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Russia sent troops near Ukraine and to Kazakhstan. The U.S. is watching and waiting

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration is heading into an intense week with Russia. The U.S. has already condemned the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine. But the White House seems to be taking a different approach to Russian involvement in the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: First, a word on why Kazakhstan matters to the U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, who chairs the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, puts it this way.

BEN CARDIN: It does bridge between Russia and China, Asia and Europe. It really is one of the key locations. It is a country that's rich in resources. It's a country that has a critical location from a security point of view, from a counterterrorism point of view.

KELEMEN: U.S. companies are heavily invested in Kazakhstan's energy sector, and the U.S. saw the country as a relatively stable, though not a democratic partner. Cardin, who was speaking via Skype, says he was disappointed to see Kazakhstan's president invite in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a group of ex-Soviet states led by Russia.

CARDIN: When Russia sends troops, they rarely remove those troops. And it's not what the Kazakhs need. It's not what the people need in that country.

KELEMEN: The latest turmoil started with protests over gas prices and corruption. But some major cities also saw mobs taking over government buildings. And experts point to another layer of conflict, an attempt by the country's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, to sideline other government elites linked to Kazakhstan's longtime ruler, Nursultan Nazarbayev. And in that complex picture, the U.S. has little leverage, according to Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council.

EMMA ASHFORD: Even if we wanted to intervene, even if there was a clear side upon which we thought we could intervene - which I don't think there is - we just don't have that much leverage in Kazakhstan. We have limited ties in the country, and they're almost all commercial in the energy sector.

KELEMEN: She thinks the U.S. needs to be cautious and not feed into Russian conspiracies.

ASHFORD: We know that Vladimir Putin in particular, you know, the Russian government, has this historical tendency to see American fingers in every pot - you know, American action in every protest in the post-Soviet space. And even though that's not true, I think we should probably avoid giving the impression that we're going to get more involved.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been on the phone with his counterpart in Kazakhstan, calling on authorities to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and raising questions about why the government felt the need to invite in Russian-led troops.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: It would seem to me that the Kazakh authorities and government certainly have the capacity to deal appropriately with protests, to do so in a way that respects the rights of the protesters while maintaining law and order. So it's not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance. So we're trying to learn more about it.

KELEMEN: For now, those Russian troops seem to be focused mainly on protecting key infrastructure. And Blinken is reluctant to conflate the situation in Kazakhstan with Ukraine, where Russia has seized territory and is threatening to take more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLINKEN: Having said that, I think one lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.

KELEMEN: Regional experts say if Kazakhstan's president is able to reinforce his political power in the midst of this crisis, he will be indebted to Moscow. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.