On Monday, the U.S., in talks with Moscow in Geneva on the Ukraine issue, oddly threatened sanctions against Moscow but not against Kazakhstan, where the Russians and their allies have intervened on the side of President Tokayev, who has jailed 8,000 opponents and caused dozens of deaths in his repression of the revolt.
The uprising increasingly appears to be a showdown with the old regime of the dictator president Nazarbayev. It’s enough to point out that on Tuesday night in Almaty, the police disappeared from the streets, leaving the way clear for looting and fires: an unequivocal message that there were two leaders giving orders and one had to fall.
Biden has actually been on Tokayev’s side as well: “The U.S. is proud to be able to call you a friend,” he wrote in September in a message to the president of Kazakhstan, not to mention the current statements that Washington “will monitor human rights” in the country. Of course they will: there are billion-dollar investments from Exxon and Chevron there (and ENI is also present). This is what’s interesting for them to monitor.
The West has never cared about human rights in Kazakhstan, but rather about doing business with Nazarbayev. Have we forgotten that Italy in 2013 deported Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of former oligarch Ablyazov, for whose kidnapping five police officers are now charged in Perugia?
The Russian intervention is also in defense of these Western interests. In recent years, multinational energy and mining companies have invested 160 billion dollars in Kazakhstan, but this does not mean that this is a rich country; instead, gas and oil have accentuated the differences in class and wealth during the years of the dictatorship of Nazarbayev. In too many oil-rich countries, such as Iraq, Libya, Iran and Algeria, the black gold has not brought the wealth that everyone expected.
The U.S. hopes to protect energy and mining interests in Kazakhstan, while at the same time hoping that the Russians will get bogged down there. In short, they want to have their cake and eat it: Russia’s problems on its borders should put pressure on Moscow and make it forget about the shameful American withdrawal from Afghanistan. One also needs to keep in mind the local strands of jihadism, which can be exploited, as happened in Uzbekistan in the Ferghana valley or in Tajikistan during the civil war between clans, in which the Red Army intervened. Accordingly, the terrain in Kazakhstan is favorable both to local destabilization and to the Putin regime. This is nothing new, but it’s worth going back to the past for a moment to understand what might happen in the future.
In 1978 Brzezinski, Carter’s advisor, accepted a report largely authored by the renowned scholar Bernard Lewis—presented before the Trilateral and the Bilderberg group in 1979—which argued that the West should encourage Islamist movements and pro-independence groups to promote the balkanization of the Middle East and the Muslim republics of the then Soviet Union. The unrest was to result in an “arc of crisis”—an expression that turned out to have legs.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave a big boost to Lewis’s theory, who twenty years later, in 2003, was also the most influential intellectual for the American decision to invade Iraq. But back then there was a missing actor that cannot be ignored today: China.
Now balkanization is back in fashion. The crises in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and between Armenia and Azerbaijan are seen by the U.S. as opportunities to destabilize today’s Russia, bothersome as it is allied with China. This is the new arc of crisis, as the United States, by withdrawing from Afghanistan in a hurry, has freed itself from the hypocritical burden of having to “democratize” a country already largely in the hands of the Taliban. Mission failed, it’s true, but now the field is more free for maneuvers in the heart of Central Asia, or rather on the axis that cuts across Eurasia. Tokayev, who is doing away with the top security officials loyal to Nazarbayev, is also an interesting nexus figure, because he comes from the Soviet elite, he knows China very well (he speaks Mandarin), at the UN he has taken part in the negotiations for the ban on ballistic tests, and he was also vice-president of the OSCE. In short, he knows how to move between the cardinal points of power. This is another reason why the Americans like him: he can serve in every role required of him.
Because the real strategic problem of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, from the American point of view, is not only Russia but China. A key component of Xi Jinping’s Chinese strategy is to overcome Beijing’s dependence on sea routes for foreign trade, which can be blocked by the U.S. and its allies. For this reason, the China-Russia agreements on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are important: today, 90% of China’s land trade with Europe takes place through Russian and Central Asian territory.
Until the uprising in Kazakhstan, Moscow seemed relatively unconcerned about the issues of stability and external interference in Central Asia—but now it’s feeling the full weight of being the main guarantor of the security of the states in the region. Here, Putin is being kept under close watch, not only by the U.S. but also by China, which wants “safe roads” for its trade.
This is why the Geneva talks are part of a wider outlook, that of the “new arc of crisis,” which in addition to Russia also involves Beijing as a thorn in the side. Putin is the one who has the most at stake: in the west, tensions over Ukraine could push Sweden and Finland into NATO, and in the East he must show China that he is the true “guardian” of Central Asia.