It’s at the corner of ‘no’ and ‘where’, but you should still pay attention to Kazakhstan

Commentary

Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist
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Kazakhstan doesn’t get much attention typically, but suddenly it’s in the news, and there are two words that explain why you should keep an eye on the region: Russia and oil.

For starters, you should know Kazakhstan is a nation in turmoil after deadly protests erupted over rising fuel prices. In the aftermath, the government is in disarray, buildings are burned, major cities are in lockdown, and Russian troops are pouring in to keep the peace. That’s right, Russia is sending its military resources into Kazakhstan. If you are thinking, Wait, I thought the Russian troops were focused on Ukraine?, you’d be right. The Russkies are pretty busy these days. Why do they have any interest in Kazakhstan, a country basically at the corner of ‘no’ and ‘where’? Here’s the key insight for you:

The Russian fear is that that big swath of open in Kazakhstan is something that cannot be defended against. And since the Russian population is in internal demographic decline, but the population growth rates in the central Asian republics are rising, the Russians see this region as a whole as a security threat in and of itself and as a potential avenue for Islamic fundamentalism to come up from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

So, in the ideal Russian situation, all of these populations would be locked down so that they cannot cause problems for the Russians. They’d be put into completely tough totalitarian systems that would squash any dissent, shoot anyone who causes any problems. That is kind of the Russian goal here and preferably to do so with Russian assistance. And in the case of Kazakhstan, the Russians pretty much have that locked up.

Kazakhstan is about to become at best a satellite state like Armenia or Belarus. It’s days of being functionally independent or even nominally independent or pretty much over now. 

What does oil have to do with all of this? A lot. Back in the late Soviet period under then-President Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviets turned to the Kazakhs for oil. Now, 30 years later, western companies remain involved in oil drilling in that region which produces more than a million barrels of crude a day. If Kazakhstan becomes a satellite state of Russia, the two are likely to get lumped together when sanctions are lowered on them for everything the Kremlin is doing around the world. And that could be the end of several hundred thousand barrels of oil from the market.

The entire region is going to get lively very soon, and we’re about to see how Russia can handle opponents on almost all of its borders.

Kazakhstan has gone from a backwater that no one’s ever heard of or cares about to suddenly the news. 

We’ve got protests there that are over trying to overturn the government.  In fact, the government was dissolved by the president. The presidential palace is on fire. There are protests in every major city. The Russians have already deployed paratroopers. Supposedly there are hundreds dead, and we really don’t know about the details. 

This has always been an authoritarian area. There’s always been an authoritarian government and media press presence has always been thin. There’s always been information blackouts. And now with the internet being shut down across the entire country, we really just don’t know.

So before we go into why Kazakhstan matters, it would probably be best if we first talked about what is a Kazakhstan? Well, let’s start with location. Kazakhstan is a central Asian state. So if you hadn’t heard of it before, or don’t know much about it, you should not berate yourself because it is literally at the intersection of no and where. It is roughly the size of Alaska, plus Texas, plus Montana put together. 

But it has a population of only about 18 million, making it one of the least densely populated places on the world. And normally, you know, this is not something that would really matter to anyone, unless of course you are Russian. The Ukraine situation has been getting all the attention, but in many ways what’s going on in Kazakhstan is actually more important to Moscow. 

Take a look at this population density map from my most recent book, Disunited Nations. You can see how Russia is well to be perfectly blunt, empty in most places. You’ve got that kind of V chunk of territory starting in Europe and moving east into Siberia where almost everybody lives and it’s the warmest part of the country, you go south of that, it gets too arid. You get north of that, it gets too cold. Kazakhstan you’ll notice is largely empty, but in the Northern section of Kazakhstan, you will notice where the arrow is that there is some population bleed over from Russia. That area is predominantly populated by ethnic Russians, or there are Russians on the north side of the border that migrate into Kazakhstan for seasonal work. This is an area that Russia defecto controls. Now, the way that the Russian look at it, it’s kind of like this more traditional map. Population centers in the Northwest, in the north and on the south.

You’ll notice that the major cities are all in the south, the major population centers, the major population density regions, and then there’s a whole lot of empty in the middle. 

Now the protests most recently started here in the Northwest. It was originally an issue about fuel prices, but this is an authoritarian era with a corrupt government. And there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. So just like in every other post-Soviet state and a lot of the developing world, a lot of times you will see protests explode because of something that didn’t seem all that important in the first place. You could argue that that is the story of Black Lives Matter in the United States as well. One incident can release a lot of tension. 

Now the protests have spread to be nationwide. Down here is the city of Almaty, and it is by far the largest city in the country. The city there is now under lockdown. That’s where most of the people are believed to have been killed, but we also have significant protests going on in Astana, which is their artificial capital. A decision was made in the early post-Soviet period that Almaty, which had been the capital during Soviet times was too close to China so they moved it 1500 miles north. Astana is, by all accounts, a horrible, horrible place to live and completely artificial. It has some of the most extreme climactic variations in the world, regularly topping a hundred degrees in the summer and negative 40 degrees in the winter. It’s not the kind of place that anyone wanna live, but protestor going on here as well. 

We know that the presidential palace has been burned down and a lot of government buildings have been sacked.

Now, when the Russians look at this map, the northern population centers are ones like, okay, these border Russia, these are things we can control, but the southern population centers are a problem. Why? Let’s zoom out just a little bit and look at central Asia as a whole. This is including all the other former Soviet Republics in the region: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Krygyzstan, other countries that you probably haven’t heard a lot about. You’ll notice that all the population density is really further south and population density in south Kazakhstan is just the beginning of the story, not the end. The Russian fear is that that big swath of open in Kazakhstan is something that cannot be defended against. And since the Russian population is in internal demographic decline, but the population growth rates in the central Asian republics are rising, the Russians see this region as a whole as a security threat in and of itself and as a potential avenue for Islamic fundamentalism to come up from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

So in the ideal Russian situation, all of these populations would be locked down so that they cannot cause problems for the Russians. They’d be put into completely tough totalitarian systems that would squash any dissent, shoot anyone who causes any problems. That is kind of the Russian goal here and preferably to do so with Russian assistance. And in the case of Kazakhstan, the Russians pretty much have that locked up.

Kazakhstan is not nearly as functional as Ukraine. It really had never started its post-Soviet transition, whether that was gonna go into totalitarianism or to democracy, civil society is very, very thin.

And the leader of Kazakhstan is a guy by the name of Nursultan Nazarbayev. And he was in charge of Kazakhstan during the Soviet times. I mean, this guy has been around almost as long as Biden. He is by far one of the most corrupt world leaders, far more so than Putin, far more so than the leaders in most of the rest of the former Soviet space. I mean, honestly, Turkmenistan is really kind of the only one that might even be remotely in his league. Remember that capital was moved, Astana, it’s real name, legal name now is Nursultan, his first name. He basically owns the city. He owns the airline that flies in and out the city. He’s basically looted this country as much as he possibly can. 

He’s now in his early eighties, and he’s not technically president anymore, but he’s still calling all the shots, especially now. He actually argued against the dissolution of the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s, cuz he didn’t think Kazakhstan could make a go of it as an independent country. He’s probably right. And so he’s always remained very tightly aligned with the Kremlin.

And so as soon as these protests started, he and his government started shouting that it was all about foreign instigators making it happen, like American intelligence is competent enough to start three different rebellions in the country in the middle of nowhere, I’m sorry. Uh, where was I going with this? Oh yes. Uh, the point being is that the Russians have always seen Kazakhstan as tilting towards them.

And now that Nursultan Nazarbayev has actually invited the Russians to deploy troops, Oh boy are they. 

It took less than a day for the first paratroopers to arrive. We now have an undisclosed number of peacekeepers coming from Russia, and the Russians are probably gonna get exactly what it is that they’ve always been after: a four-troop presence in multiple places in Kazakhstan, hard up on the Southern borders and a country that is now under complete political lockdown. So barring significant and honestly very unexpected, international action on this situation, Kazakhstan is about to become at best a satellite state like Armenia or Belarus. It’s days of being functionally independent or even nominally independent or pretty much over now. 

Why does that matter to anyone who’s outside of Kazakhstan? Well, there’s a couple market things. Number one, uranium, this is the world’s largest uranium producer.That’s not as important as it sounds. There’s a lot of uranium in a lot of other places, Australia and Russia and um, Canada come to mind. So I’m really not worried about any sort of shortage here. Also, the Americans are still spinning down their nuclear warheads from the Cold War. So there’s still several years of supply left there. There might be some tightness in the market, but nothing that can’t be adjusted to in a year or three even if Kazakh uranium falls off the market, but Kazakh uranium is not produced where the people are, so as long as there are trade relations. I really don’t see anything going on there.

The bigger problem is oil. Now, in the late Soviet period under Gorbachev, the Russians, the Soviets, started to loosen up a little bit and invite a few countries to come in and help them with their energy sector. Kazakhstan is where they ended up going because there were some projects there that Soviets lacked the technical skills to attack specifically in the Northwestern part of the country, near the Caspian Sea. Now 30 years later, you still have western companies involved and Kazakhstan is kicking out over a million barrels a day of crude for export, almost exclusively from this region.

If Kazakhstan becomes a satellite state of Russia, it’s very, very likely because you have a crackdown that’s killing hundreds of people already. It’s very, very likely that Kazakhstan is gonna be lumped in with the Russians when it comes to sanctions on everything that the Kremlin is doing around the world. And when that happens, you can say goodbye to companies like Exxon or Chevron being involved in Kazakhstan in the first place. So these projects will probably die, cuz it’d be Russians cannot run them without the foreigners, and the Chinese lack the technical skills. That will obviously result in several hundred thousand barrels a day being removed from the market.

That’s where we are right now.

For longer term outcomes you need to go back to this map cuz remember the most densely populated part of this region isn’t Kazakhstan, it’s further south in Uzbekistan. Now the Uzbeks are rabidly anti-Russian, and they’re not all that fond of any of their neighbors in the first place. They see themselves as the natural leaders of this region and they have been counting upon that big empty space Kazakhstan to keep the Russians beyond their horizon. That’s not going to be possible anymore. 

Now, Uzbekistan is a country with population roughly twice the size of Kazakhstan. It probably has the second most functional military in the former Soviet space. And because of that insulation from the Russian territories, they’ve kind of been able to run things on their own. Every time there’s some sort of coup in a place like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan or a leader dies, the Uzbeks have tried to move in the role and they find themselves blocked by the Russians because the Turkmen, the Kyrgyz, the Tajiks dislike the Uzbeks. 

But now that you’re gonna have Russian troops in a very big way in Kazakhstan dictating the region security environment, the Uzbeks are going to have to either put up or shut up. 

So we are either going to see rising geopolitical tensions in this region, which will shatter the energy matrix, the natural gas that comes out of Turkmenistan, going to China, the stuff that comes out of Kazakhstan, that’s going to China. You know, all that is under threat now, or the Uzbeks are gonna have to sue for peace. 

Considering that we now have two strongly authoritarian governments that are leering at each other over a very narrow chunk of territory, I would expect this part of the world to get more interesting rather than less for the next few years. 

But it also means that the Russians are now facing down opponents in Kazakhstan, in Ukraine, and the Baltics and Belarus. The Russians are now actively engaged in geopolitical context that are turning hot on almost all of their borders. 

We’re gonna find out very soon just what Russia’s capacity is to engage on this sort of scale. The Soviets went out of their way to not face this many foes down at the same time. Now Russia’s doing a bigger carry with fewer resources. This is gonna get lively very soon. All right. That’s it for me until next time.

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