By: Alexander Begej, Columnist
Photo by: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin
President Vladimir Putin’s popularity in Russia is not nearly as strong as it once was. Though Putin will unquestionably win the 2018 presidential election in March, civilian unrest can soon graduate to a regime threatening uprising if it is not kept in check through foreign policy victories. In this analyst’s opinion, Russia will invade Kazakhstan within four to six years because Vladimir Putin will seek to exploit a vulnerable neighbor to boost his popularity for the 2024 Russian presidential election. Like Ukraine in 2013, Kazakhstan will soon be reorienting itself away from Russia, experiencing a disruptive domestic political environment, and threatening Russian assets in the region.
President Putin’s initial popularity in Russia was backed by major economic improvements as GDP per capita in Russia grew from $1,771 to $15,543 between 2000 and 2013, only to have it cut to $8,748 in 2016.[i] International economic sanctions and the drop in oil prices have degraded Putin’s economic credibility, threatening his rule. In fact, on Putin’s birthday in 2017, thousands of Russians marked the event with mass protests in over 80 cities nationwide in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.[ii] Because he can no longer deliver economic success, Putin has turned to his newly developed military might to help maintain general popularity.
By asserting Russia’s newfound military strength, Putin is fostering a sense of nationalism that feeds off of foreign policy achievements. The country’s aggressive international power moves have consisted of annexing the Crimean peninsula, committing forces to preserve Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and standing up rather than bowing down to the West. This strongman approach has proven more than popular among his nationalist base. In the case of Crimea, the annexation skyrocketed Putin’s approval rating from 61% to 85%[iii] and signaled to his domestic audience that their sacrifices are producing genuine results. When preparing for the 2024 election, President Putin can expect a seizure of Kazakh territory to yield similar results.
The Chinese are encroaching on a region traditionally part of Russia’s sphere of influence through the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, an ambitious trading network that aims to facilitate commerce from East Asia to Western Europe. Kazakhstan lies centered along this intercontinental route and receives generous Chinese investment to modernize transportation networks, develop infrastructure, and connect with markets outside of Central Asia. By embracing OBOR, Kazakhstan can overcome its lethargic economic situation and diversify its economic portfolio while ameliorating the economic concerns of disgruntled Kazakhs. Though Russia and Kazakhstan are both founders of the Eurasian Economic Union, China is providing Kazakhstan economic relief that the Russians simply cannot match . In 2016, there were 668 Chinese companies operating in Kazakhstan, a 35% increase from 2013. And according to Ardak Kasymbek, managing director for economics and finance at Kazakhstan’s state energy company KazMunayGas, China controls up to 30% of all oil extraction in Kazakhstan.[iv] OBOR’s economic benefits are fostering a closer Sino-Kazakh relationship and may soon find itself outside of Russia’s sphere. Recently, two countries in Europe have tried escaping Russian influence, Ukraine and Montenegro. In response, Putin invaded one and attempted a coup in the other. The future may not be looking so bright for Kazakhs after all.
Kazakhstan is growing increasingly vulnerable in light of the region’s dynamic changes. While the Kazakh elites express widespread support for OBOR, the initiative has engendered waves of Sinophobia.[v] In addition, radical Islamic groups are growing increasingly popular in response to high corruption, a weak judiciary, and wealth inequality.[vi] Despite these domestic disturbances, President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been key to overcoming divides and developing Kazakhstan into one of the more stable former Soviet states.
President Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan, virtually unchallenged, since the country’s independence in 1990. Throughout his 27-year reign, he led his country through the post-Cold War transition period, placated ethnic tensions, and cleverly navigated his country through a region riddled with great, minor, and unstable powers, while courting Western investment.[iv] His current sixth term will likely be his last. By the 2020 Kazakh presidential election, Nazarbayev will reach 79 years of age and will have held office for 30 years. Though many regional experts believe Nazarbayev is preparing for a power transition in 2020, it is hard to imagine a Kazakhstan without its first, current, and only president.[vii][viii]
A post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan will likely threaten the state’s internal cohesion. The subsequent political environment could see a nationalist leader whose policies seek to reduce ties with Russia, a wealthy businessman favoring a greater Sino-Kazakh relationship, or an internal conflict erupting along ethnic lines. While Nazarbayev took heed of Putin’s warnings and was careful not to isolate the ethnic Russian minority, it is uncertain whether Nazarbayev’s successor will be equally prudent. Russia would likely find these shifts in policy as a threat to their various security assets in the country.
Just as it did with Crimea, Russia will likely invade Kazakhstan to protect its security interests and the Russian ethnic minorities when the state is at its most vulnerable. Russia has several assets in Kazakhstan that will need “protecting” such as military installations, the Baikonur Space Center, and the various Kazakh oil refineries upon which Russians rely. Publicly, Putin will declare his responsibility to protect the Russians population along Kazakhstan’s northern border and will not have to venture far to secure their safety. In all, geographically concentrated interest, a fractured Kazakh state, and an open steppe would make for a swift military victory.
It is unlikely Putin would be so bold as to take military action against a European state. Any further overt expansion into Europe would trigger a significant response from a paranoid West. However, the invasion of Kazakhstan following the 2020 power transition would be a low-risk operation garnering little to no Western retaliation. It will secure Russian assets, protect ethnic Russians, and galvanize support for the 2024 Russian election. For Putin the opportunist, the timing will be just right to invade a state, he feels, is choosing the wrong side.
[i] “Russian GDP per capita .” World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=RU
[ii] “Anti-Putin protests mark Russian president’s birthday.” Financial Times. October 7, 2017. https://www.ft.com/content/88506d02-ab69-11e7-aab9-abaa44b1e130.
[iii] “Putin’s Approval.” LevadaCenter. November 2017. https://www.levada.ru/en/.
[iv] Toleukhanova, Aigerim. “Kazakhstan & China: Fear, Loathing and Money.” Eurasianet. June 21, 2016. https://eurasianet.org/node/79336.
[v] Snow, Shawn. “Central Asia’s Lukewarm Pivot to China.” The Diplomat. August 16, 2016. https://thediplomat.com/2016/08/central-asias-lukewarm-pivot-to-china/.
[vi] “A Troubling Scenario for Kazakhstan.” American Enterprise Institute. January 17, 2018. http://www.aei.org/publication/a-troubling-scenario-for-kazakhstan/.
[vii] Anceschi, Luca, and Bruce Pannier. “Is This Kazakhstan’s New Transitional Government?” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. September 23, 2016. https://www.rferl.org/a/is-this-kazakhstans-new-transitional-government/28008984.html.
[viii] Deutsche Welle. “Kazakh President Nazarbayev plans to give certain powers to parliament.” Deutsche Welle. January 25, 2017. http://www.dw.com/en/kazakh-president-nazarbayev-plans-to-give-certain-powers-to-parliament/a-37274430.