Are the Putin-backed dictators his corner for the war in Ukraine?

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Are the Putin-backed dictators in Belarus and Kazakhstan in his corner for the Ukraine war? It’s complicated.

Last month, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a particularly expansive version of his now familiar argument that all of the former Soviet Union is, in fact, “historical Russia.”

Putin is not arguing for a literal recreation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Russian Tsarist Empire; rather, his view appears to be that the 14 sovereign nations that were part of the Soviet Union — places which, after all, have historical and cultural links to Russia and often sizable Russian-speaking populations — should take a subordinate role, coordinating their foreign policies and economic interests with the priorities set by Moscow.

It was this vision, and Ukraine’s increasing defiance of it, that motivated this year’s invasion. Ukraine’s size, economic resources and historical links to Russia make it the linchpin in Putin’s “Russian world.”

But other neighbors are nearly as important, notably Kazakhstan and Belarus. The first is a vast state with massive energy resources bridging Europe and Asia. The second, a place with significant historical and cultural links to Russia, nestled on the border of the European Union and NATO.

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Right up until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the autocratic governments of both Belarus and Kazakhstan appeared firmly in Putin’s camp. But since the invasion, things have taken an unexpected turn, as became obvious at that July St. Petersburg forum.

There was Putin sharing the stage with — among others — Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. And there was Tokayev, taking the opportunity to push back against Putin’s expansionist vision, right to his face. Referring to the language on territorial integrity in the United Nations Charter, Tokayev justified his government’s refusal to recognize the Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.

“We do not recognize Taiwan, or Kosovo, or South Ossetia or Abkhazia,” Tokayev told the forum. “And in all likelihood, this principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which in our opinion, Luhansk and Donetsk are.” It may have seemed like a dry geopolitical statement, but it must have sounded like blasphemy to Putin, who looked on and said nothing in response.

Belarus’ longtime president, Alexander Lukashenko, has not been quite so brazen, and his country, unlike Kazakhstan, has been directly participating in Putin’s war. But Lukashenko’s rhetoric has been surprising as well, shown most recently in an odd statement congratulating Ukraine on its national day and wishing Russia’s adversary “peaceful skies, tolerance, courage, strength and success in restoring a decent life.” The Ukrainian government dismissed the statement as “cynical,” but this, too, cannot have been well received by the Kremlin.

Six months into the war, these longtime friendships show signs of fraying. And as Putin fights to keep Ukraine inside Moscow’s sphere of influence, other important parts of that sphere are looking shakier than expected.

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“We’re used to talking about Putin as this master statesman, but it’s pretty bloody obvious that the Russians have not played this well,” Paul Goble, a former State Department and CIA Eurasia analyst, told Grid.

Kazakhstan: from friendship to cold shoulder

On the Russian social network VKontakte earlier this month, a bombshell of a post appeared on the account of Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president who currently serves as deputy chairman of Putin’s National Security Council. The post derided Russia’s neighbor Kazakhstan as an “artificial state,” accused its leaders of “genocide” against ethnic Russians, claimed wide swathes of northern Kazakhstan as historical Russian territory and vowed that following the war in Ukraine, Moscow was “getting ready to undertake the next move to restore the borders of our homeland.”

Though Medvedev was once considered a liberal technocrat (by Kremlin standards) during the brief interregnum (2008–2012) when he ruled in Putin’s stead, he has recently pivoted to ultranationalist online trolling, so the tone of the post wasn’t a surprise. But the target was. Kazakhstan is ostensibly a close Russian ally; a fellow oil-rich autocracy with which it shares the world’s second-longest border and a large number — some 18 percent of the population — of ethnic Russians. For all these reasons, it’s a crucial piece in Putin’s ambitions to build an alternative, anti-Western economic and security order.

Medvedev’s VKontake post was taken down within minutes and blamed on hackers, but not before it racked up thousands of views and prompted a social media firestorm in Kazakhstan. Certainly the post offered at least one reason why Kazakhs and other Russian neighbors have been so wary of Moscow in the wake of the invasion.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The current president, Tokayev, took over in March 2019 from Nursultan Nazarbayev, the authoritarian president who had led Kazakhstan since independence. Nazarbayev had consulted with Putin shortly before announcing his resignation, and the conventional wisdom is that the Kremlin favored Tokayev, a longtime foreign minister and therefore a known quantity in Moscow, as successor. While Kazakhstan has often worked to maintain an independent foreign policy by cultivating ties with China and the West, Russia has generally backed the regime in the name of maintaining stability in its backyard.

Transitions are always risky times for authoritarian governments. Taking over from a leader like Nazarbayev, who had molded Kazakhstan in his image for three decades, was a particularly tall order. And Tokayev faced the most serious challenge to his rule in January when protests, which were initially motivated by fuel prices but quickly came to encompass grievances involving economic stagnation and corruption, spread throughout the country. Buildings were occupied and burned, stores looted, and the country’s main airport was occupied. After his own security forces failed to quell the unrest — instead of making the situation worse by using live fire and killing hundreds of protesters — Tokayev appealed for help to the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led regional alliance.

Roughly 3,000 troops, the vast majority from Russia, were dispatched to Kazakhstan, eventually putting down the demonstration. Unlike in the case of Ukraine, those troops left after only a few days. On Feb. 10, Tokayev, his hold on power secured, visited Moscow to thank Putin for his help in dealing with an uprising that both presidents blamed on foreign-backed “bandits” and “terrorists.”

The friendship seemed secure.

Just a few weeks later, it was Russia asking for troops, this time to aid its stalled invasion of Ukraine. But officials in Kazakhstan denied that request, saying its troops would not take part. Kazakh officials have also said they will not help Russia evade international sanctions. “We don’t want and will not risk being placed in the same basket” as Russia, one of Tokayev’s top aides told Euractiv.

“There was an expectation among most experts that Tokayev would support Russia, either with troops or at least verbal support,” Erica Marat, a professor and Central Asia specialist at the National Defense University, told Grid. “But it was just the opposite. He’s the only leader in the former Soviet space who told Putin to his face that he would not recognize any of the territories that Russia is trying to separate from Ukraine.”


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As Russian commentators grumbled about his country’s “ingratitude,” Tokayev told a Russian TV interviewer, “In Russia, some people distort this whole situation, asserting that Russia supposedly ‘saved’ Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan should now eternally ‘serve and bow down to the feet’ of Russia. I believe that these are totally unjustified arguments that are far from reality.”

Kazakhstan has also sought to turn Russia’s increasing international isolation to its advantage. In July, Tokayev announced that Kazakhstan would seek to attract Western businesses that have fled Russia due to sanctions, and that it would work to expand economic and military ties with the West. Moscow has not taken this lightly: In July, a Russian court, dubiously citing environmental concerns, shut down operations at a pipeline used by Kazakhstan to export most of its oil.

So what exactly is Tokayev’s calculus? He is an autocratic leader but a relatively new one who — as the failure to put down this year’s protests shows — has a fragile hold on power. It’s risky for him to be seen as too beholden to Moscow. And anecdotal evidence suggests public opposition to the war is high. Russian tourists in Kazakhstan report being accosted by locals and even fined by police for having pro-war “Z” stickers on their cars.

“The response is not, ‘Oh my God, we better salute’ [to Russia]. It’s, ‘Oh my God, we better arm ourselves or we better find friends in the West or in China,’” said Goble.

Of course, defying Russia carries risks as well. With its resources bogged down in Ukraine, Putin’s means of punishing his wayward southern neighbor may be limited right now. But chances are he’s not likely to forget these slights.

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Belarus’ bind

Kazakhstan is almost 2,000 miles from Ukraine, so the war can be kept at least somewhat at a safe remove. Belarus, bordering both combatants as well as three NATO member states, doesn’t have that option.

Lukashenko, often referred to as Europe’s last dictator, has — like Tokayev — relied on Russian help while dealing with internal turmoil. In the summer of 2020, Lukashenko, independent Belarus’ first and only president, claimed a sixth term with 80 percent of the vote, in an election that independent surveys showed he almost certainly lost. Widespread opposition protests followed and then a harsh crackdown by security forces, including thousands of arrests. Recent years had seen something of a thaw in relations between Belarus and Western countries, with the latter hoping to pry Lukashenko from the Kremlin’s orbit, but after the crackdown, the U.S. and EU applied tough new sanctions. In stepped Putin, with an immediate $1.5 billion loan and offers of security assistance.

While Belarus and Russia have always been close allies, Lukashenko has at times pushed back against Russia’s ambitions to create a “union state” with a common currency and military. The two governments agreed to a union state back in 1997 when Boris Yeltsin was president, but progress has been slow and it was only after the protests and Russia’s assistance that Lukashenko agreed, in 2021, to a series of “road maps” on deepening political and economic integration between the countries.

So it wasn’t a surprise when Russia moved troops to Belarus in January, as part of a military build-up that it insisted was part of an exercise. In February, that exercise turned into a war. Many of the Russian troops that participated in the assault on Kyiv in the early days, including those that perpetrated atrocities in the town of Bucha, were dispatched from Belarus and later retreated the same way. Western countries have essentially treated Belarus as Russia’s co-combatant, subjecting its economy to heavy new sanctions.

But despite warnings from the Ukrainian government and U.S. officials that Belarus could become a direct combatant in the war, Belarusian troops have not joined the invasion and don’t appear likely to soon. According to Lukashenko, Putin has not asked him for troops, and he has said repeatedly that his forces would not take part. Belarus has a small army of about 15,000 troops who are not particularly battle-ready; but given Russia’s desperate personnel issues, it seems likely that Russia would welcome any help that was offered.

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While Lukashenko has consistently maintained that Russia’s invasion was provoked by the West, and he has certainly not criticized Putin, he has also differed in slight but significant ways from the Kremlin line. Rather than touting his country’s role in the conlict, Lukashenko has complained that Belarus has been unfairly labeled “an accomplice of the aggressor” in the Western media. He also has said the operation has “dragged on,” contradicting the Russian insistence that all is going according to plan. In an interview with a state news broadcaster, Lukashenko lamented, “We do not need this war. Because as a result of this conflict between two Slavic peoples, we are the ones who may suffer the most.”

Lukashenko’s reluctance to get more directly involved is likely motivated in part by a sense that doing so would be deeply unpopular. According to a poll by the British think tank Chatham House, less than 3 percent of Belarusians support offering military assistance to Russia, and 67 percent object to Russia attacking Ukraine from Belarusian territory. Belarusian opposition leaders claim senior commanders in the country’s armed forces have refused to take part in an attack on Ukraine.

These reports are difficult to verify, but Belarusian volunteers are known to make up one of the largest contingents of foreign fighters on the Ukrainian side of the war and have taken heavy losses on the front lines.

Pavel Slunkin, a former Belarusian diplomat now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid that the war has put Lukashenko in a bind. “Putin is one of the two main pillars of Lukashenko staying in power. The second would be is his security services, the ‘siloviki,’ his repressive apparatus,” he said. The latter are hardly Western liberals, but they are also not likely to favor going to war for Putin.

The 2020 crackdown saw widespread defections from Belarus’ security services. In short, Lukashenko may not be in a position to afford Belarusian troops coming home in coffins because of another country’s war.

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Still, Slunkin said Lukashenko’s resistance can only go so far. “If Putin really wants Lukashenko to send his army there, [Lukashenko] will not have any choice. He’s been living in a mousetrap since 2020.”

The consequences

In the half-year since the war began, the degree of Putin’s isolation on the world stage has become an object of intense focus. His stock has plummeted among the European powers that once viewed him as a convenient if problematic source of energy and stability, but he’s still more popular than Western leaders would like in many parts of Asia and Africa.

Less noticed has been the fact that some of the countries one would assume would be most supportive of Putin’s ambitions have instead shown signs of discomfort — ranging from reluctant acquiescence to outright hostility. In order to counter the U.S., NATO and the EU, Putin has long put forward a vision of an alternative order of political, economic and military alliances in Russia’s region under Moscow’s leadership. Ukraine is a necessary component of that project. So are Belarus and Kazakhstan.

As Goble told Grid, “The fact is that the population of all these countries looks at what Russia is doing in Ukraine and sees Russia as a threat. What you’re seeing is the leaderships of these countries are increasingly moving in that direction.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.