The Kazakhstan protests and Sino-Russian relations

Foreign Affairs

What do the protests in Kazakhstan mean for China and its relationship to Russia, which has sent troops to the central Asian nation to crush the unrest?

protests in kazakhstan
A man walks past a car that was burned during the protests in Almaty. Reuters / Pavel Mikheyev

Extraordinary protests in Kazakhstan have surprised nearly every regional expert, alarmed Eurasian governments, and injected uncertainty into Sino-Russian relations amid the ongoing Ukraine crisis. While the protests’ long-term implications won’t be understood for quite some time, some tentative conclusions can be reached.

The protests will likely be suppressed quite rapidly — and probably violently — by the Kazakhstani security forces and, potentially, troops from the alliance of post Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which have already been deployed.

Turning to Sino-Russian relations, Kazakhstan’s political instability will further damage Beijing’s confidence in Central Asian energy reliability while rendering Russian and Mongolian overland energy sources more attractive. Finally, China will continue to defer to Russia during the crisis so long as its vital energy and security interests are secured.

The protests and their causes

While the 2022 Kazakh protests have rapidly taken on geopolitical importance, their causes are domestic and (primarily) economic. After Kazakh bureaucrats botched phasing out a transportation fuel subsidy for Kazakh consumers, prices doubled nearly overnight, outraging citizens already fuming over inequality, rising prices, and COVID impacts. Economic discontent merged with political grievances over corruption and the role of former President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s family. While Kazakhstan is the best-governed country in the region (a low bar, to be sure), many Kazakhs have grown tired of Nazarbayev after his three decades at the pinnacle of Kazakh politics, and were angered when his controversial daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, re-entered Parliament in the beginning of the year. Although protests have been concentrated in the western oil-producing regions and Almaty, Kazakhstan’s commercial capital, they have fanned out across much of the country, suggesting broad-based grievances.

Left unchecked, the protest movement might have led to massive nationwide protests, a split in the elite and the security forces, and even negotiated political changes. Putin and the Kazakh authorities responded decisively to the protests, however, deploying thousands of troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, a Russia-led security bloc comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. The threat of another Hungary or Czechoslovakia-style crackdown by Russian forces appear, as of this writing, to have almost instantly changed the momentum and atmosphere of the protests. As of this writing, the protests appear to be dying out, in some cases quite literally, with regime forces announcing they have “liquidated” dozens of protesters.

Putin’s sharp, timely, and limited use of force effectively changed the political reality on the ground at the cost of a small deployment of several thousand soldiers. Regime-skeptical elites and security personnel in Kazakhstan may have been deterred after Russia signaled its willingness to use force. Meanwhile, the small (so far, at least) on-the-ground footprint of Russian forces may limit their visibility, limiting the risk of a nationalist backlash. Putin’s decision was consonant with Samuel Charap’s theory of military force in Russian foreign policy, or “just enough force to get the policy job done, but not more.”

Implications for China and Russia

While the CSTO under Putin’s aegis appears to have effectively quashed the protests, at least for now, long-term outcomes remain unclear. Will Kazakhstanis, like Belarusians and Ukrainians before them, grow embittered by Russia’s open intervention in their own domestic politics, giving rise to nationalist sentiment? Will intra-Kazakhstan tensions recede? Or could they grow even more violent, potentially leading to insurgency or even civil war, and almost certainly producing a long-term deployment of Russian military forces? Alternatively, could Putin opportunistically chew off some of Kazakhstan’s Russian-speaking northern territories, scoring a victory for domestic audiences? Will Putin delay or even cancel escalation in Ukraine until the Kazakhstan crisis ebbs? These possibilities would have seemed farcical only a few days ago, but can’t be ruled out in the wake of the protests. It’s far too soon to assess the long-term implications of the CSTO’s intervention on Russian influence in Kazakhstan.

Some observers are murmuring that the CSTO-led intervention could lead to tensions within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but this analysis may overweight the implications of a specific crisis. Putin likely preferred using the CSTO over the much more unwieldy SCO (which includes China, Pakistan, and India, as well as nearly all CSTO members) due to the time-sensitive nature of the crisis, as time could have allowed protests to congeal, elites to waver, and security forces to defect to the opposition. While the Russian authorities clearly had contingency plans in place to act through the CSTO bloc, that does not mean they regard the SCO as irrelevant. The Russian security elite regards India as the crux of their balancing strategy vis-à-vis China, were insistent on incorporating Delhi into the SCO, and view the bloc as an important mechanism to quietly balance against Chinese influence.

China, for its part, has very limited objectives in Central Asia and is generally willing to defer to Russia in the region, at least for now. If this CSTO-led intervention “successfully” quashes the protests, it will likely have only a limited impact on the SCO and Moscow’s relationship with Beijing.

China’s surprisingly small economic interests in Kazakhstan

Chinese interests in Central Asia are limited but not unimportant. China-Central Asia trade is relatively small. In 2020, Kazakh-China total trade stood at $21.5 billion, lower than the PRC’s trade with Peru or Switzerland. Chinese companies are invested in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas production, but few oil barrels are physically shipped to China. Nearly all of Kazakhstan’s oil shipments head west, not east, and in 2020, Kazakhstan exported more oil to France, Greece, and Switzerland than it did to China. China’s regional economic and security interests largely revolve around natural gas.

The Central Asia-to-China (CACP) natural gas pipelines are important for Beijing’s energy and economic interests; they also all transit Kazakhstan. While the existing legs of the pipelines generally avoid population centers, they could face risks if the protests transform into an insurgency. Over the medium-term, therefore, China may be more willing to consider alternative proposed natural gas pipelines, such as the Russia-to-China Power of Siberia-2 (which would transit Mongolia), and CACP Line D (which would traverse every Central Asian country with the exception of Kazakhstan).

In addition to China’s energy and economic interests, the CCP fears that instability from Central Asia will spill into Xinjiang. If China believes its energy and security interests are threatened it may substantially expand its security footprint in Kazakhstan and the region, which would complicate its relationship with Russia.

Putin’s rapid establishment of a fait accompli, the PRC’s limited regional interests, Moscow and Beijing’s shared preference for compliant authoritarians in the region, and, most importantly, the salience of the overall bilateral relationship suggest that neither Putin nor the CCP has an appetite for confronting one another in a secondary or even tertiary theater. Beijing will watch the crisis warily but will continue to follow Moscow’s lead, provided that its energy and security interests are not threatened. The current Kazakhstan crisis is unlikely to give rise to significant near-term Sino-Russian tensions.