The speed with which Russia dispatched troops this week to help quell violent demonstrations in neighboring Kazakhstan is testimony to the Kremlin's recurring fear of "color revolutions," say Western diplomats and analysts. Moscow, they say, must have been horrified by how quickly the protests spread in Kazakhstan, long seen as one of the most stable of the former Soviet countries.
Sparked by a fuel price increase and cost-of-living grievances, the protests, which began in the oil-rich western part of the country, rapidly escalated this week into the worst violence the Central Asian nation has seen since turning independent 30 years ago.
And the grievances over fuel prices snowballed into a bigger threat against the government after Kazakh armed forces opened fire, killing dozens.
Demonstrators have been demanding regime change and the departure of both Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and the country's 81-year-old former leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down three years ago after almost three decades in power but retained the official title of "leader of the nation."
He is still believed to rule behind the scenes, and protesters reference him with chants of "Get out, old man." On Wednesday, demonstrators in Taldykorgan, a town in southern Kazakhstan, pulled down his statue from the main square.
Protesters stormed government buildings Wednesday in Almaty, the country's largest city, and briefly occupied the airport, with reports of "dozens" of protesters being killed in clashes along with at least 12 policemen. Thursday saw videos circulating on social media showing Kazakh military units exchanging gunfire with armed opponents in Almaty.
Russian officials and pro-Kremlin media have claimed the West is behind the agitation and is trying to foment another color revolution with the goal of disorienting Russia ahead of its major security talks next week with the United States and NATO amid fears the Kremlin may be considering invading Ukraine.
Russia has previously accused Western powers of backing popular uprisings in the former Soviet states of Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine.
Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said unrest was foreign-backed and aimed to "undermine the security and integrity of the state by force, using trained and organized armed formations." Konstantin Kosachev, a senator who chairs the foreign affairs committee of Russia's upper house of parliament, said the protesters included Islamic militants who had fought in Afghanistan.
"It's a tense moment in the former Soviet Union, with Russian troops and tanks surrounding Ukraine on three sides. The last thing Moscow wants or needs is legitimate protests in a country it considers to be in its sphere of interest," said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center of the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research organization. "Moscow is looking for a hidden hand. The Kremlin doesn't accept the protests in Kazakhstan as genuine," she added.
Kazakhstan is an important regional power with vast energy resources.
President Tokayev, who ordered troops to "shoot to kill without warning" and said protesters who failed to surrender will be "destroyed," has also blamed outsiders for unprecedented agitation. He alleged in a broadcast to the nation Thursday that Almaty had been attacked by "20,000 bandits" who had a "clear plan of attack, coordination of actions and high combat readiness."
Tokayev expressed "special thanks" to Russian President Vladimir Putin for agreeing to his midweek request for assistance "in overcoming this terrorist threat."
The request was formally made to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-led regional security pact comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. Tokayev invoked article 4 of the CSTO pact, which commits members to help one another defend against "foreign interference." It is the first time any CSTO member has cited article 4 of the military alliance, which was formed in 1994.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington on Friday that the Biden administration is "very concerned about the ongoing state of emergency that exists in Kazakhstan."
"We've urged authorities to respond appropriately, proportionately, and in a way that upholds the rights of protesters," he said. "I spoke with the foreign minister just yesterday. I reiterated our full support for Kazakhstan's constitutional institutions, as well as the absolute importance of respecting human rights; media freedom, including the restoration of internet service; and to dealing with peaceful protests in a way that protects the protesters, upholds their rights, and is consistent with the rule of law."
On the deployment of CSTO troops, he added: "We have questions about the nature of the request, why it came about. We're seeking to learn more about it. 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 protesters while maintaining law and order. So, it's not clear why they feel the need for any outside assistance."
"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," he added.
The Russian Defense Ministry says about 3,000 paratroopers and other servicemen are being flown to Kazakhstan "around the clock," and up to 75 huge transport planes are being used in the emergency airlift. Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry said in a statement Friday that 26 protesters had been killed during the unrest, 18 had been injured and more than 3,000 people had been arrested. It said 700 security personnel had suffered injuries and confirmed 18 had been killed.
Sporadic gunfire could still be heard in Almaty on Friday, despite Tokayev telling Kazakhs that "constitutional order has been mainly restored in all regions."
"Local authorities are monitoring the situation," he said. "But terrorists are still using weapons, causing damage to civilian property. Therefore [a] counterterrorist operation will continue until the total destruction of the militants."
Tokayev might have turned to Russia for assistance because he feared not all his security forces would remain loyal if the agitation escalated, a British diplomat told VOA. In some smaller towns, he added, the police appeared to have sat out the protests, and in Aktobe, near the country's border with Russia, the police are reported to have sided with the protesters.
Armenia Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, the CSTO chair, said the forces would be committed "for a limited period, in order to stabilize and normalize the situation." And Stanislav Zas, secretary-general of the CSTO, said the outside forces would "minimize and localize threats" to Kazakhstan's territorial integrity. He, too, said the mission would be temporary.
Some Russian analysts and Kazakhs have warned the Russian deployment risks triggering further trouble. "Whoever took this decision has absolutely no understanding of the Kazakh mentality," Polat Dzhamalov, a Kazakh living in Moscow, told the independent TV Rain, an internet channel. "Kazakhs have never tolerated occupation."
Some Russian analysts have also emphasized the risks of Russian troops maintaining a longer-term presence and of being dragged into the unrest. "For now, this is less an armed intervention than a police operation," said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a Kremlin-linked policy organization. "But if it drags on, consequences for Russia could mount up," he told the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times.
The United States, Britain and other Western countries have urged all sides to show restraint. "We are concerned about the violent clashes and are following developments closely. We are urging against further escalation and want to see a peaceful resolution," a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.