There’s been an unspoken social contract in Kazakhstan for roughly 25 years: The populace trades in its civil liberties in exchange for economic prosperity and growth. Having a thriving middle class, even under autocratic rule, is preferable to the chaos seen within its Central Asian neighbors.
But in recent years, the ruling elite broke that contract — so now the people are revolting against them, triggering a deadly response by the regime that has welcomed in a Russian-led “anti-terrorism” force.
Peaceful protests erupted last weekend in western Kazakhstan over the doubling cost of liquified petroleum gas, which roughly 70 to 90 percent of regional vehicles use. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, experts say, as the price hike in the gas-rich nation embodied the regime’s inability to fix systemic issues like welfare, corruption and economic mobility, mainly to continue lining the pockets of oligarchs.
As a result, the demonstrations quickly spilled into Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, where police met protesters with force — escalating the standoff into a violent one. Reports indicate that today alone dozens of demonstrators and 12 police died in the uprising, with another 2,000 arrested. It’s the unfortunate result of a spike in tear gas, stun grenades, gunfire and burned-down government buildings, including the presidential residence, over recent days.
The situation could get much worse. Kazakh President KASSYM-JOMART TOKAYEV, little more than a puppet of long-time dictator NURSULTAN NAZARBAYEV, without evidence claims the protests are secretly backed by outsiders like the Islamic State. In response, he asked a Russian-led security bloc for help to rid the nation of alleged foreign terrorists.
To the surprise of experts — and the Biden administration — the Collective Security Treaty Organization agreed to intervene, even though it declined requests by Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and Armenia last year. “We have questions about the nature of this request and whether it was a legitimate invitation or not. We don’t know at this point,” White House press secretary JEN PSAKI told reporters today.
The Kazakhstan operation is officially the six-member group’s first intervention in its 30-year history. “The world will of course be watching for any violation of human rights and actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions, and we call on the CSTO collective peacekeeping forces and law enforcement to uphold the international human rights obligations in order to support a peaceful resolution,” Psaki added.
Why did the CSTO greenlight this deployment? National Defense University’s ERICA MARAT thinks the 2,500 foreign troops headed toward Kazakhstan are on their way more for Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN’s gain than Tokayev’s. “It’s an easy win for him,” she told NatSec Daily. Aiding the Kazakh regime in this relatively low-cost way will make it “more submissible” to the Kremlin.
This action could have far-reaching consequences, one that favors the region’s autocrats. “This is kind of a show [of force] to all the people that if they do something like this again, they will face repercussions, and those repercussions are bullets,” said ASSEL TUTUMLU, a professor at Near East University in northern Cyprus.
Marat agreed: “This sets a precedent that whenever autocrats are in crisis, they will send forces to protect fellow autocrats against their own citizens.”
The conversation has sharply turned in Washington to how can the U.S. “do something,” beyond calls by Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN to his Kazakh counterpart and statements by congressional leaders that they are “deeply concerned.”
All experts we spoke to said there’s no military role here for the U.S. and that Washington has little-to-no leverage in Kazakhstan, let alone in Central Asia. The best thing America can do, most told us, is bolster the nation’s pro-democracy civil society with funding and push the regime to back democratic and good-governance reforms.
That’s easier said than done, not solely because changing an autocratic regime’s ways is tough enough. Columbia University’s COLLEEN WOOD, who’s done field interviews with staffers at Kazakh NGOs, said local groups typically balk at foreign funding because it causes them logistical nightmares. In the past, the regime tied up these groups for months during tax discussions over supposed irregularities in their books, a thinly veiled attempt to track their money from abroad. Dealing with that, instead of doing their important work, might cause the NGOs to reject U.S.-based support, Wood said.
Which means President JOE BIDEN and his team would do well, as hard as it might be, to watch the current horror unfold from the sidelines.That’s the best-but-unsatisfying response, experts say, even though they fear the worst may yet be to come. “I’m scared of what might happen,” Tutumlu confided in our interview.
BIDEN BLAMES TRUMP FOR JAN. 6.: During a speech on the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Biden laid the blame for the violence directly at former President DONALD TRUMP’s feet — even if he didn’t directly name him.
The insurrectionists “didn’t come here out of patriotism or principle. They came here in rage — not in service of America, but rather in service of one man,” he said. “Those who stormed this Capitol … and those who called on them to do so, held a dagger at the throat of America.”
Asked after his address if calling Trump out would help the nation heal, the president said confronting the situation as is was crucial.
“The way you have to heal, you have to recognize the extent of the wound. You can’t pretend. This is serious stuff,” Biden told reporters. “You’ve gotta face it. That’s what great nations do. They face the truth, deal with it and move on.”
Trump responded to Biden’s remarks, in which he accepted no responsibility for that bloody day.
“This political theater is all just a distraction for the fact Biden has completely and totally failed,” he said, accusing the lawfully elected president of failing to handle Covid-19, energy policy and immigration.
“The Democrats want to own this day of January 6th so they can stoke fears and divide America,” Trump said. “I say, let them have it because America sees through theirs [sic] lies and polarizations.”
U.S. MIDEAST BASES ATTACKED: Military bases housing American troops in Iraq and Syria were attacked Wednesday, but no U.S. forces were killed in the strikes, CNN’s BARBARA STARR and DEVAN COLE reported.
The strikes on a base in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, and another at al-Asad airbase in Iraq were likely by Iranian-backed militias, experts say. After all, they coincide with the two-year anniversary of the assassination of Quds Force leader QASSEM SOLEIMANI, though it’s unclear if that’s the main reason for the attacks.
“It’s difficult to know with great specificity and certainty … what accounts for the frequency of these attacks,” Pentagon press secretary JOHN KIRBY told reporters. “It is certainly possible that it could be related to the anniversary of the Soleimani strike. It is certainly possible that it could be related to the change in mission” in Iraq.
RUSSIA’S DEPUTY FM: MEET MOSCOW’S UKRAINE DEMANDS: In an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s MICHAEL GORDON, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister SERGEI RYABKOV said talks with his American counterparts on Monday will help the Kremlin see if the Ukraine spat can be resolved with words alone.
“We need to figure out quite rapidly whether there is a basis to work on some of those issues,” Ryabkov said. “Our military will be there, and then we will see whether there is any basis to continue on a diplomatic track.”
He also told Gordon that Ukraine’s ties with NATO are a threat to Moscow, even if the former Soviet state doesn’t officially join the Western alliance.
Should the U.S. and its partners impose significant sanctions on Russia for a renewed invasion of Ukraine, Ryabkov said Washington-Moscow ties would sever and security cooperation “across the board” would be imperiled — restating a line Putin told Biden directly in recent chats.
“I cannot exclude negative effects on some arms-control arrangements we maintain with the U.S., and a big question would be put on the advisability to continue the strategic security dialogue,” he said.
JAPAN-AUSTRALIA DEFENSE DEAL: Japan and Australia signed a defense pact that will make it easier for each of their militaries to visit the other’s country for exercises, Defense News’ MIKE YEO reported.
“This is the first such agreement Japan has signed with a country other than the United States,” he wrote. “Both countries had begun negotiating the reciprocal access agreement in 2014,” but “talks stalled over jurisdictional concerns that could see Australian troops subject to the death penalty in Japan.”
“The agreement will streamline both countries’ complex entry procedures for foreign defense forces and equipment, which have become increasingly onerous as interactions increase, partly driven by growing concerns about China’s military modernization efforts and regional activities,” Yeo reported.
“This is years in the making and only possible thanks to the significant shift in strategic outlooks in Tokyo/Canberra,” tweeted ERIC SAYERS, an Asia security expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
IT’S THURSDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.
While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi, @woodruffbets, @politicoryan, @PhelimKine, @BryanDBender, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmccleary, @leehudson, and @AndrewDesiderio.
TENSIONS IN TOKYO OVER U.S. TROOPS AND OMICRON: Japanese Foreign Minister YOSHIMASA HAYASHI is asking SecState Blinken for U.S. service members in Japan to be restricted to their bases, per The Wall Street Journal’s ALASTAIR GALE, while the regions around those American military installations are demanding emergency measures to help halt the spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant.
“Japan had hoped to keep Omicron at bay with a near-total ban on foreigners entering the country,” Gale explains. “But the highly infectious variant managed to hitch a ride anyway, including via U.S. troops, who are allowed under a security treaty to travel directly into and out of U.S. bases in Japan on military aircraft. These troops don’t undergo the immigration checks foreigners usually receive on arrival.”
As a result of that interaction between U.S. troops and Japanese locals, “the southern prefecture of Okinawa, where most of the U.S. military in Japan is based, reported 981 cases, the largest caseload in the country.” The uptick in infections also has angered Japanese Prime Minister KISHIDA FUMIO, who “said he ordered his foreign minister to demand tougher steps at a U.S.-Japan meeting scheduled for Friday,” Gale writes.
YEMEN’S OTHER WAR IN CYBERSPACE: An “infodemic of online misinformation, disinformation, hate speech, and extremism” is raging across Yemen, writes ROBERT MUGGAH in Foreign Policy, undermining trust and exacerbating divisions in the Middle Eastern nation still rocked by brutal civil war.
“These digital harms are not only slowing efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but by deepening antagonisms among Yemenis, they are also eroding prospects for a durable peaceful settlement,” argues Muggah, a principal at the SecDev Group and co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.
Amid the yearslong conflict between Saudi-led forces and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels — which has devolved into a massive humanitarian crisis — “[c]ompetition over control of the telecommunication and information sector is poisoning the country’s conventional and social media landscape.” As Muggah notes, “persistent contact with fake news is disruptive even in stable contexts. In war zones, it can be lethal.”
BIDEN TO NOMINATE KURILLA AS NEXT CENTCOM CHIEF: Biden has nominated Army Lt. Gen. MICHAEL ERIK KURILLA to lead U.S. Central Command, The Wall Street Journal’s GORDON LUBOLD and NANCY YOUSSEF reported.
A former CENTCOM chief of staff now leading the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, Kurilla would replace Gen. FRANK MCKENZIE atop the U.S. military organization overseeing Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Iran.
McKenzie steps down on April 1, and Kurilla would get a fourth start to assume the role. The Senate must confirm his nomination.
LAST F-35 DELIVERIES FROM TURKEY: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) note that 2022 is the last year we’ll see Turkey deliver hundreds of components for the Lockheed Martin-built warplane.
“No new F-35 specific purchase orders have been awarded to Turkish manufacturers since March 2020,” DoD spokesperson JESSICA MAXWELL told our own PAUL MCLEARY. “All remaining Turkish manufactured parts, which were ordered before March 2020, will be delivered by the end of calendar year 2022.”
“At one point, more than 900 components for the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft were made in Turkey, including 188 parts for the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine. Manufacturers in the U.S. and other consortium nations are picking up that work. … Pratt & Whitney told Congress last April that the move from Turkish manufacturers would likely increase the cost of the engines by 3 percent in the next contract. The company is still negotiating the contract for the next lots, so was unable to provide a new figure,” Morning Defense noted.
DEMS BACKING BIDEN ON NS2: Even though congressional Democrats have long railed against the nearly complete Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline, they’re going to oppose Sen. TED CRUZ’s (R-Texas) gambit to reimpose sanctions on it — thereby backing Biden against Republican opposition.
“Absent a surprise development, Cruz’s bill is expected to fall short of the 60-vote threshold,” our own ANDREW DESIDERIO reported. One reason is that Sen. JEANNE SHAHEEN (D-N.H.), who has long supported sanctions on Nord Stream 2, is changing her tune a bit. “At this point it’s very important, as we’re looking at potential Russian action in Ukraine, for us to work very closely with our allies, and Germany is one of those very important allies. And so I think the amendment is ill-timed,” she said of Cruz’s bill.
Further, Sen. CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.), a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, is openly working to defeat Cruz’s amendment. “This isn’t about Russia. This is about a Cruz-Trump agenda to break up the trans-Atlantic alliance. This is a moment where we need to be in solidarity with the administration as they try to use a carrot-stick approach with the Russians to prevent an invasion,” Murphy said in a brief interview with Desiderio. “Sending a wedge into the trans-Atlantic relationship right now would not be productive if our end goal is to try to save Ukraine from an invasion.”
Republicans NatSec Daily talks to remain confident Cruz will reach the 60-vote threshold. But with attitudes seemingly shifting on the Democratic side, that optimism might soon make way for pessimism.
DEFENSE FIRMS SHOULD STOP SUPPORTING ELECTION DENIERS: JOHN CARL BAKER of the Ploughshares Fund has a provocative op-ed in Defense One asking defense contractors to stop contributing to the campaigns of election deniers.
“A new report from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington finds that in 2021, military contractors were among the top corporate donors to legislators who refused to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Topping the list was industry giant Boeing, who gave $346,500 to GOP campaign committees or election objectors’ campaigns — and even donated to state attorneys general who worked to overturn the election results. Other major contractors who donated to election denialists include General Dynamics, which gave $233,500; Lockheed Martin, $205,000; L3Harris, $173,000; Northrop Grumman, $151,000; and Raytheon, $150,500,” he wrote.
Baker’s plea: “This does not bode well for the future of liberal democracy in the United States. Allowing the pursuit of profit to override democratic principles will help normalize and expand authoritarian attitudes in Congress. We should all hope that the defense industry, if only to stave off bad press, chooses to implement one of the two options above. If not, though, it’s fair to ask: which side are they on?”
It’s worth highlighting that defense contractors paused their campaign contributions after the Jan. 6 insurrection — but they’re clearly back to their old ways.
— PETER VELZ will begin work in the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol later this month. He most recently was director of press operations for the vice president.
— CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times: “To Reach South Korea, He Risked His Life. To Leave It, He Did It Again.”
— MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG, NAHAL TOOSI and PAUL MCLEARY, POLITICO: “Biden Talks Tough on Putin, but European Allies Are Less Ready for a Fight”
— LILY KUO, The Washington Post: “With Beer, Rum and Chocolate, Taiwan Rallies Behind Lithuania in Spat With China”
— The Atlantic Council, 10 a.m.: “A Conversation With ISHRAT HUSAIN, Former Adviser to Prime Minister IMRAN KHAN — with UZAIR YOUNUS”
— Washington Post Live, 11 a.m.: “Afghan Refugee Crisis — with FILIPPO GRANDI”
— The Center for a New American Security, 11:30 a.m.: “Containing Crisis: Strategic Concepts for Coercive Economic Statecraft on China — with AMI BERA, EMILY JIN, EMILY KILCREASE and RACHEL ZIEMBA”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, John Yearwood, who quells our uprisings with measured diplomacy, not violence.
- Alex Ward @alexbward