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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Tremors in CARs

      In the contemporary world, the big power competition is for the domination of global commons. Global commons is a term typically used to describe international, supranational, and global resource domains in which common-pool resources are found i.e. the earth's shared natural resources, such as the high oceans, the atmosphere and outer space and the Antarctic in particular; besides, domination of ground, air and sea lines of communications and cyber spaces for ensured security and uninterrupted economic supremacy. In the field of international relations, a sphere of influence is a spatial region or concept division over which a state or organization has a level of cultural, economic, military, or political exclusivity. Almost all the former and new global super powers also jealously guard their spheres of influence, and react violently whenever any state tries to slip out of political/ diplomatic, economic and security circles. In this context, while the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominated headlines in early 2022 and the countries Germany invaded were a vital part of World War II, the United States has itself been an aggressor on many occasions. Instances of the United States invading non-U.S. territory range throughout the country's history, from the 1805 Battle of Derna in what is now Libya to the 2001-2021 takeover and occupation of Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. In total, the United States has invaded 68 countries in its history, although the US did not declare war on all of these countries.

Former USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was an attempt to increase her sphere of influence, possess more natural resources and secure strategic lines of communications. America contested it by using Pakistan as a front line state---USSR got defeated and the old empire fell apart with Central Asian Republics and some Eastern states slipping out of Russian control. During the failed 1991 August coup, communist hardliners and military elites attempted to overthrow Gorbachev and stop the failing reforms. However, the turmoil led to the central government in Moscow losing influence, ultimately resulting in many republics proclaiming independence in the following days and months. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved on 26 December 1991 by Declaration № 142-Н. Since then, in her quest to keep tight control on former territories, Russia has fought First Chechen War(1994–1997), Second Chechen War (1999–2000), Russo-Georgian War (2008), Russo-Ukrainian War(2014) and Russian invasion of Ukraine(2022–present).


While Russia is busy reasserting her influence in Ukraine, the five Central Asian Republics (CARs) are genuinely nervous and are carefully doing their best not to annoy Russia. The former colonial master is always breathing down their necks to ensure smooth flow of energy and other precious natural resources from South to North; besides ensuring that no rival military presence/ influence in CARs takes place. Dr. Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, in his piece entitled “Is Kazakhstan Russia’s Next Target?” explains his contention by stating, “This is not an idle or frivolous question, quite the contrary. Admittedly many NATO members and NATO’s senior leaders have recently warned that Russia has designs on their territory and within 3-8 years might attack them. Indeed, in the last year the most consistent barrage of Russian threats has targeted Kazakhstan in Central Asia as a possible candidate for Moscow’s territorial aggrandizement and invasion. Presumably such threats are directed at least at Kazakhstan’s northern territory that adjoins the Russian Federation and which many Russian nationalists, not least Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, claim should be or is actually part of Russia proper”.

Kazakhstan has a population of 20 million and one of the lowest population densities in the world, at fewer than 6 people per square kilometer. Ethnic Kazakhs constitute a majority, while ethnic Russians form a significant minority. Officially secular, Kazakhstan is a Muslim-majority country. Kazakhstan dominates Central Asia economically and politically, accounting for 60 percent of the region's GDP, primarily through its oil and gas industry; it also has vast mineral resources. With an area of 2,700,000 square kilometers, equivalent in size to Western Europe – Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country and largest landlocked country in the world. It shares borders of 6,846 kilometers with Russia, 2,203 kilometres with Uzbekistan, 1,533 kilometres with China, 1,051 kilometres with Kyrgyzstan, and 379 kilometres with Turkmenistan. While located primarily in Asia, a small portion of Kazakhstan is also located west of the Urals in Eastern Europe.

Post-Soviet period. Although Nazarbaev was widely credited with peaceful preservation of the delicate inter-ethnic balance in Kazakhstan. The abrupt shifting of Kazakhstan’s capital from Old Almaty to the extreme northern city of Astana in 2008 (named capital in 1997) with harsh Siberian weather was obviously done to create a shield against the plausible Russian expansion threat. However, the threats as projected by the European or Western writers as seen through the prism of Europe may reduce in probability due to a host of reasons. A number of countries have massive investments in resource rich Kazakhstan; the major investors include the Netherlands, USA, Switzerland, China, Russia, Belgium, France, South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan. As of January 2023, the stock of foreign direct investment (FDI) totaled $169.2 billion, including $43.83 billion from the U.S., according to official central bank statistics. Kazakhstan is a major wheat producer that mainly exports to Central Asian neighbours, Iran and Turkey, and to China, South Korea and Japan. Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union together with Russia, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. Top Export (2022) is Crude Petroleum $47.6B and Top Destination (2022) is China $13.4B. That raises two important questions: How would both the USA / NATO react, and not only in the military domain, to any threat to Kazakhstan let alone a genuine act of war? And if China would oppose a Russian invasion of Kazakhstan, how might Chinese opposition manifest itself?

Any putative Russian annexation of Northern Kazakhstan, or any part of it, would likely be seen by the Islamic world and other CARs unifying in support, considering it as an aggression against their fellow Muslims by the Orthodox Christian Reconquista or Crusade. This may, therefore, suggest that any notional Russian thrust through to Northern Kazakhstan or the Kazakh Altai, would cut off overland access from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. In other words, the costs of pursuing that path may far outweigh the gains. The true nature of the relationship between policy and decision makers belonging to three different traditional tribal groups – the Senior, Middle and Junior zhuzes (a jüź also translated as "horde") is one of the three main territorial and ethnic tribal divisions in the Kypchak Plain area that covers much of the contemporary Kazakhstan. It may be assumed that there can be internal contradictions and political differences in the society; which may either prove as a force multiplier in the face of a foreign aggression or alternatively may remain prone to exploitation.

Nevertheless, like other former colonial powers, Russia has also always tried to keep in place pro-Russian rulers/ governments in the former Soviet states both in Europe as well in CARs and other Baltic and Caucasian states. For example, only a few days after protests erupted in Kazakhstan in early 2022, the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, requested assistance from the Russian led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Within hours, the CSTO approved Tokayev’s request and sent 2500 soldiers to safeguard critical infrastructure throughout Kazakhstan. Thereby, the armed forces of the other five CSTO member states participated in the effort to violently suppress the ongoing nonviolent protests in a foreign state. The first collective intervention in the CSTO’s thirty-year history was over as quickly as it had begun. Moscow, having come to president Tokayev’s aid, not only helped him retain and consolidate his power, but also reinforced its own ‘king-making’ role in Kazakhstan so much that there now were persistent talks that the Kazakh regime ‘actually rests on the CSTO bayonets’. Similar examples are available in other CARs too.

Nonetheless, according to political analysts from Kazakhstan: Russia, while reviewing its attitudes towards Northern Kazakhstan, is shifting increasingly from the model proposed by the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1989(proposed taking away Kazakhstan’s northern region, along with the Russians living there), to the model put into effect by the Governor-General of Siberia Mikhail Speransky back in 1822 (suggested abolishing the border between the Middle zhuz and Siberia as a political frontier and accept the so-called Siberian Kazakhs into Russian citizenship). Such a transformation means that the Russians are already casting the shadow of a ‘second Donbas’ over the northeast of Kazakhstan through provoking a split between the two main groups of Kazakhs – the Senior zhuz and the Middle zhuz. 

At the end of 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an executive order on granting Russian citizenship to citizens of the Republic of Belarus, the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Republic of Moldova. To cause deep tremors in Kazakhstan, a rather blunt statement was made by the Russian State Duma deputy Mikhail Delyagin, in January 2022: “The only point in bringing order to Kazakhstan is the return of Russian lands and the complete cessation of all Russo-phobia. So that for several generations to come they would be afraid to raise their eyes to a Russian, …unless Northern Kazakhstan, along with Central and Western Kazakhstan, rejoins their Homeland [Russia] as a result of the upcoming events, it will be like ditching Donbas”Thus, in Kazakh view, Moscow’s plan for splitting up Kazakhstan is most probably already working; Kazakhstan holding SCO Summit in Almaty during July 2024 shall serve to send the right signals to counter any overtures on Kazakh lands.


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