Following the 2022 violent unrest in Kazakhstan, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sent military forces to the country, just a month before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In this interview, Alexander Libman and Igor Davidzon draw on their International Affairs article to show that the CSTO intervention served symbolic goals in the form of solidarity with Kazakhstan’s political regime rather than actually suppressing the unrest.
Moreover, China’s presence in central Asia ensured that the operation remained symbolic. This draws larger conclusions about the political motivations behind military interventions.
What is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)?
Igor Davidzon: The CSTO is a regional security organization consisting of six members: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced these countries to look for alternative solutions to security problems and brought them to this regional arrangement for cooperation. While it started as a treaty, it upgraded to a military and political alliance in 2002.
Alexander Libman: The CSTO countries undertake regular military exercises and commit to provide each other defence in case of external threats. Though if you look at the membership structure, you can see that one country is not like others: Russia. Since Russia has the bulk of military capacity in the CSTO, it will ultimately be up to Russian forces to develop organizational activities.
What happened in the ‘Bloody January’ of 2022 that led Kazakhstan to request military assistance from the CSTO?
Alexander Libman: Bloody January was an absolutely unexpected event. For the last three decades, Kazakhstan was a paradigmatic example of a stable autocracy. There were some local protests occasionally, but the government successfully dealt with them.
Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan, was in full control of the country since the mid-1990s, when he completely consolidated his power and eliminated any sources of opposition. Then, in 2019, he did what not many autocrats dare to do. He resigned, quoting his old age, and left his close ally, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as the new president. Nazarbayev became the chairman of Kazakhstan’s Security Council to control the actual politics without being president.
Amidst this slow political transition, riots broke out in key cities of the country, including Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, in early 2022. Lots of people protested originally because of increasing gas prices, but later they demanded that the government should change. The protests quickly turned violent, which led the government to claim that Kazakhstan was descending into chaos.
Igor Davidzon: Tokayev claimed that Kazakhstan was faced with danger from outside. It was a classic pretext for calling Russia and other states for assistance.
Alexander Libman: While Tokayev claimed that there was external involvement in early 2022, there is no evidence to support this.
How did the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan unfold?
Igor Davidzon: As Kazakhstan requested military assistance, the CSTO sent a very small force, the majority being Russian troops. It was a crucial condition of the intervention that no CSTO military unit, be it from Russia or elsewhere, would actually fight on the streets. As a result, the CSTO forces did not partake in the suppression of the protests and instead only performed military exercises and protected strategic objects like the airport and the presidential building.
Alexander Libman: A few days later, Tokayev claimed that the riots were suppressed and the problem was resolved. The CSTO troops left Kazakhstan soon after and declared the intervention a success without having fired a single shot.
Looking back, we analyse the situation as quite paradoxical! It looks like the CSTO only intervened because they knew that Kazakhstan could manage its domestic situation on its own. In other words, the intervention was not designed to suppress unrest in Kazakhstan in the first place. Rather, it was a purely symbolic intervention to demonstrate solidarity with Tokayev’s regime through the presence of troops. That’s why we call the intervention a ‘spectacle’ in our article.
Who benefitted from the CSTO’s intervention in Kazakhstan if it was purely symbolic?
Alexander Libman: Both for the Kazakhstan government and the CSTO states, especially Russia, the intervention was a win-win scenario. Firstly, from Tokayev’s perspective, the intervention showed that the CSTO endorses his control in Kazakhstan, allowing him to consolidate power and weaken the political position of former president Nazarbayev. It was also a clear signal to other political forces in the country, including those associated with Nazarbayev, that the Kazakhstani president enjoys international recognition from Moscow and other post-Soviet states.
Importantly, the fact that Tokayev was only interested in getting symbolic support and not an actual intervention from the CSTO meant that Tokayev did not become massively dependent on Russia, which would have been the case if Russia sent a larger military mission for a prolonged period.
Igor Davidzon: Secondly, it is in the common interest of the CSTO states to achieve political solidarity in times of crisis and ensure stability of their domestic political regimes. The intervention allowed them to show that they can support other members in the future during similar crises. Moreover, the CSTO has repeatedly sought to avoid overt military intervention in the past. So, a ‘symbolic’ operation helps support their aims without breaking from the past mode of operations.
Alexander Libman: Finally, the CSTO intervention showed Russia as the arbiter of conflict in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, they didn’t risk soldiers which is also very important because street fights in a foreign country are hardly going to be popular. We should also not forget that January 2022 was a bit more than a month before the start of the invasion in Ukraine, and it was important for Russia not to have too much military capacity invested somewhere else.
How can the CSTO’s intervention be understood in the context of Russia and China’s power balance in central Asia?
Igor Davidzon: China and Russia understand that since they operate in the same backyard in central Asia, they must maintain a balance of power.
Chinese officials emphasize very strongly the importance of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and clearly signal to Russia that it should not break its understanding with China. The Chinese factor was crucial in ensuring that Moscow did not change its mind and that the CSTO operation in Kazakhstan remained symbolic.
Alexander Libman: China makes sure that Russia plays by the rules in central Asia.
Despite receiving military assistance from Russia in 2022, Kazakhstan does not support its invasion of Ukraine. Why?
Alexander Libman: The Kazakhstani government did what it is very good at: trying to benefit from the situation without alienating its neighbours. Tokayev said that he is not going to support Russia’s sanction breaking.
In April 2023, they introduced a monitoring system to ensure that certain goods don’t flow from Kazakhstan to Russia. Moreover, Tokayev said that Kazakhstan does not recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk and called them ‘quasi-states’. While Kazakhstan has managed to not alienate Russia, they are also not absolutely supporting what Putin does.
The most important point from our research is that the CSTO military intervention didn’t have a substantial impact on Kazakhstan’s foreign policy at all. The fact that there were CSTO troops on the ground during the January 2022 riots had absolutely no implications on Kazakhstan’s ability to behave as if these tools have never been there.
Specifically, the Russia-led interventions did not affect the capital Astana’s multivector foreign policy which is designed to avoid deepened cooperation with and dependence on Russia. This policy implies the cultivation of diversified relations with several actors such as the USA, European states, China and Western regional organizations like the NATO and the EU.
Igor Davidzon: While Kazakhstan’s policies haven’t changed, the Ukrainian war has been a watershed event in the region. The invasion has increased mistrust between Russia and the CSTO states. I think that because of this mistrust we will not see similar operations like the one in Kazakhstan in the near future.