Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.
The haste with which the Kremlin deployed troops to Kazakhstan, to quash any prospect of regime change, underlines the wider international ramifications of events unfolding there.
Still fuming over the demise of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin has long been committed to re-building Russia’s sphere of influence in states once controlled from Moscow.
Hence the 100,000 troops poised to invade Eastern Ukraine. So this opportunity to re-affirm Russia’s sway on his southern flank could not be missed. A busy January for Putin just got busier.
Should the West be troubled when valiant efforts to challenge autocracy are suppressed by Russia? Or should we simply leave Putin to his belligerent foreign policy and his big game of RISK?
Before addressing this, it’s worth updating ourselves on the region and considering why Central Asia is increasingly relevant on the international stage.
Hollywood continues to depict “the Stans”, this former region of the Soviet Union (comprising of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) as autocratic, culturally backward and a hotbed of terrorist groups plotting.
Jack Bauer in 24 ‘went up against terrorists from ‘Kaukistan’, The Expendables‘ films tackled baddies from ‘Azmenistan’ and Austin Powers, the international man of mystery, took on the intriguingly named Kreplachistan. Even Jim Hacker of ‘Yes Prime Minister’ fame contended with a fictitious ‘Kumranistan.’
‘Stan’ actually means ‘a place abounding.’ Stalin carved formal lines on the map in the 1920’s to create these Soviet states – hoping to sew discord by splintering ethnic areas and making the region easier to control. However, they have all developed their own cultural identities and characteristics.
Uzbekistan, for example, is the most populated and settled of the states, as well as being the historic hub. Kyrgyzstan is strong in agriculture, and seen as an island of democracy in the region. Tajikistan is arguably the least developed, but famous for its cotton fields while focuseing heavily on hydropower, and the desert state of Turkmenistan gets top prize for retaining its Stalinist credentials. So powerful has President Niyazov of Turkmenistan become he renamed a month of the year after himself and his mother.
But the giant at the heart of Central Asia is Kazakhstan. Larger than India in size, it has vast mineral wealth that will eventually allow the state to claim regional superpower status. Boasting a new skyscraper capital with matching modern infrastructure, it is little wonder that Kazakhstan baulked at its parody as a joke-state in the Borat films.
As a Foreign Office Minister, my visits to South East Asia in 2015 introduced me to a region largely hidden from the rest of us. Blessed with a diverse culture and huge economic potential, it was immediately obvious to me that Kazakhstan was on the precipice of immense change. Tensions were building, with a younger population wanting greater accountability of both the political elite, and how the nation’s vast resource wealth was being spent.
I despaired at the rock-hard censorship and insidious Moscow influence propping up authoritarian regimes with inward-looking policies – and elites more interested in money and power than in pursuing genuine reform.
Nevertheless, this region was embarking on a historic path similar to that of the gulf states during the 1930s. On my return to Whitehall, I wrote a proposal to the then Foreign Secretary outlining the huge potential for the UK to advance our engagement in South Central Asia.
Some trade opportunities were being explored in the energy sector, but these were countries about to experience monumental change. We should strengthen our diplomatic ties to become a trusted and valued ally.
By doubling the size of our embassies, we could help boost their trade and develop their education, security and of course their democracies. Sadly, my recommendation was ignored. Thanks to subsequent cuts in the FCO budget, our diplomatic footprint across the region has shrunk. And Britain’s chance to play a crucial role waned.
As we now observe, change has just moved up a gear. What happens next in Kazakhstan is important for us for three reasons.
First, as a colossal oil and gas producing powerhouse, any instability will cause further challenges to fuel security and the cost of global supply. It is also home to 40 per cent of the world’s uranium, and all the rare earth metals which are increasingly in demand.
Second, global stability is not in a good place. Authoritarian regimes are enjoying a risk-averse West, as power bases shift and we experience an era of rapid geo-political upheaval.
There is an opportunity for Kazakhstan and its neighbours to follow a similar democratic path to that taken by other former Soviet states in Eastern Europe. This is a battle between the young who want a taste of western freedom, and the autocrats in Moscow (and no doubt China) who want no such thing.
This young generation has finally mustered the courage to express its long-suppressed anger, not just about energy price hikes, but about the wider issues of endemic corruption, lack of political rights, unemployment, and the bleak economic outlook, given the country’s vast resource wealth.
We have witnessed the same basic regime in power since the end of the Cold War. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s long-serving president, handed power to his chosen successor, Kassym Tokayev, in 2019, but then assumed the title of ‘father of the nation’: he is clearly the power behind the throne.
And, third, this crisis is about Russia’s sphere of influence. Rather than this new presidency to turn a page, the politics of Kazakhstan remain unchanged. Tokayev himself was once a Soviet diplomat. As soon as demonstrations started to break out across the country, Moscow effectively took control.
The Kremlin playbook on restoring order, updated after events in Belarus, was actioned.
Closing down social media, condemning protestors as terrorists financed by the evil West attempting a revolution. Plainclothes police sent into the crowds to identify the louder voices and leaders. Demonstrators encircled, with hundreds arrested and dragged onto buses.
There is no doubt that Moscow has been spooked by events in this former satellite state. Russia still sees Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, as part of its wider sphere of influence. Which is why it swiftly dispatched its own security forces and advisors under the guise of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation – a NATO-esque group of former Soviet states of which Kazakhstan is a member. Some of those troops stationed now in Almaty were days ago posted at the Ukrainian border, waiting for the green light to invade.
What happens next in Kazakhstan remains uncertain. Once emboldened to stand up for themselves, an agitated population, harbouring decades of anger is hard to hold back forever.
Will this simmer out or ignite and prompt Kazakhstan’s neighbours to follow suit?
Not if Putin can help it. The last thing Russia wants is an ‘Arab Spring’ in South East Asia.
Putin now faces a dilemma. He has painted himself into a corner over threatening Ukraine. Why spell out an impossible ultimatum to the West, demanding that NATO quit Eastern Europe, and then not follow through?
The West is also in a predicament. The distant noises from Ukraine and Kazakhstan cannot be seen as irrelevant rumblings from far away countries about which we know nothing. But they may be the Rhineland and the Sudetenland of our day.
History tells us not to be complacent.