Northern Kazakhstan remains the post-Soviet territorial threat perhaps most overlooked
South of southern Siberia
In late 1991, as the USSR heaved toward its final crumble, Russian President Boris Yeltsin realized that removing the Soviet center did not necessarily mean that the outlying republics would remain tethered to Russia. As Ukraine sprinted through a referendum on independence, Yeltsin tasked his press secretary, Pavel Voshchanov, with helping persuade the non-Baltic republics to remain within the Russian fold. Voshchanov, a former economist, patched together a statement, checked with Yeltsin, and forwarded the text to the press.
According to the release, transcribed in Serhii Plokhy’s The Last Empire, “The Russian Federation casts no doubt on the constitutional right of every state and people to self-determination. There exists, however, the problem of borders, the nonsettlement of which is possible and admissible only on condition of allied relations secured by an appropriate treaty. In the event of their termination, the RSFSR reserves the right to raise the question of the revision of boundaries.” Voshchanov and Yeltsin had thrown down one of Moscow’s remaining gauntlets: Should the republics forego “allied relations” with Moscow, Russian authorities maintained the right to call borders into question. Remain tied to Moscow – through “appropriate treaty,” whatever form it may take – or run the risk of territorial loss.
Voshchanov’s text didn’t list the specific areas in mind, but, per Plokhy, a later press conference saw Voshchanov cite Ukraine and Kazakhstan as those countries Yeltsin was targeting. Years later, Voshchanov offered more specifics. For Moscow, the post-Soviet territories subject to revision were Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia – and northern Kazakhstan. All of these, per Voshchanov’s line of logic, were rightfully Russian, and Moscow retained first right of refusal on their post-Soviet incorporation. So long as the post-Soviet republics pledged alliance to Moscow, the territories could remain within their Soviet borders. But should these republics – most especially Ukraine, Georgia, and Kazakhstan – think to chart their own courses, any guarantee of border security, of Westphalian border sanctity, disappeared.
For what it’s worth, Voshchanov was promptly scapegoated for publicly threatening to revise Soviet boundaries. But in the quarter-century since Voshchanov’s text arose, the former economist’s threats have proven prescient. Not only has Moscow shown itself more than willing to revise post-Soviet borders through military incursion – acknowledged or otherwise – but three of the four territories Voshchanov specifically cited have returned to Moscow’s de facto control. Indeed, there’s only one territory carried within Voshchanov’s threat that hasn’t fallen back into Moscow’s armed embrace. And as Kazakhstan celebrates its quarter-century of formal independence from Moscow – and 25 straight years of maintaining its post-Soviet territorial integrity – the reality hangs that Astana’s border security is perhaps in greater jeopardy now than at any point in the post-Soviet period.
To be sure, much of the focus on Moscow’s next potential moves within the post-Soviet sphere, both in terms of territorial aggrandizement and hybrid warfare, has focused on Russia’s western front. From northern Estonia to Nagorno-Karabakh, from Transnistria to further infiltration through southern Ukraine, security concerns viz. Russian expansionism have been relegated to Europe’s outer reaches. However, while such security concerns remain pertinent – all the more now that domestic rumblings in Russia have begun threatening Russian President Vladimir Putin’s base – northern Kazakhstan remains the post-Soviet territorial threat perhaps most overlooked.
The reasons for this oversight are myriad, and understandable. A lack of familiarity, a lack of proximity, a reality that Kazakhstan remains far from any formalized security arrangements with NATO: Western prognosticators retain numerous reasons to call attention to Russian threats to Narva and Kharkiv, rather than Petropavl or Pavlodar. Astana, to its detriment, has tacked far closer to the Kremlin’s post-Crimea rhetoric than most nations; Kazakhstan was one of the few countries willing to voice support for Crimea’s “referendum” on joining Moscow. And Kazakhstan remains one of the few members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the nominal military alignment tethering Moscow to a handful of former Soviet republics. Moreover, contra Ukraine or Georgia, Astana has paid heed to Voshchanov’s original rhetoric. In addition to the CSTO, Kazakhstan remains an integral member of both the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), retaining membership in Russia’s triumvirate of post-Soviet associations. The allegiance hasn’t gone unnoticed; in 2014, Putin termed Kazakhstan “Russia’s closest strategic ally and partner.”
And yet, despite the appearance of comity, ties between Astana and Moscow have begun to fray to an unprecedented extent. At its broadest, the rising strains between the nominal allies stems directly from the Eurasian recession roiling the entire post-Soviet sphere. The drop-off in oil price has decimated Russian and Kazakhstani economies alike; while Russia’s economic maelstrom has been well-documented, Kazakhstan is likewise slogging through a desiccated sovereign wealth fund, a deflated, hydrocarbon-heavy economy, and one of the worst-performing currencies in the world.
But much of the economic unwinding stems, likewise, directly from Russia’s economic malfeasance. The tensions have arisen directly from Moscow’s decision to co-opt the EEU – a brainchild of Nazarbayev – as a vehicle for its neo-imperialist ambition. Attempting to codify a common parliament and united foreign policy, imposing unilateral sanctions on Ukraine, bucking plans for unified entry into the World Trade Organization: Moscow has attempted to use the EEU to run roughshod over relations with the other member-states, and engendered some of the most public manifestations of Kazakh nationalism Astana had seen in the post-Soviet period. Intra-EEU trade has plummeted in the 13 months since it came online, with economic protectionism and customs controls – official or otherwise – once more necessary to protect domestic Kazakhstani industry.
Economic fraying, however, presents only one aspect of the rapid unraveling in Moscow-Astana relations. In 2014, in the same press conference in which he praised relations with Kazakhstan, Putin publicly declaimed that ethnic Kazakhs had never enjoyed pre-Soviet statehood, while staking that Nazarbayev alone had “founded” Kazakhstan. Laden with dog-whistles, Putin noted that Kazakhstan was part of the “so-called greater Russian world, which is a part of global civilization” – while also failing to push back against the question of whether not Kazakhstan could face a “Ukrainian scenario upon Nazarbayev’s departure.” Indeed, much of Putin’s rhetoric mirrored the Kremlin’s assertions on Ukraine: that of false statehood, of the necessity of retaining tight ties to Moscow, of potential threats to ethnic Russian populations, who stand as approximately 20 percent of Kazakhstan’s current ethnic makeup, predominantly through the country’s north.
Following Putin’s public claims, Astana promptly announced it would be celebrating the 550th anniversary of the founding of the Kazakh Khanate, a clear rebuke to Moscow. Russian nationalists, following the likes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Eduard Limonov, have only increased their calls to annex northern Kazakhstan – “Southern Siberia,” in the parlance of groups like Sputnik i Pogrom. As its economic outlook continues declining, Astana continues to cater more and more to its swelling nationalistic bases, with the government recently going so far as to begin barring Russian channels from Kazakhstani cable packages. And the ethnic Russians in northern Kazakhstan – those on the brunt end of increasing language regulations favoring Kazakh, or of ethnic-first policing – haven’t ignored post-Crimea rhetoric. To take but a few examples, the post-Crimea unwinding saw one ethnic Russian in Petropavl refer to Kazakhstan as a “Bantustan,” while another cited Alexander III’s maxim that Russia’s lone allies are its army and its navy – while lumping himself with Moscow, rather than Astana.
Russia, meanwhile, continues casting about for further external adventurism to sate its own nationalistic, revanchist base. With its incursions stalled in eastern Ukraine and its sorties in Syria growing stale – and with the ruble continuing to plummet in value – Moscow’s options of external distraction dwindle. There are only so many areas that would provide potential outlet for the irredentism Putin has begun implementing along Russia’s periphery.
And unlike, say, Narva, any meddling in northern Kazakhstan – which already maintains its own history of pro-Russian secessionism, and which Alexander Solzhenitsyn claimed was rightfully Russian – wouldn’t incur any threat of NATO interventionism. Beijing, meanwhile, may privately pressure Moscow to refrain from any unnecessary maneuvering in the region, but any militarized response remains unlikely. Indeed, in terms of pure logistical fallout, Moscow may well view northern Kazakhstan as perhaps the most enticing non-Russian territory to return to the Russian fold.
All the while, Nazarbayev, in his mid-70s, grows that much closer to finally moving on from the presidency. Any successor – yet to be publicly tapped – will almost certainly be forced to cater to the increasingly nationalistic rhetoric seen in broader Kazakh circles, isolating that much further the country’s non-Kazakh, and especially Russian, populations.
Kazakhstan hasn’t broken from any of Russia’s post-Soviet alliances, but, at this point, there’s no reason to think that should be a necessary barrier to Russian territorial infiltration in the post-Soviet world. As Kazakhstan completes its first quarter-century of independence, its era of territorial sovereignty appears at a greater risk than at perhaps any point since the fall of the Soviet Union. As Nazarbayev said to an American official in late 1991 when describing his country’s ethnic Russians, “It’s not easy to live with them.” Nor, would it seem, is it to live with a Moscow bent on returning the lands it deems sufficiently Russian, borders and alliances be damned.
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