This handout picture taken and released by the Russian Defence Ministry on January 14, 2022 shows Russian troops unboarding a military cargo plane upon landing in Ivanovo after compleeting their mission in Kazakhstan. (AFP)
Two events have focussed attention on Russia once again as the New Year dawned. The first being the ostensible military build-up on its borders with Ukraine. Once a part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Ukraine is a nation with whom Russia has a lightning rod history now stretching back into antiquity.
Second is the intervention to stabilise the domestic unrest in Kazakhstan albeit in a multilateral format. It begs the obvious question. Is Russia repositioning itself post the US withdrawal from Afghanistan that has seriously undermined the global credibility and reliability of that nation. If so, towards what endgame?
According to information available in the public space, Russian forces are currently surrounding Ukraine from three sides. A report published in the New York Times illustrates that soldiers, heavy armour and medium to long range artillery have been deployed in a manner that seek to subserve the ends of broadening the theatre of conflict with Ukraine, were the situation to escalate. Both on Ukraine’s eastern and northern borders in close proximity to its capital Kyiv substantial Russian military assets stand arrayed.
Russia has been paranoid since the early 1990s itself about Ukraine and Georgia becoming members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).
Strategic experts have long believed that Russia had commenced putting in place the requisite building blocks focussed on a momentous armed intrusion into Ukraine way back in 2014 itself when it had annexed Crimea. The continuing conflict since then in the heavily industrialised regions of Donetsk and Luhansk also known as Donbas is yet another manifestation of that desire.
The deployment of Russian troops on its borders with Ukraine appears to be in the range of a hundred thousand personal or more, according to analysts who closely track developments in that part of the world. Europe and Russia focussed Western think tanks estimate that Moscow may have drawn up operational plans for military manoeuvres that would take its forces deep into Ukraine involving upwards of two hundred thousand personnel. An operation may well be in the works before the winter ends.
However, there is ambiguity and no real clarity as to why the Kremlin has decided to go down this risky road of confrontation in Ukraine that could spark off unintended consequences not limited too Eastern Europe alone. It could draw Nato into the arc of conflict if the continuing negotiations between the US and Russia in Geneva do not arrive at a modus vivendi leading to a rapid de-escalation.
There would be economic implications as well as Europe is already reeling under the scourge of very high natural gas prices as Gazprom has been withholding gas flows to Europe. Europe’s miseries have been compounded by the non-certification and sanctions imposed by the US on a new gas pipeline Nord Stream-2.
What today are the nations of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus were between the ninth and the 13th centuries a part of Kievan Rus, a medieval superpower that also subsumed huge swathes of Eastern Europe in its embrace. All these three countries trace their cultural ancestry to the Kievan Rus. However, Russians and Ukrainians parted ways linguistically, historically aeons ago and politically once again in August 1991 in the death throes of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
Russian nationalists, however, claim ad-nauseam that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people" — an integral part of the "Russian civilisation". They also take within their cuddle adjoining Belarus. However, Ukrainians are not too enthused by this embrace of the Russian bear.
Moving east to the erstwhile Asiatic region of the former Soviet Union an unexpected inflection point has erupted in the resource-rich Kazakhstan. This former republic of the Soviet Union lies between Russia and China. It is the largest landlocked Westphalian state in the world with a sparse population of 19 million people only.
It was ruled by the erstwhile Communist apparatchik turned strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev for over three decades since it became independent on December 16, 1991. Nazarbayev demitted office in March 2019 but continued to wield substantive power as he continued to control Kazakhstan’s KGB styled security apparatus.
On January 2, 2022, thousands of Kazakhs took to the streets. The ostensible trigger was the lifting of the upper ceiling on LPG prices by the government. However, the bile is far more deep-seated including ire at social and economic inequalities accentuated further by the unremitting pandemic coupled of course with serious anger against a deeply authoritarian one-party state subterfuging as a democracy. Government buildings were torched as angry mobs took control of the airport and other public utilities compelling the current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev — a protégée of Nazarbayev to turn to Moscow for help.
The evolving situation in Kazakhstan presents itself as yet another dare to Moscow. For it represents the third revolt against a totalitarian Kremlin affiliated oligarchy in less than eight years. There were vigorous pro-democracy protests in Ukraine in 2014 followed by Belarus in 2020. The unfolding turmoil portends to undercut Moscow’s economic and geo-political heft as it once again attempts to project power in its near abroad.
Coincidentally, Kazakhstan also matters both to the United States and China, albeit for different reasons. US oil majors like Exxon Mobil and Chevron have invested tens of billions of dollars in the western part Kazakhstan, the epicentre of the current protests. China is also concerned because any serious upsurge in neighboring Kazakhstan with whom it shares a 1,782-kilometre-long border could lead to a seeding of ideas of protest in China that itself today is a capitalist authoritarian regime masquerading as a communist state.
Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan is exceptional in many senses of the word. For it is under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a military alliance composed of Russia and its strongest security confederates in the post-Soviet world. The pact includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The transnational character of the intercession is noteworthy, for it constitutes the first-ever combined deployment of CSTO military personnel in three decades since the inception of this military bloc.
Is Russia, therefore, making a renewed global play beginning in its erstwhile sphere of influence? Given that the US is retreating into a Jeffersonian phase in its history. Only time will tell. However, the pirouetting moves of the Russian bear are worth observing closely in the next few months and years ahead.