Russian-Led ‘Peacekeeping Force’ To Deploy To Kazakhstan In Response To Unrest

The Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization will intervene directly in one of its member state’s affairs for the first time ever.

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Russian-Led ‘Peacekeeping Force’ To Deploy To Kazakhstan In Response To Unrest © Russian-Led ‘Peacekeeping Force’ To Deploy To Kazakhstan In Response To Unrest

Nikol Pashinyan, the Prime Minister of Armenia and the chairman of the Collective Security Treaty Organization's Collective Security Council, has announced that this bloc, in which Russia is the most powerful player, is preparing to send a "peacekeeping" force to Kazakhstan. This will be the first time this international organization has launched a military intervention of any kind as part of its collective security provisions. 

Massive unrest erupted in parts of that Central Asian country today after unprecedented protests against the country's authoritarian government that were touched off by a steep hike in subsidized fuel prices. There are already indications that Kazakh authorities are engaging in violent crackdowns on demonstrators in a number of major cities.

Armed riot police in the Kazakh city of Almaty on Jan. 5, 2022., AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

Pashinyan made the announcement about the planned intervention by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) via his official Facebook account earlier this evening. In a machine translation of the language post, seen below, which is in Armenian and Russian, he says the decision was made to send "peacekeeping forces to the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited period of time to the situation in the country for the purpose of stability and regulation."

The Armenian Prime Minister offered no further details about the composition of this force or how it will be employed. There are unconfirmed reports that Russian troops, including paratroopers and special operations units, will at least be among the contingents deployed.

The CSTO currently has six members: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Since 2009, the bloc has had a standing Collective Rapid Reaction Force (CRRF), made up of designated contingents from its various member states, that is intended to be deployed upon request to combat various external and internal threats. CSTO CRRF drills, including those conducted as recently as last fall, have included a full range of military assets, including combat aircraft, helicopters, and armored vehicles, as well as special operations forces.

The CSTO has refused to act in response to all previous requests for assistance from member states, of which there have been at least two. The first came from Kyrgyzstan after major unrest erupted there in 2012 and the second came from Armenia after a major conflict broke out between it and Azerbaijan last year. Russia did deploy a peacekeeping force along the Armenian-Azerbaijan border after brokering a deal that brought the fighting to end in that case, but outside of the CSTO framework.

So it was unclear whether the bloc would actually respond when Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, who has been President of Kazakhstan since 2019,  made a formal appeal for help in dealing with what he described as a "terrorist" threat in his country earlier today. This followed the declaration of a state of emergency in many parts of the country, including in the capital Nur-Sultan, known as Astana until 2019 when it was renamed after longtime former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest metropolitan area.

Protesters had earlier attacked and set fire to numerous government buildings, including the president's residence in Nur-Sultan. There were also reports that they had taken control of the airport in Almaty for at least a time.

Toqaev, a member of the country's ruling Nur Otan political party, had earlier tried, and failed, to quell the growing unrest by publicly accepting the resignation of his cabinet and officially stripping Nazarbayev of his powerful role as Chairman of the Security Council. Kazakh authorities had also promised to work to ease the fuel price increases.

A list of demands circulating online, reportedly from an entity referring to itself as the People's Committee of Kazakhstan, included a call for the resignation of the Toqaev and the rest of the current government, among other things. It is unclear whether this list represents any sort of real coordinated push on the part of protesters across the country, but does appear to reflect a number of simmering grievances among average citizens.

Though the country remains under a major internet and communications blackout, a number of videos have since emerged online where large amounts of gunfire can be heard. Others reportedly show bodies of protesters killed in what increasingly appear to be brutal crackdowns in various cities by Kazakh security forces. It is virtually impossible to independently verify any of this footage at present and the overall situation in the country, by every indication, remains highly fluid. Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry earlier said that eight police officers and members of the country's national guard had died in clashes with protesters, and that 300 other security forces personnel had been injured, but offered no figures regarding civilian casualties.

It is certainly possible that the CSTO peacekeeping force that is now being readied according to Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan could find itself directly involved in breaking up any continued demonstrations. At the same time, they could also help restore order and otherwise guard critical infrastructure, such as Almaty's airport, freeing up Kazakhstan's own forces to help support ongoing crackdowns.

Russia, of all of the CSTO members, probably has the greatest interest in seeing stability, if not the prior status quo, return to Kazakhstan. The government in Kazakhstan, which was a part of the Soviet Union until 1991, remains a major partner of the Kremlin's on a wide range of issues. The Central Asian country still hosts a Russian test range at Sary Shagan that is used primarily used today to support work on anti-ballistic missile systems, which can double as anti-satellite weapons, as well as Russia's main space launch facility at Baikonur.

Beyond all this, Kazakhstan occupies an important geostrategic position between Russia and western China, as well as just being the largest country by area in Central Asia. This part of the world has drawn renewed international attention, in general, following the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, with which Kazakhstan does not share a border, in August 2021.

At the same time, Russia's ability, or desire, to contribute to an extended mission in Kazakhstan may be limited. The Kremlin is otherwise preoccupied with a campaign to at least put pressure on the government of Ukraine with large-scale military deployments along its borders with that country. In fact, many of the units based in central Russia that one might expect to be on call for operations in Kazakhstan are actually now deployed further west. 

In addition, Russian forces have been deployed to Belarus ostensibly for training exercises on multiple occasions in recent months amid a border crisis involving that country, which is a major Russian ally. Russia and Belarus stepped up joint drills back in 2020 in what appeared to some observers and experts as an indirect way to deploy forces to bolster the regime of the latter country's dictatorial President Alexander Lukashenko who was facing major protests at the time.

Regardless of what its direct contributions to the CSTO mission ultimately look like, the bloc's intervention does signal support from Russia, as well as the other CSTO members, for the current Kazakh government. These could be very important endorsements for President Toqaev as he looks to ensure continued loyalty to his regime, especially from the country's security forces.

"We are closely following the events in the fraternal neighboring state," a statement from Russia's Foreign Ministry earlier today read. "We are calling for a peaceful solution to all problems in the framework of the Constitution and the law, and dialogue, and not through street riots and the violation of laws."

What impact this impending deployment of a CSTO peacekeeping contingent will now have on the civil unrest of Kazakhstan very much remains to be seen.

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