle out China. Russia attempting to dominate Kazakhstan will create friction in China.

Second, Ukraine may catch a break for once. The paratroops that Putin dispatched to Astana would be the spearhead of any invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, Russian military capacity (manpower, logistics) is likely insufficient to execute two large operations over such vast spaces (and on two different axes to boot). As noted above, Kazakhstan’s vastness can easily gobble up large numbers. If the Russian involvement in Kazakhstan proves more than fleeting, and especially if it absorbs tens of thousands of troops (not to mention the logistical resources necessary to operate in such a huge country), its ability to attack Ukraine will be reduced commensurately.

Sometimes revolutionary fervor dies out almost as quickly as it starts. But sometimes it doesn’t. Geography alone makes crushing the revolution difficult. And those difficulties may make Kazakhstan Putin’s Ulcer.

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  1. You assume the idiots in DC would know what asymmetric warfare is, let alone, conduct it. They’d probably blame it all on Trump.

    Comment by The Pilot — January 7, 2022 @ 7:57 pm

  2. I admit that my first thought on hearing the news from Kazakhstan was “Goodness me, somebody in DC thought of using the indirect approach to the Ukraine problem”.

    How easily one becomes cynical. Anyway, will it be any more successful than the US efforts in Syria?

    Comment by dearieme — January 8, 2022 @ 6:25 am

  3. The Russia / China axis / faultline is very interesting. China has 7% of the world’s landmass and 18% of the world’s population so is severely lacking in natural resources especially farmland. To the north lies Siberia, which is obviously huge and sparsely populated. Strategically they would love to gain control over the area, and the more their military advances the greater the threat. At some point this will become much a more prominent issue. It is already live with the “lost territories” issue which will probably grow as an economically stagnating China becomes more nationalistic. Perhaps an interesting undercurrent to current developments?

    Comment by David — January 8, 2022 @ 8:38 am

  4. Don’t know if I can find it again, but a videographer of the Kazakhstan uprising dismissed the petrol explanation. He said the final straw was the government’s attempt to require a vaccine passport to access one’s own bank account.

    The uprising was against covid-totalitarianism. One wonders if the like will find its way to Australia.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 8, 2022 @ 9:46 am

  5. Here it is:

    “Plazma” says its due to QR codes and vaxx passes.

    I twice tried to post the bit*hute address but WordPress didn’t publish.

    Comment by Pat Frank — January 8, 2022 @ 9:54 am

  6. @Pat: I wonder if this will get through.


    Make the obvious swaps and see if it works.

    Comment by dearieme — January 8, 2022 @ 10:37 am

  7. It is therefore likely that a conflict between factions is the real underlying cause of the uprising.

    That’s what my Kazakh friend believes. She is absolutely livid that the government – the police and the army – just abandoned Almaty to looters.

    Comment by Tim Newman — January 8, 2022 @ 3:34 pm

  8. This rather eccentric blogger was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004. His view on Kazakhstan is interesting:

    Comment by dearieme — January 8, 2022 @ 5:48 pm

  9. I know you are suspicious of the NYT but did you see the piece on Arman the Wild aka Arman Dzhumageldiev?

    Just as the US Army recruited the Cosa Nostra to help in Sicily, so it seems one of the elite groups thought a big-time gangster might help enliven the action in Almaty. And it worked. Like a dream. The go-to stratagem of secret police down through the ages: agent provocateur.

    The biggest obstacle – IMHO – to Russian action in KZ as opposed to, say, Kiev, sorry Kyiv, is that yer Slav tends to stand out when surrounded by Kazakhs. Little Green Men tactics are unlikely to work (except in Northern KZ where the ethnic Russians are a majority). And it’s not just physical appearances. Yes, the KZ elite still speak Russian but the peasantry and lower classes less and less so.

    Anyone fancy a slug of kumiss? Sheep brains? Sheep eyes? Yummy

    Comment by Simple Simon — January 9, 2022 @ 10:50 am

  10. David
    The Chinese already outnumber ethnic Russians in Far East Russia. I know plebiscites are rarely in the playbook of communists but might Xi decide to make an exception?
    No? Thought not. Not yet anyway.

    Comment by philip — January 9, 2022 @ 6:59 pm

  11. Excellent post – far more insightful than what I’ve read in the news. Thanks!

    “Comment by Tim Newman — January 8, 2022 @ 3:34 pm”
    He lives! 🙂

    Comment by HibernoFrog — January 10, 2022 @ 4:38 am

  12. “Further, this presents a great opportunity for the United States to wage asymmetric warfare against Russia”

    Wait what?! So Ukraine and the Sahel are deemed not worth the effort, but a remote, isolated, inaccessible country in central Asia with a huge border with Russia is considered fair game? Bejesus.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 10, 2022 @ 4:42 am

  13. A bit of googling suggests the price of LPG in Kazakhstan went from ~$0.12 to $0.22 per liter. This is essentially (except for Algeria @ $0.09/liter) the lowest price in the world.
    World pricing runs in the $0.70 to $1.00 per liter range (US ~$1/liter). LPG fuels most cars as well as home heating and cooking in Kazakhstan. So seems like a big jump but shows how socialist countries work and underlines that the price rise is only a small part of the reasons for the uproar. LPG also known as propane and part of ‘natural gas liquids’.

    Comment by sch — January 13, 2022 @ 9:53 pm

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