It was not much more than a week ago that it turned out Vladimir Putin had once again stabbed the West in the corner.
With more than 100,000 troops gathered on the Ukrainian border and a list of security demands almost as strong, the Russian president has White House and NATO in negotiations on issues that should be considered settled history, such as the right of countries in the former Soviet sphere to join the Atlantic Alliance. The alternative, apparently, was war.
But the popular uprising in Kazakhstan what is going on now has once again revealed that Putin’s aggression in the region does not always stem from a strong position.
Russian propaganda will blame foreign agents for the sudden outbreak of protests across the Central Asian steppes. Kazakh leaders have already welcomed armed Russian aid, citing “external interference”. But the fear in the Kremlin is just the opposite: that the Kazakh protests are the latest sign that citizens who have lived under obstructive autocracies for decades will eventually no longer take over.
“It is absolutely not in Putin’s interest to let this blow blow up in his backyard when he is in the middle of a showdown with NATO,” said Eugene Rumer, who has dealt with Russian and Eurasian issues at the US National Intelligence Board. .
It is no coincidence that in the months following a similar popular uprising in Belarus on the outskirts of Ukraine over Putin, where opposition leaders came close to overthrowing the regime of strongman Alexander Lukashenko after Europe’s last dictator cheated national elections against his rival, political neophyte Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
The Belarusian protesters, like their Kazakh counterparts, lifted the ghost of the “colored revolutions” of the early 2000s that left Ukraine and Georgia in the western camp, where they were actively seeking NATO and EU membership. .
In addition to giving a green light to Lukashenko for a brutal repression of peaceful protests, Putin escalated his campaign of repression at home and shut down Russia’s repression. most prominent civil rights group, Memorial, just before the end of the year.
Amid Putin’s saber-rattling, it’s easy to forget that his Ukrainian gambit may be the product of his weakness, not strength. And the Kazakhs reminded the world how weak Putin’s grip can be.
“It puts a lie in Putin’s claims that [the Ukraine stand-off] it’s all about NATO and Western provocation, ”said Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO. “It’s all about him not being able to tolerate an independent democracy next to him.”
Georgia’s rose revolution was followed a year later by Ukraine’s orange one. Belarus’s uprising was followed by one in Kazakhstan a year later. The combination could prompt Putin to escalate even further. But the people of Kazakhstan – and Belarus, and Ukraine and Georgia – have already shown the limits of Putin’s Soviet dreams.
Peter Spiegel is the FT’s American managing editor