Was Kazakhstan’s “Bloody January” a Symptom of Putin-Gone-Rogue?

For weeks, Russia has launched a wide-scale military invasion of Ukraine at an intensity never before seen in 21st century Europe. Characterized by sheer brutality and mounting human rights abuses of the worst degree, the whole world was taken aback by Moscow’s brazenly illegal “military operation,” ludicrous reasoning and sheer audacity. 

However, a look back at Russia’s irresponsible wielding of the regional military alliance, Collective Treaty Security Organization (CSTO), reveals a consistent pattern of Russian invasion under questionable pretenses — and a leader who has long been willing to tempt Russia’s fate for regional dominance.

On Jan. 2, violence erupted across Kazakhstan. As widespread unrest swept across the country, 164 people were killed and over 10,000 arrested in what some are now calling “Qandy Qangtar,” or “Bloody January.” The aftermath of Bloody January continues to unfold as hundreds remain in custody and promises for reform arouse suspicion among the Kazakh people. 

On a surface level, it seems as though the January protests were sparked by frustrations over a spike in fuel prices that went into effect on Jan. 1. Concentrated in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty, the demonstrations quickly devolved into rioting and looting. By Jan.7, they escalated to a “shoot to kill” order issued by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. 

However, it soon became clear that the unrest in Kazakhstan was much more deeply-rooted than initially it appeared to be. Within days, chants demanding, ”Old man, out!” rang across the streets of Almaty, Zhanaozen, Nur-Sultan and other parts of the country.

Kazakhstan was bleeding, and it seemed one man was the source. 

Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was in office from 1990 until his resignation in 2019, is the first president of Kazakhstan and current namesake of its capital city, Nur-Sultan. Despite his self-proclaimed status as a “pensioner” and “retired person,” Nazabayev became the target of violent unrest in the country he once ruled with an iron fist. 

Having been appointed to the powerful position of Security Council secretary, an institution widely regarded as the KGB-successor, Nazarbayev and the blatant nepotism of his regime — which saw many in his close circle of family and friends emerge as billionaires — remained integral facets of the Kazakh political landscape. Although Tokayev rose to power in 2019 after Nazarbayev stepped down from his twenty-nine year long tenure, the latter was widely believed to have been pulling the strings behind-the-scenes. 

The Nazarbayev Era and the Soviet legacy that it represented in Kazakhstan, therefore, survived his retirement

Faced with pressure from mass protests and international attention, Tokayev made bold new promises for reform, commencing a process of “de–Nazarbayevification,” the effectiveness of which has been met with skepticism from the public. Though shallow promises ring hollow, symbolic moments like the toppling of Nazarbayev’s statue create glimmers of hope for a brighter future for Kazakhstan. 

For eight days, the Kazakh people took to the streets to demand a change in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet status quo. Friends and family were killed, thousands detained, property damaged and communities left utterly devastated. 

But one issue stood out to international watchers above all else. 

In an unprecedented move by  on Jan. 5, Kazakhstan formally appealed to the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Adopting rhetoric of a foreign “terrorist threat” in reference to his aggrieved citizens, Tokayev requested military intervention for assistance in quelling protests. 

By the next morning, roughly 2,500 CSTO troops — the overwhelming majority of which were from Russia, with a couple hundred provided by Belarus, Tajikistan and Armenia — were deployed in a historic moment. Notably, this “peacekeeping” operation in Kazakhstan was the first troop mobilization carried out by the CSTO since its founding in 1992. 

For the first time in over thirty years, CSTO troops were deployed by Russia — not to fulfill an international security obligation, but to put down domestic protests calling for regime change. 

Though watchers from the West were alarmed by Russia’s swift military intervention in the domestic affairs of a key post-Soviet republic like Kazakhstan, CSTO troops completed their withdrawal from Kazakhstan within the ten-day deadline they announced. As a result, concerns about a long-term Russian occupation in Kazakhstan soon vanished, and the West seemed satisfied leaving Russia to deal with the turmoil in its own backyard.  

Why, then, was Russia’s CSTO deployment in Kazakhstan so significant?

Article 4 of the Treaty, to which all CSTO member states (Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) are signatories, states:

“If one of the States Parties is subjected to aggression by any state or group of states, then this will be considered as aggression against all States Parties to this Treaty. In the event of an act of aggression against any of the participating States, all other participating States will provide him with the necessary assistance, including military.”

On Jan. 5, the current chair of the CSTO, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, announced in a Facebook post that Article 4 had been triggered, citing “external interference,” despite no evidence of foreign involvement. Clearly, Russia was more than willing to deploy its troops under false pretenses, especially when rumblings of a color revolution posed a danger to its authoritarian grip in a key region like Central Asia.

By now, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has made it abundantly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to stake his own country’s security and economic stability for regional dominance. 

In hindsight, however, evidence of Putin’s most recent strategy — or lack thereof — can be traced back as far as twelve years.

In June 2010, a massive wave of ethnic violence swept across Osh, Kyrgyzstan. A site of long-standing ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and the region’s large population of Uzbeks, ethnic tensions between Krygyz and Uzbeks soon erupted into violence due to political turmoil surrounding then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In the aftermath of the bloody ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan, over 300 people died, communities were devastated and property was completely destroyed. 

In response to the ethnic violence in Osh, Kyrgyz authorities formally appealed to the CSTO for assistance. Human Rights Watch reports:

“On June 12, two days after the violence erupted, Roza Otunbaeva sent an official request to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev requesting military assistance. Medvedev replied that the violence in Kyrgyzstan was an internal matter and that neither Russia nor the CSTO could intervene. He said the CSTO could only act if the border of a member was attacked externally or if there was an attempt to externally seize power.”

Evidently, Putin, who was prime minister at the time, was not willing to bend CSTO rules when it came to intervening in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic matters. Twelve years later, Russian troops would descend on Kazakh soil, shooting at Kazakh citizens for demanding the resignation of a notorious Soviet-era autocrat. 

Putin’s message was clear: Russia will not tolerate democracy in its backyard.

In a more recent example, a pattern of precursory decisions to the invasion of Ukraine is evident in Russia’s rejection of two Armenian appeals for CSTO assistance. 

In the fallout of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which effectively solidified Armenian and Azerbaijani dependence on Russia, over 1,000 Azerbaijani troops breached Armenia’s borders. Notably, these transgressions took place within Armenia’s Syunik province, and not near the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous oblast. In response to Azerbaijan’s encroachment into Armenian territory — which under the Treaty’s guidelines, should have triggered the same Article 4 that Putin used to justify intervention in Kazakhstan — Yerevan formally appealed to the CSTO. Armenia’s appeal, however, was rejected.

To add insult to injury, on Nov.16—following a massive escalation by Azerbaijan in the Syunik province, a second appeal to the CSTO made by Armenia’s National Security Chair Armen Grigoryan was preemptively declined by Moscow. 

To this day, Azerbaijani troops stand on Armenian soil, periodically advancing further into Armenia’s sovereignty.

Russia’s decisions in the last decade consistently show Putin wielding the CSTO not as a mutually beneficial security alliance for its member states, but as an extended arm of the Kremlin. By blatantly disregarding the CSTO Charter and by rejecting appeals which officially trigger the foundational premise of the Treaty, the use of CSTO troops at Moscow’s sole discretion and  its general “no-can do” attitude in the face of violations frame a picture of the Treaty Organization as a regional policing force at Russia’s disposal. This pattern of Russian inaction — and action, at inappropriate times — could have been an early warning sign of the gravity of Putin’s brinkmanship at the Ukrainian border.

In recent years, Putin had become so bold that in 2022, he could justify Russian military intervention in another former Soviet state under the premise of a blatant lie. Perhaps, Putin’s exercising of CSTO power over the last decade was a mild symptom of what was to come. A true precursor to the unprecedented invasion of Ukraine.

A dictator who can mobilize an entire regional alliance to deploy troops in its former colony under the premise of an imaginary “foreign threat” can launch a full-scale war against Ukraine without batting an eye. 

Ultimately, Russia’s approach to the CSTO may have been the signal of Putin’s resolve that experts missed. 

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