Kazakhstan: The Russian empire marches on
It feels as though Russia's armed forces enter another country with the frequency of a new COVID variant. This time, it is Kazakhstan. A casual reader thus relearns the distant geography well forgotten since the days of the Soviet Union. World leaders try hard to remember the names of their ambassadors in those, until now, forsaken places, where good folks are sent for reasons other than competence. It does appear that only geography, not the supposed adversaries, is the real limit to the current bout of Russia's geopolitical expansion. Yet Russia's march around its "near far," as Russia likes to call its bordering countries, exposes some lethal flows in the strategy pursued by the Kremlin.
Russia's message to the people of these "liberated," "saved," or "stabilized" countries is clearly formed and unequivocally expressed: Russia is bringing stability. But what is stability as defined by Russia? Most people think of tranquility — a moment in time when one feels secure financially and socially. Russia's version is very different. It is defined as a near-absolute state authority, which may or may not deliver benefits, be they jobs or subsidies. Moreover, the state this stability lauds is not an abstract state; it is Russia's state. This stability is Russia's imperial expansion where the Kremlin's uncontested rule is the goal in itself.
Another issue with Russia's imperial ambitions is the ethnic undertone. Its current process of expansion is not simply an empire trying to prop up satellite states on its vast borders. It is an ingathering of the Russian Diaspora — the Russian world, as the Kremlin prefers to call it. From the Baltic States to the South Caucasus, from Eastern Ukraine to Kazakhstan, Russia claims to help not countries in trouble, but Russians or Russian-speaking populations. President Putin does not believe that Ukraine and Kazakhstan are legitimate countries. In his view, and in the view of Russia's ruling elite, those were artificial entities created by the whims of the Bolsheviks. They were separated from Russia to enable better management of the vast empire the Bolsheviks inherited from the tsar. But once the Bolshevik regime ceased to exist, so did the rationale for those countries. It was time for those provinces to rejoin the bosom of the motherland. For an average American, to draw an easy parallel, it is a redistricting gone terribly bad. There is no reason for them to be independent countries thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union beyond the machinations of foreign powers trying to divide Russia and the Russian people.
However, those countries do exist and now have a majority population, contrary to Stalin's designs, that is not Russian by any definition of that national or linguistic notion. Thus, Russian soldiers in Kazakhstan are shooting Kazakhs and not defending the Kazakh state. The vast majority of Kazakhs see this action to "stabilize" their state as a creeping rebirth of the USSR. And if some old-timers may have nostalgic feelings toward the old empire, for the new generations, the notion is completely foreign: they are not Russian, and they are not Soviet.
Nationalism is not the only driving force of recent Russian moves. Oil and gas play just as important a part in the Kremlin's decision-making. The stability the Kremlin is offering singularly depends on gas and oil revenues. As the diversification of Russia's economy has been an utter failure, its energy resources are the most successful foreign policy card and a huge strategic liability. It is a single point of failure, so Russia must keep it secure at any cost. For those who don't possess any resources of their own, like Belarus, Russia offers small change for the transit, but for those who possess their own resources, like Kazakhstan, Russia under the disguise of friendly gestures tries to limit options for exports and makes its own pipelines the only avenue to sell its riches.
Russia may force its weak neighbors to dance to its tune, but the offer it makes is the "one you cannot refuse" to use the mafia parlance. In the near term, it will most likely succeed because the targets are too weak, and the rest of the world is absent. The U.S. is unable to develop a coherent policy toward Russia. It is incapable of delivering any policy at all — nothing more than a set of aspirational speeches and ideas detached from reality or its own interests.