On January 5, in response to the then-rapidly worsening national crisis in Kazakhstan, which was triggered by increased fuel prices resulting in popular protests sweeping the country, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev formally requested an intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The following day, the security situation deteriorated further, especially in Almaty where demonstrations turned into widespread looting and destruction of property, including government buildings. Thus, on January 6, for the first time in its history, the Moscow-led CSTO authorized the deployment of military forces in support of the Tokayev regime. The ensuing temporary “peacekeeping” operation by the CSTO in Kazakhstan, January 6–15, marked a turning point for the Russian-dominated alliance (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 12, 2022).
Moscow coordinated and ultimately played the lead role in the CSTO deployment to Kazakhstan, officially characterized as a “peacekeeping operation,” ensuring rapid action to insert forces. The speed of the deployment indicated the use of the CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces (Кollektivnyye Sily Operativnogo Reagirovaniya—KSOR), enabled by Russian military transport aviation under the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) and utilizing mainly constituent force elements from Russia—particularly the Airborne Forces (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska—VDV)—and Russian command and control (C2). Following the creation of the KSOR in 2009, subsequent CSTO exercises involving this unit resulted in agreement among its members to avoid establishing a permanent C2 body based on the CSTO joint staff model; instead, the member countries opted for a VDV-based C2 structure. The KSOR C2, therefore, utilizes a VDV C2 framework, placing the Russian Airborne Forces’ leadership in charge of operations; this is reflected in CSTO military exercises. Based on this organizational structure, it was natural to place the commander of the Russian VDV, Colonel General Andrei Serdyukov, in charge of the operation (Kommersant, January 7, 2022; Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 22, 2010).
Small units from Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were deployed through Almaty and Zhetigen airports. However, the bulk of the 2,500-strong force was provided by the Russian Armed Forces. This was spearheaded by elements from the VDV 98th Airborne Division (Ivanovo) and the 31st Air Assault Brigade (Ulyanovsk), which are assigned to the KSOR. The additional deployment of parts of the VDV 38th Communications Regiment (Medvezhi Ozera, Moscow) and 45th Spetsnaz Brigade (Kubinka), along with Spetsnaz units from the 76th Air Assault Division (Pskov), transcended those formations normally associated with the CSTO. Reportedly, a Russian naval infantry battalion—not traditionally a participant in CSTO military exercises—was sent to protect Kazakhstan’s Caspian port of Aktau. Finally, force elements including Ground Forces mobile automated command posts were also unusual features of the deployment (Izvestia, January 6, 2022).
A series of CSTO military exercises held last autumn shed important light on how the KSOR would be deployed in an actual emergency situation and what its tasks would be. Kobalt 2021 (“Cobalt,” November 15–19) focused on destroying a mock enemy in a populated area, attacks on militant groups by KSOR Special Forces, measures to escort CSTO columns by military police, repelling an attack during maneuvers, as well as the development of air defense and security measures on the march. Nerushimoye Bratstvo 2021 (“Unbreakable Brotherhood,” November 8–12) rehearsed liberating a captured settlement (urban warfare, assault, disembarkation of special forces groups from helicopters, release of hostages, mine clearance), use of electronic warfare (EW) to protect against unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and aircraft, as well as the escort of humanitarian convoys (including mine clearance and security on the march). The drills additionally trained in the deployment of refugee camps and forming roadblocks, based on the experience of Russia’s “peacekeeping” operation in Karabakh. Boyevoye Bratstvo 2021 (“Combat Brotherhood,” October 18–22) concentrated on storming a village captured by terrorists, destroying the simulated group of militants using CSTO aviation, and rehearsing logistical operations in support of allied combat forces (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 13, 2022).
Officially the CSTO operation in Kazakhstan was designated as a peacekeeping intervention. Yet the forces deployed fit neither a classic “peacekeeping” nor the common CSTO models. Russian force elements were mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from VDV formations assigned to the CSTO KSOR. The KSOR can engage in operations to disarm and eliminate illegal armed formations, suppress acts of terrorism, eliminate organized criminal groups, and assist in the security of public facilities or special operations to detect, remove, dispose, transport and destroy explosives. Although the anti-terrorist operation mounted by Kazakhstan’s own defense and security forces targeted the violent fringes of the protest movement following President Tokayev’s “shoot to kill” order, the CSTO forces were notably not involved in such direct action, according to official reports. Instead, they focused on protecting up to 14 state facilities, including airfields, power plants, television and telecommunications centers, military storage warehouses, and civil-military objects (Izvestia, January 13, 2022).
The CSTO peacekeeping operation in Kazakhstan was ultimately limited to the protection of critical infrastructure, with the numbers of personnel spread thinly across a number of national facilities. Moreover, there are five Russian “objects of strategic importance” in Kazakhstan: the Baikonur Cosmodrome, a regiment of transport aviation in Kostanay, a radio-engineering unit in Priozersk at the Sary-Shagan test site, an air-defense and missile-defense test site (Sary-Shagan), as well as the 20th measuring station of the Strategic Rocket Forces in the village of Novaya Kazanka. The Russian Defense Ministry especially emphasized that “by agreement with the Kazakh side, the military personnel of the CSTO peacekeeping forces are not involved in the ongoing operational and combat activities of local law enforcement agencies and army units to establish law and order in the country” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, January 13, 2022).
Ultimately, any such operation must depend on Russia politically and for the provision of forces and transit of other national units. Moscow undoubtedly has strategic interests in Kazakhstan, and it is equally committed to its stability, not least as a key defense and security ally within the CSTO. That said, the underlying reason for Russian President Vladimir Putin agreeing to the deployment of CSTO forces into Kazakhstan seems linked to the portrayal of the protests that morphed into violence against the regime as an attempted “color revolution.” The CSTO mission’s real purpose in practical terms, on the other hand, was to intervene in the political succession crisis between Tokayev and the old guard around former president Nursultan Nazarbayev. Despite Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy, in a real security crisis the country’s leadership notably looked only to Moscow—hence the rapid arrival of the CSTO forces.