Putin Has Turned Russia Into Autocracy’s Defender of Last Resort

World Politics Review, 13.01.2022
Frida Ghitis, world affairs reporter

There’s much that remains unknown about the violent turmoil that has engulfed Kazakhstan in recent days. But one clear fact has emerged from the mayhem: Vladimir Putin’s political doctrine has a new, now openly displayed centerpiece. On Monday, as the Russian president declared Kazakhstan’s crisis essentially resolved following a military intervention by Kremlin-led troops, he also announced the new policy. It amounts to a vow by Russia to protect autocratic rulers in former Soviet Republics when they face popular unrest.

According to Putin, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization—a security alliance formed by a subset of post-Soviet states in 1992—had helped Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to “normalize the situation” and “restore order.” Putin also repeated claims by Tokayev and the Kremlin that had blamed the violence on nefarious foreign actors, a common Kremlin talking point in response to domestic upheaval. “The events in Kazakhstan aren’t the first and will be far from the last attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of our states,” Putin said.

And then the Russian leader said what was once the quiet part out loud, making official his policy of backing the Moscow-friendly autocrats now ruling in some post-Soviet states: “We won’t let anyone destabilize the situation in our home and won’t allow the so-called color revolution scenario to play out.”

Color revolutions, as a reminder, are the pro-democracy protest movements that over the years have tried to dislodge entrenched autocrats in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, uprisings that the Kremlin has dismissed as the product of foreign—most often Western, or even just U.S.-led—meddling.

Putin’s support for embattled autocrats in what Russia calls its “near abroad” is nothing new. But now, after leading the deployment of more than 2,000 troops and military equipment to Tokayev’s aid, Putin is making that commitment public. Whatever the cause and the goals of the protests in Kazakhstan, Putin has leveraged the moment to stake another provocative claim. Worth noting, too, is that this move is occurring amid Putin’s confrontation with NATO over the future of Ukraine, magnifying its geopolitical resonance.

Putin’s new policy sends a message to democracy-starved citizens in other former Soviet Republics that the Kremlin now stands behind the autocrats that rule over them. To the extent that they are discouraged from staging future protests, the tactic will help protect Russia’s borders from pesky pro-democracy activism. And it will give Putin greater influence over the autocrats that already rely on him for their survival, and those that may need to in the future.

Not long ago, Putin backed another prototypical Soviet-style leader in a moment of crisis, though he didn’t deploy Russian soldiers to do so. In August 2020, when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko declared victory in what was widely decried as a rigged election, he faced the most serious threat yet to his decadeslong rule. As Belarusian security forces brutally cracked down on peaceful protesters, Lukashenko found himself on the verge of losing power. The international community urged him to negotiate. Putin emerged to act as Lukashenko’s savior—provided he was willing to pay the price.

For years, the Kremlin had been pushing to integrate Belarus with Russia, but Lukashenko had hesitated. No more. Putin rushed to congratulate the Belarusian dictator on his electoral victory and offered military support against the protesters. Shortly thereafter, in a pointed gesture, the Russian ambassador to Minsk gave Lukashenko a gift: a book of old maps showing Belarus as part of the Russian empire.

Putin might have had mixed feelings about Lukashenko, but he was sure of his distaste for the rise of another democratic state on Russia’s borders. He determined that Lukashenko would have to crush the pro-democracy movement, much as Putin has endeavored to do in Russia. With Russia’s acquiescence, diplomatic support and some practical assistance, Lukashenko’s crackdown succeeded. He survived, and the leaders of the pro-democracy movement who had not yet been arrested fled into exile.

If Putin had decided it was time for Lukashenko to go, his rule would have most likely ended there. Instead, he weathered the storm, and the two countries went on to sign dozens of agreements to deepen their integration. Putin, meanwhile, continues to defend the Belarusian dictator, who is now in his 27th year in power. In May, when Lukashenko dispatched military fighter jets to ground a commercial Ryanair plane in Belarus, so that he could imprison one of its passengers—the exiled journalist Roman Protasevich—the rest of the world cried out against the dangerous violation of civil aviation and human rights norms. The Kremlin, too, declared itself “shocked”—not at the hijacking, but at the uproar against it.

Putin also backed Lukashenko after he engineered a refugee crisis by busing desperate migrants to Belarus’ borders with Poland and Lithuania. Lukashenko’s apparent goal was to strike back at NATO and the European Union for imposing sanctions against him for Protasevich’s arrest.

Lukashenko is now beholden to Putin. He was once able to resist the pressure to create and foster what is called a “union state” with Russia, maintaining not only his independence, but Belarus’ sovereignty. Now, he has lost legitimacy at home and abroad, but is still in power—thanks to the Russian president’s support.

Years earlier, Putin intervened, though less directly, on behalf of another embattled ally, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Like the Belarusian venture, this one did not involve the kind of military force deployed in Kazakhstan—although Russian troops did eventually show up in Ukraine. Still, one wonders how Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution might have played out under the Kremlin’s new playbook.

Back in 2013, the Moscow-backed Yanukovych outraged most Ukrainians when he suddenly announced that he would reject a deal for further integration with the EU. The agreement at stake had been in the works for six years and had been expected to provide a significant boost to Ukraine’s economy. Yanukovych’s prime minister later revealed that the reversal had come at Putin’s instruction.

During the dramatic uprising that followed, which Russia blamed on the United States, thousands of Ukrainians braved gunfire to demand democratic reforms. Yanukovych ultimately fled to Moscow, marking a major defeat for Putin.

Putin apparently regretted his failure to intervene. Just weeks after Yanukovych lost power, the Kremlin launched its 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia later annexed. Almost simultaneously, a new war broke out in the country’s Donbass region, where Russia worked hand-in-glove with Ukrainian separatists. That war has killed more than 13,000 people and remains in a stalemate. Now, though, Ukraine is bracing for yet another possible Russian invasion.

Whatever caused the violence in Kazakhstan, Putin has used the chance to announce to the world that should the populations of neighboring countries choose to demand more political rights—let alone real democracy—he stands ready to defend the autocrats.

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