Every week brings new evidence of the impotence and lack of vision of Biden’s foreign policy. The political crisis in Kazakhstan is appalling in its negative impact on the global credibility of the United States.
In foreign affairs related to Russia, by focusing most of his administration’s energy on preserving the fragile peace in Ukraine, President Joe Biden has behaved for the past two weeks as if nothing were happening in Central Asia. Despite the region’s major strategic importance due to its geographic location and natural resource endowment, Biden’s policy of turning a blind eye to Russian military activeness has prevailed.
As a result, the consequences of the last two weeks will last for some time and the mistakes of the Democratic administration are a Christmas present for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, the Orthodox Christmas being celebrated this year on January 7.
Five days earlier, on January 2, demonstrators took the streets of Janaozen, Almaty and other cities in Kazakhstan to protest against rising fuel prices. At issue was the doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas, which is used to fuel most vehicles in the country. The anger of the demonstrators was directed in particular against the authoritarian former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled this country of 19 million people from 1989 to 2019 and retains a great deal of influence over the executive. He is considered the mentor of the current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who himself is married to a Russian woman.
Consequently, the protests have evolved into broader complaints about corruption and dissatisfaction with the authoritarian government. The revolt escalated from anger over soaring gas prices to clashes over the future direction of the country.
Taken by surprise by this unprecedented contestation movement, the Kazakh President responded with repressive measures and appealed for help from its usual supporter and neighbor, Russia. Moscow and its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) announced right after the dispatch of the first contingent of a “collective peacekeeping force” to Kazakhstan.
Twelve Russian military transport planes, Il-76 and AN-124, landed on Friday, January 7, at the airport of Almaty, the economic capital of Kazakhstan, at the heart of the riots that have been shaking the country for several days. Under the command of General Andrei Serdyukov, who led the airborne operations in Syria, this contingent of nearly 3,000 soldiers is responsible for “protecting vital installations, airfields and key social infrastructures”.
The unrest prompted the Russian-led military intervention and the cold-blooded killing of hundreds of anti-government protesters. The official referral to the CSTO, a military alliance that has united Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in addition to Russia and Kazakhstan since 2002, was used as a shield. The massive deployment of Russian troops is in fact out of all proportion to the few dozen soldiers sent by the other states.
To legitimize his claim, Tokayev blamed the unrest of Wednesday, January 5, on “international terrorist groups,” after having cited a few moments earlier the figure of “20,000 armed criminals” in the city of Almaty alone, which seems a lot for a “terrorist” operation. In order to stay in power at all costs, Mr. Tokayev has taken the risk of appearing to be the one who allowed the return of Russian soldiers to Kazakh territory, thirty years after the independence of this former Soviet republic.
This is the first time the CSTO has conducted a joint military action since its creation after the fall of the USSR under the pretext to “help Kazakh law enforcement agencies stabilize the situation and restore the rule of law”. This intervention also serves the interests of Moscow, which seeks to maintain and increase its influence in all regions, including Africa.
Needless to say, as explained below, that the mission had nothing to do with traditional “peacekeeping. In fact, Russia intervened without a U.N. mandate, without international agreement on the need to intervene and without any control over its presence. The invitation of the panicked Kazakh President was seen as a sufficiently solid basis for the Russian-led military intervention. This set a precedent. A very unpleasant precedent for the United States and dangerous for the Western world, which was not handled properly by the Biden administration.
It is always a mistake to let events happen without having any say in them. By remaining incredibly passive, President Biden has pinched America’s ability to defend its interests and those of its partners and allies, especially at the time of the difficult negotiations over the future of Ukraine.
Certainly, the actions of Kazakhstan’s President in imposing a harsh crackdown and calling in Russian troops to quell the protests have caused some concern on the part of the United States.
For instance, responding to the deaths of scores of civilians, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, called on Tokayev to rescind the “shoot-to-kill” order he gave to police and security forces. Blinken also warned that recent history showed that it can be “very difficult” getting Russian troops to leave.
Washington also condemned in the strongest possible terms the violence and destruction of property, warning Russian troops against any violation of human rights or desire to take control of the country’s institutions. “The United States, and frankly the whole world, is watching for any possible human rights violations. And we are also monitoring any actions that could lay the groundwork for a takeover of Kazakhstan’s institutions,” said U.S. diplomatic spokesman Ned Price. “We call on CSTO peacekeeping and law enforcement forces to respect human rights in order to support a peaceful resolution.”
Such statements are clearly not serious enough, either in substance or in form. The United States should have been much more concerned about the events in the former Soviet republic occurring just days after the December 2021 visit of the U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia to the Kazakh capital for an enhanced strategic partnership dialogue.
The events are disastrous, not only because of the loss of life and disruption of peace in Kazakhstan, but also because President Tokayev decided in the first place to appeal to the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization to send so-called “peacekeepers.” Kazakhstan has a 4,750 mile border with Russia and a large Russian-speaking population. As such, it is still clearly within the absolute sphere of influence of the Russian Federation.
This is yet another example of how Russian President Vladimir Putin is exercising Russia’s power over countries that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some may think that Ukraine and Kazakhstan are two very different cases, especially because Kazakhstan invited Russian forces into the country, but the principle of Russia’s coercive military intervention is certainly very similar, if not identical.
This is why Joe Biden’s decision to give Russia a free hand is a mistake. Geographically and geopolitically, Kazakhstan is very important to the United States. Not only does it border China and Russia, but it is also a regional player for Afghanistan. The U.S. has a clear and long-standing interest in fighting terrorism in the region, given the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban last year. For example, the U.S. is trying to move jihadists and their families out of detention camps in Syria to countries where they can benefit from rehabilitation programs. Kazakhstan has accepted such families at the request of the U.S. government.
The United States also has huge financial investments in Kazakhstan’s energy sector, with some of the major U.S.-owned companies, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, having interests in Kazakh oil and gas fields. The country is also a major exporter of minerals, including raw uranium.
Yet this is not the main consequence of Biden’s decision not to lift a finger during the recent crisis. Since all these reasons do not seem to be enough to get a stronger reaction from President Biden, he would implicitly encourage the same scenario elsewhere, when it is obvious that what is at stake both in Ukraine and Kazakhstan is the maintenance of their territorial integrity and state sovereignty.
The absence of a convincing response from the White House or from the State Department will therefore have a negative impact on the Ukraine negotiations and of course, at the global level, leaders will view the U.S. administration as particularly weak and Biden as bowing to Putin for free. Perception is everything in politics and I expect more distrust regarding America’s role in the coming months. All credit for this fiasco to President Biden and his lack of understanding of the importance of keeping America strong at any time of history.
The United Nations also lost track and merely responded by urging the authorities and protesters to “exercise restraint, refrain from violence and promote dialogue.” In a statement, Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said the U.N. is following events in Kazakhstan “with concern.” Any NGO could have issued a stronger statement.
This is another example of the purposelessness of the U.N. in today’s world. The U.N. Charter stipulates the conditions for military intervention, but the U.N. Secretary General does not even dare to comment on the Russian intervention himself. By subscribing to the Charter, all member states agree in principle on those conditions and on the modalities for placing at the disposal of the Security Council armed forces against aggressors or disruptors of peace.
Was this provision respected in the case of Kazakhstan? Absolutely not. There was no Security Council debate or decision before Russia sent its soldiers. In other words, the U.N. was totally sidelined and ignored in this operation. Worse still. Kazakh troops used U.N. helmets and clothing to approach and kill civilians. Photos showed national armed personnel wearing the world body’s iconic blue helmets – which can only be worn by peacekeepers operating under a U.N. Security Council mandate – during the week-long violence and crackdown on protests.
The U.N. also completely failed to monitor whether the CSTO troops in Kazakhstan met its standards of restraint in peacekeeping and protected the rights of citizens to peaceful protest. It failed as well to categorize the Russian intervention and to condemn Moscow’s decision to send troops without any mandate.
The U.N. uses terminology that differentiates between offensive and defensive peacekeeping forces. It uses the term “peace operations” as an umbrella term covering “conflict prevention and peacemaking; peacekeeping; and peace-building.
Actions authorized under Chapter VI are based on the consent of the belligerent parties, while Chapter VII allows the Security Council to take coercive measures in respect of threats to the peace, breaches of the peace and acts of aggression. Militaries authorized under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter are characterized by their explicit authorization to use force to defend the mandate. The Russian intervention, carried out with the implicit consent of Washington, does not fit into any of these categories.
Moscow superbly ignored the obsolete rules and regulations of the U.N. and deployed its soldiers without any opposition, since Putin saw this as a new and excellent opportunity to regain domination in the former Soviet space.
Russia has always been a hungry bear. Its moves in Africa should also ring a strong bell. While Mali is moving away from France, which intervened militarily in 2013 in the face of the jihadists’ advance, Bamako is getting closer to Moscow every day. Signs of the arrival of Russian mercenaries are multiplying, and Bamako mentions “instructors” who train the Malian army. Without mentioning the Kremlin-linked Wagner company, the West African countries recently expressed concern in a joint communiqué about the alleged deployment of “a private security agency” with “potentially devastating effects for the region.
On the other front, Russia, comforted by its success in Kazakhstan, said on Sunday it would not make concessions under U.S. pressure and warned that this week’s talks on the Ukraine crisis might end early, while Washington said no breakthroughs were expected and progress depended on de-escalation from Moscow. The hard line from Moscow underscored the fragile prospects for negotiations that Washington hopes will avert the danger of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the tensest point in U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War ended three decades ago.
In two conversations over the past five weeks, U.S. President Joe Biden warned Putin that Russia would face unprecedented economic sanctions in the event of further aggression against Ukraine. Putin responded that would be a “colossal mistake” that would lead to a complete rupture of relations. This was another example of his arrogant nonchalance in the face of threats made by Biden.
The reality is that President Putin has been advancing his interests everywhere even more easily for the past two years. His maneuvers are facilitated by President Biden, who is drifting away from the usual strong reactions and vigilance typical of the American mega-superpower. Instead, he behaves more like the leader of a second-rate nuclear power like France. Believing that economic sanctions can stop military expansion is desperate and Ukraine may soon pay the price. This is the rhetoric of a loser. Biden has been engulfed by Putin and this is actually very bad news for both America and the rest of the free world.