Russia Squeezes Kazakhstan – WSJ

Vladimir Putin‘s invasion of Ukraine has exposed deep failures in Russian strategic culture and undermined Russian prestige across the West. Viewed from Almaty, in the foothills of the Tian Shan mountains, however, the Russian leader looms large. It is not only that Moscow’s propaganda still shapes the worldview of Kazakhstan’s sizable Russian minority (about 20% of the population, heavily concentrated in regions adjacent to Russia). This also has been a year that, for many in Kazakhstan, underlined how much power Russia has over the future of this oil- and mineral-rich Central Asian country.

Thinly populated Kazakhstan, where 19 million people inhabit a territory roughly the area of ​​Alaska and Texas combined, occupies a strategic position at the geographical center of Asia.

Its border with Russia, at more than 4,200 miles, is the longest land frontier in the world, and it also shares a roughly 950-mile border with China. It accounts for more than half the total gross domestic product of the five Central Asian republics and, in addition to enormous oil reserves, it has the world’s second-largest supply of uranium.

When Kazakhs speak of the “January events,” they aren’t talking about the shambolic attempt by pro-Trump protesters to derail the certification of

Joe Biden‘s electoral victory. In Kazakhstan, the January events started with nationwide anti-corruption protests against the alleged wholesale looting of the economy by former longtime ruler Nursultan Nazarbayev and his allies. While the details of what happened next are unclear, armed rebels infiltrated the previously peaceful protests, and the ensuing street clashes in Almaty led to more than 200 deaths and almost 10,000 arrests. The armed rebels are widely believed to be linked to Nazarbayev allies hoping to exploit the unrest and return to power.

The chaos ended when a Russian-led intervention force arrived to signal Moscow’s support for the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The Russian intervention was well-planned and well-executed, and the foreign forces left the country without firing a shot.

Mr. Nazarbayev, who retained key positions after formally stepping down from the presidency in 2019, has since faded into the background. While Mr Tokayev now appears to be in firm control, ordinary Kazakhs can only speculate on why Mr. Putin came to his rescue and what deals if any have been made.

The second demonstration of Russian power came with the war in Ukraine. While the war has not gone well for Russia on the ground, the resulting waves of sanctions have upended the Kazakh economy.

The local currency tanked, then recovered, in lockstep with the ruble. Given the powerful role of Russian banks in the domestic economy, Kazakh authorities have struggled to manage the impact of Western sanctions on the financial system.

For landlocked Kazakhstan, whose economy depends largely on oil exports through a pipeline terminating in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, the fear that Western oil sanctions will hit Kazakh oil in Russian pipelines is real. Worse, the Novorossiysk terminal has been largely shut down since March, ostensibly because of storm damage. While smaller pipelines carry some Kazakh oil to China and Turkey, the Novorossiysk shutdown threatens the country’s main source of export earnings at a time when the local economy hasn’t fully recovered from the consequences of the January clashes and the Covid pandemic.

In Kazakhstan, it isn’t hard to find people who believe that Russia deliberately turned off the oil tap. The pipeline shutdown pushes world oil prices higher, puts pressure on Europe, hits the US oil firms that have substantial investments in Kazakhstan—and reminds the Kazakhs who is in charge.

There is little doubt here that no country has as much influence over Kazakhstan’s future as the colossus to the north. That reality disheartens many here who remember the savage repression of the Soviet era, fear Mr. Putin’s ultimate intentions, and bemoan the effect of Russian tolerance of corruption on the local economy.

Many Kazakhs, however, see few alternatives to close relations with Moscow. American influence appears to be fading in the region following the retreat from Afghanistan, and Beijing’s persecution of ethnic Kazakhs in nearby Xinjiang has reinforced a deep cultural distrust of China.

Now that the Biden administration has made weakening Russia a major strategic goal, that calculation could change. Along with the Netherlands and Switzerland, the US is one of the three largest investors in Kazakhstan, outpacing both Russia and China. As Washington policy makers look for ways to counter Russian influence and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, helping Kazakhstan reduce its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its economy, and coordinate with neighboring Central Asian states to limit the influence of both China and Russia might be a good place to start.

Wonder Land: If President Biden is willing to say the Russians are committing genocide in Ukraine, why won’t he say his goal there is to defeat Russia or Vladimir Putin? Images: AFP/Getty Images/Sputnik/Reuters/Roscosmos Space Agency Composite: Mark Kelly

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