This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent forces into Kazakhstan to provide support to President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s autocratic government amid violent protests that erupted over energy prices.
At the same time, thousands of Russian troops are currently massed on the border with Ukraine — an escalation that raises serious concerns about a military invasion on par with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The Biden administration met with Russian officials this week in an attempt to defuse the Ukraine standoff, but their efforts were to no avail. Moscow is unrelentingly seeking an agreement from NATO to not expand its reach eastward into Ukraine and to end security cooperation with Ukraine — proposals that the lead U.S. diplomat called “non-starters.”
To be sure, Russia’s actions — individually and collectively — with regard to Kazakhstan and Ukraine are part of a wider effort by Putin to reassert Russia’s dominance over former Soviet states, and to undermine both the actual and perceived strength of NATO.
And make no mistake, Putin is gaining ground in his quest.
Putin’s advances have been made possible by the fact that the United States and NATO lack a uniform strategy for dealing with non-NATO states that were part of the former Soviet Republic — including Ukraine and Kazakhstan — which former national security adviser John Bolton aptly noted in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal.
Indeed, the U.S. said earlier this week that it would not intervene in the crisis in Kazakhstan, and the State Department went no further than to call for “restraint by both the authorities and protestors.” At the same time, the true extent of militaristic and economic support that the U.S. and NATO are willing to provide to Ukraine — either in the event of a full-on Russian invasion, or absent one — is unclear.
President Joe Biden reportedly warned Putin last month that an invasion of Ukraine would result in harsh economic sanctions, the disruption of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and Ukraine receiving defensive capabilities from the West.
Despite Biden ostensibly drawing a “red line,” Putin has held his ground and continues to demand a guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward into Ukraine — perhaps because Putin is testing the president, or because he has little reason to believe that Biden would follow through fully on his threats.
The U.S. has not drastically increased military aid to Ukraine since Biden took office, and in May, the administration waived sanctions against Nord Stream 2. And up until this point, Moscow has clearly not been deterred by any economic sanctions imposed against them.
Furthermore, the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August — which weakened America’s standing on the world stage, and also signals that the Biden administration is reluctant to engaging in future foreign wars — has clearly emboldened Putin to behave more aggressively.
Whether or not Putin will actually engage in Ukraine has yet to be determined. Some have argued that because Kazakhstan — a neighboring autocracy — was thrown into chaos, Putin may be more likely to take aggressive actions to weaken Ukraine, which has been striving for democracy and working on integrating itself with the West.
To that end, I mostly agree with the argument made by those like former national security official Fiona Hill, who have said that the situation in Kazakhstan could very well “accelerate Putin’s desire to do something” in Ukraine.
However, I do not see Russian involvement in Kazakhstan as a sign that Putin’s influence is waning. While the uprising in Kazakhstan against the Russian-allied government there was not an ideal scenario for Russia, Putin can — as I anticipate he will — use the situation in Kazakhstan to his advantage with Ukraine and with other non-NATO former Soviet states.
Specifically, Putin can point to Moscow’s decisive intervention in Kazakhstan as evidence that Russia is a more reliable militaristic partner than NATO and the United States.
Putin is clearly already working to achieve this end. On Thursday, the Russian president effectively declared success in Russia’s mission to stabilize Kazakhstan, announcing that Russian troops had “accomplished their task,” and were preparing to return home. Earlier in the week, he had promised other pro-Russia ex-Soviet states that they would receive decisive Russian support in similar circumstances.
Following the withdrawal of troops from Kazakhstan, we can reasonably expect that Putin will ramp up efforts to undermine and pressure the democratically elected government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — which has received lukewarm support from NATO — especially given the lack of success of Russia’s talks with the U.S. and NATO this week.
To be sure, NATO could effectively stop Putin in his tracks — or at the very least, anticipate his next moves — if they had a concrete plan outlining the extent of support that they would provide to non-NATO former-Soviet states like Ukraine.
If Putin does invade Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO need to be prepared to take two concrete steps. First, to seriously consider suspending Russia from SWIFT, the global interbank payment system; and second, to begin providing lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.
Absent these two steps and a broader strategy, NATO would be effectively ceding Putin ground in his quest to re-gain control of former Soviet states and weaken the Western alliance.
Douglas Schoen is a longtime Democratic political consultant.