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Russia has found itself facing an unexpected challenge elsewhere as it positions troops for a possible invasion of Ukraine

Ryan Pickrell   

Russia has found itself facing an unexpected challenge elsewhere as it positions troops for a possible invasion of Ukraine
  • Russia has been moving more and more troops near Ukraine for months, sparking invasion fears.
  • Focused on Ukraine, Russia has made a number of security demands of the US and its allies and partners.

As Russia builds up its armed forces near Ukraine, stirring fears it may invade its neighbor, unrest in Kazakhstan has suddenly emerged as an unexpected challenge for Moscow.

Russia deployed paratroopers to neighboring Kazakhstan Thursday after the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation answered the call from Kazakhstan's leadership to help quell uprisings against that country's authoritarian regime.

Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jopart Tokayev has said he is willing to use force to end the unrest, which the president argues are being fueled by terrorists and bandits.

The protests, which have turned violent and seen an uncertain number of casualties, started in response to a sharp increase in fuel prices but have evolved into a broader demonstration of widespread opposition to the regime built by former leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Some experts argue that recent developments in Kazakhstan will divide Russia's focus at a time when it may be considering military action against Ukraine if it does not receive its desired security guarantees from the US and its allies and partners in Europe.

"Just as Russia seemed to be poised to invade Ukraine, protests broke out all over Kazakhstan," Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, tweeted Wednesday.

"The Kremlin needs to divide attention between the two and manage strategic instability on two fronts," he said.

Rob Lee, an expert on Russian defense issues, wrote on Twitter Wednesday that Russia likely "wouldn't want to start a conflict with Ukraine right now while the situation in Kazakhstan is so uncertain," adding that "wars are inherently unpredictable, and Russia's situation just became more complex."

The degree to which Kazakhstan is a challenge for Russia is debatable, with some Russia watchers arguing that the effect on its activities with regard to Ukraine will likely be limited, at least as things currently stand.

"The gist of early indicators is that the Russian deployment to [Kazakhstan] is going to be rather small, but sufficient to demonstrate the regime has backing from Moscow," Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, tweeted. "This is not a heavy lift for Russia's [airborne forces], and won't affect force posture near Ukraine."

"I don't think that the situation in Kazakhstan really has any bearing on the force deployments or decision whether or not to invade Ukraine," Jeffrey Edmonds, formerly a military analyst with the CIA and a Russia expert at CNA, told Insider.

"I don't think there's a resource or a bandwidth problem for the Russian leadership," he said, calling the situation in Kazakhstan an "interesting development" but not one that would necessarily draw away "all the bandwidth of the Russian leadership so that they can't focus on Ukraine."

He argued that if for some reason Moscow had to choose, it would probably choose to focus its energy on Ukraine, given that the situation in Ukraine, from Russia's perspective, represents a more proximate and pressing threat to Russia's national interests.

Edmonds said it is unlikely that Russia would need to choose given its capacity and that the current situation may very well demonstrate "how capable Russia is at handling a couple different things at one time."

"For now, this is less an armed intervention than a police operation," Andrei Kortunov, head of the Kremlin-linked Russian International Affairs Council, told The Moscow Times, "but if it drags on, consequences for Russia could mount up."

He emphasized that "it's important that this is a short, time-limited operation and that we don't get sucked in."

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