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Crisis in Kazakhstan Halts Putins Ukraine Attackfor Now

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Russias been prepping for invasion of Ukraine for months. But a sudden escalation in violence in neighboring Kazakhstan might throw a wrench in Putins plans.

Adam Berry/Getty

Protests over spikes in fuel prices and political corruption have escalated in Kazakhstan in recent days, leading to violence across the nation, with rioters torching buildings and police cars, confrontations between demonstrators and troops, and dozens of civilian deaths, according to Reuters.

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On Wednesday, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev announced the governments cabinets resignation. The unrest has caused the Biden administration to urge Americans in the country to shelter in place, according to a U.S. State Department alert.

But the instability in Kazakhstan right now could have broader repercussions, and could alter Russias calculus on invading Ukraine, as Moscow scrambles to respond to the unrest in the ex-Soviet country on its southern border. Russian efforts to intervene are aimed at simmering tensions to regain stability in the regionbut there are threads of Russian nationalism in intervention as well, experts say; Russian nationalists have long claimed parts of Kazakhstan should be returned to Russia.

Rob Lee, Russia military analyst and Ph.D candidate at Kings College London, told ishonest that even though Russia has amassed hundreds of thousands of troops and equipment on its border with Ukraine, Russia likely doesnt want to try handling two crises requiring military resources at the same time.

If Russia wanted to start a ground invasion in Ukraine or it wanted to escalate the situation, they would want everything else to be as calm as possible, Lee told ishonest. I dont think Russia would try to escalate with the current situation going on.

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Some of Russias forces that would normally be deployed to address the situation in Kazakhstan are currently stationed along Ukraines border, further complicating Moscows ability to invade Ukraine, according to Lee.

Portions of Russias 41st Combined Arms Army, for instance, are currently stationed near Ukraine and Belarus right now.

These would likely be used in this scenario if Russia needed to deploy forces to Kazakhstan, and right now those forces are near Ukraine or elsewhere, Lee said. A lot of the normal units they would send are not there. It kind of catches Russia, I think, a bit off guard.

Making Russian President Vladimir Putins calculations even trickier is that Russia clearly didnt have a Kazakhstan crisis on its bingo card, according to Michael Kofman, the research program director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a Virginia-based national security research organization.

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Its fair to say that Kazakhstan is naturally a significant distraction for them, Kofman told ishonest. They are responding to a crisis they didnt expect.

Of course, Russias interests in invading Ukraine are longstandingand Moscows current assessment of the threat it sees coming from Ukraine is acute given U.S. and NATOs work with Ukraineso the Kazakhstan crisis may only temporarily blunt Russias plot in Ukraine. But any reprieve is a welcome one.

For the time being, its less likely youd see an imminent invasion of Ukraine, Lee said. That doesnt mean that the risk of a Russian escalation in Ukraine over the next few months reduces that much necessarily because the problems with Ukraine are long-term issues.

Russia has already begun to dedicate resources to the crisis in Kazakhstan, the ninth-largest country in the world by size. Russia and a Russian-led military alliance akin to NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), have sent forces into Kazakhstan in the last daya move experts tell ishonest is the first deployment of assistance ever from the CSTO. The resources Russia has dedicated to the cause include those from Russian Aerospace Forces, according to CSTO. The units main goals will be to protect state and military facilities and to help law enforcement.

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Russia diverting attention to Kazakhstan could be an indication of Russias interest in strengthening its position in the broader region and in Kazakhstan, which many Kremlin allies have called to be returned to Russia.

Interventions like this are not impartial, and few things in geopolitics in fact no thingsare ultimately free, Kofman said, suggesting that the CSTO deployment could signal Russias continued interest in shoring up regional power. Without doubt, for Russia this is a challenge, but it also represents an opportunity to really solidify Russian influence or improve Russian influence in Kazakhstan depending on how the crisis pans out.

The Biden administration is aware of this fact, and for now is observing the deployment for any attempts that might lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said in a briefing Thursday.

But the fact that Russia is able to partake in the current response doesnt suggest that Russia is moving away from its plans with Ukraine altogether, Jeffrey Edmonds, a former Russia director on the White House National Security Council, told ishonest. Instead, it could be a signal Russia is more prepared than ever to advance in Ukraine.

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Russias speed and ability to deploy military units to Kazakhstan and its decision making process should reinforce the idea that Russia is more than willing to invade Ukraine, said Edmonds, a former CIA military analyst.

In any case, the deployment to Kazakhstan appears relatively small compared with Russias deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops to Ukraines border. The CSTOs secretary general, Stanislav Zas, said in a recent interview with Russian outlet Kommersant that the deployment is hovering around 2,500 peoplefor now.

No matter the course the Kazakhstan emergency takes, Russia still likely has its eyes on Ukraine. And Kazakhstan wont be a long-term obstacle for Russias designs on Ukraineif its an obstacle at allEdmonds told ishonest.

I dont know that this is going to be an enduring problem, Edmonds said.

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Putin will likely continue to view Ukraine as a more intense threat to Russia than Kazakhstan, Edmonds added. And while the Biden administrations response to Russias buildup along Ukraines border so far has been to threaten economic sanctions and provide defensive measures, its a response that has reaffirmed Putins belief that Ukraine poses a threat to Russia, cementing Ukraine as a top priority for Moscow.

Instability in the post-Soviet space is obviously something Russia is very concerned with [but] the situation is more acute in Ukraine, Edmonds said. Ukraine still remains the number one issue for them right now.

As U.S. and Russian officials approach talks in Geneva in the coming days, Russia may now be caught a little flat-footed when it comes to negotiating.

They wanted to maintain focus on the upcoming talks in Geneva and maintain coercive pressure as well, Kofman said. Knowing that Moscow must manage the situation in Kazakhstan and is in the midst of conducting this intervention, even though its quite small, somewhat weakens Moscows overall position.

Read more on: thedailybeast, ukraine

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