Staunton, April 14 – Vladimir Putin’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Russia’s neighbors is alienating even those whom he had long counted as his allies, raising the question of how he will respond to Kazakhstan’s increasingly independent course and Mongolia’s decision to seek China’s help in gaining energy independence from Moscow.
In an article entitled “Will ‘Little Green Men’ Threaten Kazakhstan?” Kseniya Kirillova interviews Aleksandr Sytin, a former analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Research (RISI) about the current and future state of relations between Moscow and Astana (nr2.com.ua/blogs/Ksenija_Kirillova/Ugrozhayut-li-Kazahstanu-zelenye-chelovechki-94549.html).
The former RISI analyst says that for the moment Kazakhstan remains relatively close to Russia because “the processes of strengthening its own sovereignty” are not proceeding as quickly as they are in Belarus. That reflects its internal political situation, the character of Nursultan Nazarbayev, and its geographic situation.”
But these processes are nonetheless in train, Sytin suggests, as is shown by Astana’s criticism of Moscow over Crimea, its unwillingness to follow Russia’s lead on integration in all details, and its anger about recent Russian policies with regard to Kazakhstan’s products.
Until recently, Moscow had been very cautious in its relations with Astana, less because of a change of heart about its policies in general than because, Sytin says, “the main direction of the Kremlin’s aggression is the West, its main fear is the broadening of the sphere of action of NATO, and its main enemy is the United States.”
Nonetheless, the former RISI expert says, “we are observing in relation to Kazakhstan the very same [Russian] steps with which the Ukrainian conflict began.” At present, few recall that “in the fall of 2013, a Russian-Ukrainian trade war broke out.” Now there are signs that the same thing is happening between Russia and Kazakhstan.
Russian consumer officials have banned the import of certain Kazakhstan products ostensibly because they violate Russian consumer protection standards, but these actions, Sytin says, “have nothing in common with the struggle for consumer security in the Russian Federation but are a political weapon in the hand of the Kremlin.”
Moscow took similar actions against Ukraine and Belarus, but they will have less of an impact on Kazakhstan, something the Kremlin still appears to understand. That is because Kazakhstan is independent in terms of energy and its economy is doing relatively well. But this is no guarantee Moscow won’t increase its pressure in the future.
“Kazakhstan has eastern industrial oblasts with a predominantly Russian (Slavic) population,” something Moscow might seek to exploit. And at some point there will be a succession in the leadership of Kazakhstan and the new generation of leaders will be less interested in integration with Russia than Nazarbayev is, Sytin says.
The rising generation in Kazakhstan already views Russia far more pragmatically than does the one it will replace, Sytin says, and they will be more concerned to develop ties with “a stronger China” and with Iran than with an ever weaker Russia.
Moscow can see this and it will respond harshly. “When the Kremlin understands that its bet on china in the struggle for the overthrow of the US from the geopolitical Olympus hasn’t justified itself – and that understanding will come quite quickly – any efforts about the rapprochement of Kazakhstan and China will be viewed as disloyal.”
Moreover, Sytin says, “no one can guarantee that [Astana’s] attitude to the Russian speaking population will remain even at the relatively favorable one of today. As a result,” he says, “in the comparatively near future, we may observe a significant deterioration of Russian-Kazakhstan relations.”
That will accelerate the destruction of Putin’s project of Eurasian integration and of “the disintegration of the post-Soviet space,” the former RISI analyst says.
But there is another aspect of this situation that may prompt Moscow to move even more quickly, Sytin suggests. To the extent that Kazakhstan succeeds economically and politically, it could become a magnet for Russian regions “deprived by their geographic position of the opportunity for this or that form of European integration.”
Meanwhile, another of Russia’s neighbors in Central Asia is also moving away from Russia. Despite a 2006 accord between Moscow and Ulan Bator that would seem to have precluded it, the Mongolian government has asked Beijing for a billion US dollar loan to build a hydro-electric dam on a tributary of Lake Baikal (novayagazeta.ru/news/1693120.html).
Such a dam on the Selenga will make Mongolia independent of what it describes as expensive Russian energy supplies, but it will also increase its ties with China while offending Russia because of Moscow’s concerns about the impact of such a dam on the already troubled eco-system of Lake Baikal where water levels recently have fallen to historic lows.
Moscow officials hope to dissuade Mongolia from taking this step in the name of environmental protection, but the Mongolians for their part seem set to go ahead so that they will have greater independence from Russia and control over their own situation. What Russia will do in that event remains to be seen.