Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Kazakhstan's leader at the time, Nursultan Nazarbayev, are seen during their meeting as part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) summit in Sochi, Russia, on May 14, 2018. Photo: Kremlin Press Office / Handout / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Russia’s move into Kazakhstan is a blessing and a curse, depending on whom you ask. Yes, it’s an unwanted advancement of Russian military power into Central Asia. But it is also a wonderful diversion from the mess that is brewing over eastern Ukraine.

And while Moscow’s deployment of its military into Kazakhstan, which has fallen into deep political unrest over the high price of fuel, may be a Russian feint to distract easily distracted Western eyes from the situation in Ukraine, it seems that the Kazakhstan flap is something else. 

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, whether it be the liberal Boris Yeltsin or the autocratic Vladimir Putin, Kremlin leaders have obsessed about the insecurity of Russia’s post-Cold War borders.

The so-called “double expansion” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union into former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe has been deeply concerning to Moscow since the 1990s. More troubling to the Kremlin, however, is the possibility that it may lose influence over Central Asia, too.

In fact, Russian leaders have been so worried about losing their influence over Central Asia, where energy-rich Kazakhstan is located, that since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has maintained numerous multilateral treaties, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Central Treaty Security Organization (CSTO), and Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), meant to ensure that Central Asia remains steadfastly in Moscow’s (at times) waning orbit.

As Russia focused its revanchist ire on eastern Ukraine, suddenly the situation in Kazakhstan went from remarkably stable to completely chaotic. 

Sensing that exhibiting weakness on the world stage at such a precarious time would be disastrous for Russian grand strategy, Putin ordered his troops to lead a “multinational peacekeeping” force meant to stop the chaos and restore order. The Russian move is meant to prevent foreign powers from establishing a foothold in what Kremlin leaders have historically viewed as not only their exclusive sphere of influence, but as Russia’s soft underbelly.

The West is using the Russian jog into Kazakhstan as another example of how badly Russia is misbehaving on the world stage.

Yet Russia’s intervention into Kazakhstan doesn’t really inconvenience the Americans, and the diversion of resources and focus away from Ukraine to Kazakhstan buys Europe some much-needed time to figure out what it wants to do about Ukraine (although, given Brussels’ inability to engage in any serious strategic thought, it remains to be seen as to whether the EU can truly exploit this strategic reprieve). 

Undermining China’s BRI

The Russian movement in Kazakhstan is a complicating factor for none other than Moscow’s best frenemy, China. After all, it is Central Asia that China has envisaged using as a bridge between itself and the European markets for its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative. For China successfully to complete its BRI program through Central Asia, it needs Russia out of their way. 

Although Putin has been obsessed with his country’s weakness along its European border, he has kept a watchful eye on his even greater weaknesses along Russia’s southern and eastern peripheries. This is because he has worried about the threat of Islamist extremism from the predominantly Muslim territories of Central Asia and the Middle East (to Russia’s south). 

More important, despite the era of good feelings that has slowly evolved (thanks to feckless US foreign policy toward Russia) between Moscow and Beijing, geography and history continue to slow the inevitable marriage of these two Eurasian titans.

Of course, this does not mean that Washington should ignore the troubling entente between China and Russia. Still, the path toward alliance is not a stable or straight pathway for the two Eurasian titans.

And Russia’s military adventure into Kazakhstan is a serious complication to long-term geo-economic and geopolitical strategies that Beijing has spent years crafting to ensure its inevitable rise to Eurasian dominance – something that Russian leaders may not welcome.

Putin created EAEU to restore Russian Empire

In 2016, President Vladimir Putin midwifed the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union. Consisting of former Soviet Central Asian states plus Belarus, and with plans to incorporate former Soviet European states like Ukraine, the EAEU was Putin’s attempt to restore the old Russian Empire with 21st-century characteristics.

Designed to be a counterweight to the EU’s unwanted influence, the EAEU was also meant to balance against the expansion of China’s BRI into what Moscow viewed as its traditional region.

The Kremlin was trying to bring together as many of its former satellites to form a large enough bloc that Beijing would be unable to subordinate Russia to its geopolitical whims, especially as China maneuvered itself through Central Asia as opposed to treating Russia as a giant tributary state (which is very much how President Xi Jinping views Russia).

The EAEU has struggled since its inception, not least because the Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 deprived the EAEU of Ukraine as a member.

Had Ukraine gone into the EAEU, as many believed the Russian-backed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovitch was expected to do, the country’s large economy, its position on the Black Sea (where a Russian naval base has long existed in the Crimean city of Sevastopol), and its vast coal-producing facilities in eastern Ukraine would have given Moscow both geopolitical reach and significant economic influence throughout Eurasia. 

Since the installation of the pro-Western regime in Kiev and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s status with Russia and the EAEU has been complicated. And while eastern Ukraine is important for Russia’s ambitions, Kazakhstan is even more important.

Moscow could depend on this major fossil-fuel producer to play ball with Russia and the EAEU. More important, Russia’s recent move to buttress the flailing regime in Kazakhstan is indicative of a major strategic push by the Kremlin to capture an even larger share of the world’s LNG (liquefied natural gas) sources than it already has. 

Toward that end, solidifying Kazakhstan’s place as a firm member of Russia’s sphere of influence not only allows Moscow to have greater leverage over the LNG-starved Europeans but it also allows for Putin to have a decisive advantage in his future dealings with his good frenemy in Beijing, Xi Jinping – especially as China becomes increasingly dependent on Russian energy sources.

Russia’s moves into Kazakhstan appear to have ameliorated the collective concern that Moscow was readying to annex eastern Ukraine. But this Russian move into Central Asia should not give any rest to weary Western leaders. Instead, Western leaders should anticipate a larger Russian strike into eastern Ukraine at some point in the next six months.

Once it carves up Kazakhstan, Moscow will turn its full attention to the Ukrainian situation – and it will seek a resolution that neutralizes eastern Ukraine as a geopolitical hot potato, either diplomatically or by force. 

Russia uses CSTO to enforce imperial control

Washington should recognize that Vladimir Putin’s move into Central Asia, though, is a setback for the nightmare scenario that is an anti-American Sino-Russian alliance in Eurasia. By moving into Kazakhstan with Russian forces, Putin has in effect sent a signal to Beijing that he is the Big Boss in Central Asia.

That Putin used the Russian-created CSTO mutual defense alliance – which does not include China – to do it is also a signal to Beijing that Moscow is not about to abandon its traditional role as the godfather of Central Asia, no matter how much money Beijing is throwing at the Central Asian states for their BRI projects.

While Moscow and Beijing are closer now than they have been since the heady days of the Sino-Soviet alliance, they still make strange bedfellows. And Washington is completely misreading the situation if it doesn’t think Russia’s move is a blessing in terms of slowing the marriage of Chinese and Russian power.

Putin is signaling that he intends to go his own way; he will work with Xi on certain issues but if left to his own devices, Putin will do what he wants – what he needs to do – to preserve Russian power in a part of the world that Beijing very much craves for itself. 

Instead of distracting Moscow’s blessed moves into China’s back yard, Washington should move to restore the status quo that existed before last November, when Russia began its massive buildup against eastern Ukraine.

President Joe Biden and his team must buy time for NATO to get its proverbial act together while empowering Poland and other Eastern European states to enhance their capabilities and security to dissuade an adventurous Russia from moving against them in force, so that when Moscow returns its attention to Eastern Europe after its adventure in Kazakhstan, it finds a territory bristling with defenses and united in their determination to prevent Russia’s full-throated return to the region.

The longer the Americans stall in Europe, the more likely that Moscow will be compelled to act to preserve its own interests in Central Asia and the Far East, which makes Russia a Chinese problem. 

The absolute worst thing Washington could do would be to force Putin’s attention back to Europe when he seems to be so galvanized about slashing against Chinese power in Central Asia. Whether Washington and Brussels have the intestinal fortitude to embrace patience is another matter. 

Follow Brandon J Weichert on Twitter @WeTheBrandon

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.