Moscow was alarmed by the protests in Kazakhstan earlier this month primarily because they represented an attack of the population against the regime, something President Vladimir Putin has always sought to block lest it inspire people in the Russian Federation. But his concerns on that point were intensified by two other factors as well: First, some of the demonstrations took place in northern Kazakhstan and apparently involved not only ethnic Kazakhs but also ethnic Russians, a sign that the protests in the Central Asian country could become a model for protests in Russia; and second, they occurred at a time when the Kremlin is already anxious about the spread of Islamist radicalism northward from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan into Central Asia and possibly into Russia as well. In response, Putin orchestrated the heavily reported introduction of forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, simultaneously, the less-well-covered increase in Russian military forces to the south of Kazakhstan, along the Afghan border (see EDM, January 18, 19, 19, 2022).
Because the protests in Kazakhstan were most numerous in the majority ethnically Kazakh southern part of the country, and because the authorities shut down the internet, limiting news about the developments, far less is known about rallies in the still-predominantly ethnic-Russian north. But Russian media have reported that “mass protests in Kazakhstan have spilled over into the Russian north of the country,” with demonstrations and detentions hitting Petropavlovsk, which is 60 percent ethnic Russian, and other cities where Russians are either a plurality or a significant minority (Ura.news, January 5, 2022; Pdmnews.ru, January 11, 2022). Given that the demonstrations were sparked and, to a large extent, remained driven mostly by economic concerns—rising prices and the government’s failure to contain them—it is no surprise that ethnic Russians should have participated as well, even if their numbers were far smaller than the number of ethnic Kazakhs, who, in some cases, eventually gave an ethno-national dimension to the protests (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 5, 2022).
But even if ethnic-Russian participation was smaller, Moscow had three reasons for apprehension (Vpoanalytics.com, January 13, 2022). First, Moscow has long been worried that any protests in Kazakhstan could quickly take on an ethnic element given the rising tide of nationalism there and lead to clashes between Kazakhs and Russians (see EDM, December 2, 2021). Such a development would undercut the stability Moscow has counted on in Kazakhstan—a country still inhabited by 3.5 million Russians, the second-largest ethnic-Russian diaspora in the post-Soviet space. The risk has compelled some Russian commentators in recent days to talk about what they see as the need for Russia to seize the northern portions of Kazakhstan much as it now controls Donbas in Ukraine (Apn-spb.ru, January 5, 2022; Dailystorm.ru, January 6, 2022; Stanradar.com, January 10, 2022).
Second, even if relatively few ethnic Russians joined the street rallies, Moscow is nonetheless worried that the Kazakh-dominated demonstrations could cause even more Russians to decide to flee to Russia if the (for now) primarily economically driven popular ire starts to take on an ethnic dimension and inspires attacks on Russians as well as other minorities. At present, only about 50,000 ethnic Russians are leaving Kazakhstan for Russia each year; and only 135,000 migrants of all ethnic groups annually come from Kazakhstan to work in Russia. In the event of violence, those numbers could soar to the level of the early 1990s or even higher. This would reduce Moscow’s leverage in Kazakhstan. But additionally, the wave of immigrants and guest laborers would import to the Russian Federation their attitudes and problems that the Russian authorities certainly do not need at a time of domestic economic difficulty. Some Moscow commentators are already alluding to such an adverse scenario (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 5, 2022).
And third, if massive Russian flight were to become a reality, Moscow would face new challenges in Central Asia. On the one hand, Kazakhstan would become much more like its fellow Central Asian countries—more Islamic, less Russianized, and less the barrier it has seemingly been to the spread of Islamist fundamentalism and the drug trade northward from Afghanistan than has been the case in the past. And on the other hand, a Kazakhstan descended into chaos would likely block the flow of migrant workers from the other Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan is the only state in the region with which Russia shares a physical border), further depressing those more southerly republics’ economies and leaving them ever more exposed to the spread of Afghan Taliban influence and drug trafficking (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 5, 2022).
Such concerns help to explain the rapidity with which Moscow orchestrated and led the dispatch of CSTO forces to prop up the current regime in Kazakhstan, lest the situation spiral out of control and harm Russia in various ways. But these worries (real or imagined) also explain something else: They have added new urgency to Moscow’s efforts to “strengthen its positions on the Tajik-Afghan border,” efforts that were highlighted in talks between President Putin and his Tajikistani counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, just before the Kazakhstan protests broke out (Ura.news, December 27, 2021). With Kazakhstan less the barrier to problems emanating from Afghanistan than it once was, Russia will have even more reasons to try to ensure that other barriers remain in place. As a result of all these factors, the Russian-led CSTO force de facto had a far broader agenda than simply saving an allied regime from attacks by the street. It reflected, at least from Moscow’s point of view, an effort to guard Central Asia and possibly Russia as well from the spread of instability.