Recent turmoil in Kazakhstan highlighted another Russian-Turkish fault line in Central Asia
Long seen as the pole of stability in Central Asia, Kazakhstan recently faced its most serious political crisis. What began as a public reaction to a spike in fuel prices in the western oil-producing regions rapidly spread across the country with unprecedented calls for reform, before escalating into violence in the country’s biggest city, Almaty.
The protest movement in Kazakhstan quickly turned violent as protestors seized and set alight government buildings. After failing to quell the unrest, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev launched a counter-terror operation to regain control of the situation, and appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for military assistance.
On 5 January, the CSTO agreed to dispatch its peacekeeping forces. In a Facebook post, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the Chairman of the CSTO Collective Security Council, confirmed that the CSTO will send peacekeepers to Kazakhstan at the country’s request.
But questions remain: Why did Kazakhstan request Russia’s help and choose Russia over the Turkic States? How did Russia, China, and Iran view the events? What was Turkey’s position, and did Turkey have a role in this crisis?
A crisis in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan holds a strategic position in Eurasia, not merely due to its large oil reserves and uranium deposits, but also to its proximity to Russia, China, Iran, and the South Asian sub-continent. Kazakhstan’s security and stability is a vital interest to all major powers.
Throughout the former presidency of Nursultan Nazarbayev, Astana had sought to establish a system of collective security in Eurasia that would avert the emergence of a single dominant power.
Kazakhstan’s ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy was able to balance and pursue cooperative relations with all major powers. Even as a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Kazakhstan has sought to diversify its security relations and retain its freedom to establish and maintain international partnerships.
However, a recent change in the pricing of liquefied petroleum gas and the reduction of national fuel subsidies led to a price spike in a matter of days, driving people to protest.
The peaceful protests turned into violent anarchy in a matter of hours, as protestors and armed groups stormed government buildings, igniting clashes with security forces.
The view from Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran
Unlike the Syrian crisis, which Moscow responded to with intense military intervention four years after it started, it took President Vladimir Putin only two days to send Russian-led CSTO troops to contain the crisis in Kazakhstan.
Moscow viewed the crisis within the framework of its struggle against international terrorism and ‘external forces’ that seek to destabilize countries on its borders and pose a threat to its national security.
Russia’s quick reaction and its military deployment under the CSTO umbrella were unprecedented, catching many foreign analysts by surprise. Moscow’s measures showed who had muscle in Central Asia, and that a similar event in South Caucasus cannot be repeated in Kazakhstan, or share an arrangement with a new ‘rising power,’ namely, Turkey.
Michael Tanchum, a Senior Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), told Nikkei Asia that the Russian-led CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan was “an important cautionary signal” for Turkey and the Organization of Turkic States, and “that their ambitions should not outrun their capacity.”
This was a clear message that events in Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be replicated in Central Asia; that is, Russia will not share even temporary parity with Turkey in Central Asia.
However, Ivan Bocharov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), believes that there is no strong evidence that Turkey was involved in the situation in Kazakhstan. Bocharov argues that it is unlikely Turkey could initiate the dispatch of peacekeepers to Kazakhstan.
“Turkey and Kazakhstan do not have such military-political memoranda as, for example, Turkey had with the Government of National Accord of Libya. That is, there are no legal grounds for Turkish military presence in Kazakhstan. This applies to both bilateral relations between Turkey and Kazakhstan, and multilateral formats, including the Organization of Turkic States,” Bocharov explained.
Separately, Kazakhstan is an important member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing is therefore concerned that instability in a neighboring country could threaten energy imports and BRI projects, and security in the Uighur-heavy western Xinjiang region, which shares a 1,770-km border with Kazakhstan.
For this reason, China welcomed the CSTO military intervention, its foreign minister stating that China was willing to “jointly oppose the interference and infiltration of any external forces,” and to help oppose interference by external forces.
Moreover, China’s President Xi Jinping told the Kazakh president that China resolutely opposes any foreign force that destabilizes Kazakhstan and engineers a ‘color revolution.’
Iran, too, was wary that any attempt to destabilize Central Asia could pose an economic and national security threat. Since its ascension to full membership in the SCO in 2021, Iran views Kazakhstan as an increasingly important trade partner in Central Asia.
On 6 January, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh addressed the violence in Kazakhstan, affirming that Tehran was closely monitoring the ongoing unrest and and its effect on the country’s security and stability.
Tehran is vigilant toward the perceived US role in destabilizing Central Asia, which could pose a threat to its own security.
Russia, China, and Iran also recognize the violent events in Kazakhstan as a chain of ‘color revolutions’ instigated by the US and other western powers to achieve regime change and to destabilize Eurasia.
Whether justified or not, these three countries together tend to contain US expansion in Central Asia. The recent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has worried regional actors, insofar as radical Islam combined with discontent among the young toward post-Soviet leaders, may undermine domestic social cohesion.
A ‘mixed reaction’ in Turkey
Turkey’s aspiration to lead the greater Turkic world and become a Eurasian power has been met with a reality check. Turkish social media was not pleased that a Turkic state would ask for security assistance from a Russia-dominated CSTO, and not from Turkey.
While Turkish officials took a neutral and diplomatic stance, opposition activists, media figures, and military experts had different opinions.
On 6 January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held talks with leaders of the Organization of Turkic States members to confirm that Turkey stood in solidarity with Kazakhstan.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his Azerbaijani and Russian counterparts about the situation in Kazakhstan, but refrained from commenting on developments in the country.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s parliament speaker Mustafa Sentop, AKP spokesman Omer Celik and Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin all reaffirmed the official position that Turkey stands with Kazakhstan and hopes the country quickly attains peace and stability.
Turkey’s opposition leaders, however, expressed dissatisfaction with Turkey’s passive stance. Turkish nationalist İYİ opposition party leader Meral Aksener warned that her party was “closely following the development of events in fraternal Kazakhstan,” indirectly hinting at CSTO intervention when she stated that her “main desire is to preserve the independence and stability of Kazakhstan.”
Former PM Ahmet Davutoğlu, currently the founder-chairman of the opposition Future Party, tweeted “… it is also concerning that because of those developments they [the Kazakhstan’s leadership] had to ask help from the CSTO chaired by Armenia.”
The specter of a Turan/Pan-Turkic army
This incident paved the way for a serious discussion within the Turkish military about the possibility of the creation of a Turan/Pan-Turkic army in the future to assist Turkic countries in their security or military needs.
While Turkish officials have taken a cautious and neutral stance on Russian and CSTO involvement in Kazakhstan, Turkish military experts had a different opinion.
Retired Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci, who served as chief of staff of Turkish Naval Forces until 2020, told local media that “a Turan army should be established.”
Yayci said it was unacceptable for Armenian forces to enter Kazakhstan in the name of peacekeeping forces. Retired Brigadier General and former Turkish attaché in Azerbaijan Yudzhel Karauz also expressed a similar view, saying that the Organization of Turkic States must take steps to create a joint armed force.
“At the very first meeting of the organization, legal measures should be taken regarding the creation of a joint military force and real steps must be taken. If we are late, we may cause irreparable damage. What is happening now in Kazakhstan can happen in other fraternal republics,” the retired general said.
These remarks caught the attention of Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, who asked about the possibility of a future peacekeeping mission mandate for the organization.
Minister Akar told reporters: “These are all possibilities and all possibilities are on the table. As developments unfold, any such measures can be taken.”
Such comments will surely be monitored closely in Moscow and Beijing.
Furthermore, Turkish conservative media outlets and reporters took to venting their dissatisfaction with the CSTO intervention in public. The conservative Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit blared the headline: ‘Only Turkey is interested in a strong Kazakhstan.’
Yeni Akit newspaper called on Ankara to take the same active role in resolving the escalation in Kazakhstan as in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Syria, and Libya. It also called for the creation of a Turkic-Islamic army to resolve such issues.
Meanwhile, the Turkish opposition newspaper Karar produced an interview with the leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev, with the headline ‘Who will now lead the Russians out of Kazakhstan?’
According to Dzhemilev, the number of Russian troops in the region will grow steadily. Accusing Kazakhstan’s president of “betrayal,” he stated that “the independence of Kazakhstan is at stake.”
Finally, Yusuf Erim, the TRT World editor at large, tweeted: “The only acceptable peacekeeping force to assist in stability in Kazakhstan is an Organization of Turkic States peacekeeping force, which should only be deployed at member state Kazakhstan’s request. Reports of Russian PMCs/Russian-led coalition is nothing less than an invasion.”
It seems Erim forgot that the Organization of Turkic States is not a military alliance tasked to conduct such missions.
Yet such reactions show that, despite Turkey’s passive approach, at least publicly, Turkish society and the overall political and military mood were not in favor of CSTO action and preferred to see a greater Turkish role in Kazakhstan.
Mission accomplished for Russia
For Ivan Bocharov, events in Kazakhstan have shown that Turkey is not yet a military or political superpower in Central Asia. Despite this, he has stated that Turkey’s strong diplomatic and political positions in Central Asia should be considered, alongside its historical and cultural kinship with Central Asian countries.
Regional powers, therefore, should not belittle Turkey. According to Bocharov, the recent events in Kazakhstan will not just expose the limitations of Turkey’s aspirations; they will also become a driver for Turkey’s future activity in Central Asia.
Of particular note was the urgent meeting President Erdogan held with the heads of Organization of Turkic States member countries, after the entry of CSTO peacekeepers into Kazakhstan.
Further steps may be taken to improve the efficiency of Turkey’s military-technical and military-political cooperation with the countries of Central Asia, but how successful this strategy will be is yet to be seen.
Bocharov believes that the effectiveness of military cooperation will increase, but the level of their military-political integration will not reach the level of the CSTO.
The Russian-led operation was, however, carefully calculated. Contrary to assumptions of western mainstream media that CSTO peacekeepers will participate in the “crushing of the civilians,” Russia and the CSTO limited their roles to securing key assets to allow Kazakh security forces to address the violence.
On 12 January, the Kazakh president announced that he had requested the CSTO troops to leave Kazakhstan, as the country had now stabilized.
“The main mission,” Tokayev said, “of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed,” he said, thanking his allies.
The next day, President Putin met his Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, and stated: “It’s time to return home. We have accomplished our task.”
Without a single drop of Russian blood, Russia had engaged in military intervention and prevented a CSTO member from falling into anarchy.