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How Putin prepared elite troops for Ukraine

A deadly crackdown on an uprising in Kazakhstan in January held lessons for the invasion of Ukraine the following month.

By James Kilner

ALMATY, KAZAKHSTAN – A suffocating gloom filled the luxury apartment on the outskirts of Almaty, given to taxi driver Aidos Meldekhan by the Kazakh authorities in January after his four-year-old daughter was shot dead by a sniper. In return, they wanted his silence.

Aykorkem, Meldekhan’s daughter, was one of around 250 people to die in what activists have called a failed revolution. The unrest, the most serious in Kazakhstan’s 30-year post-Soviet history, also allowed the Russian president Vladimir Putin to test his elite paratrooper units ahead of their planned mission six weeks later to capture Kyiv.

When the New Statesman arrived at his apartment, Meldekhan was nervously peering out of the window. He had barely nodded a greeting when his mobile phone rang.

“That was about you,” Meldekhan said afterwards. “They have spies everywhere. The prosecutor told me not to speak to the English journalist, but I don’t care.”

Unrest was sparked in the rebellious west of the country on 2 January after the government scrapped a cap on the price of liquefied petroleum gas, doubling the cost of fuel. Within a couple of days, hatred of the greedy Kazakh elite embodied by the former president Nursultan Nazarbayev, anger at a lack of political pluralism, and frustration with economic stagnation propelled these protests across the country.

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Thousands of people poured on to the streets of almost every major town. The protests were mainly peaceful, although there were fights with the police, and by 5 January it looked as if a revolution in Kazakhstan may actually be playing out.

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“It was remarkable,” said one European diplomat based in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital. “It caught everybody by surprise and just took off.”

This was when forces loyal to Nazarbayev triggered an alleged coup attempt, setting off a power struggle within the elite that would allow Putin to impose himself on Kazakhstan and to shore up his ally, the Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. Nazarbayev had picked Tokayev as his successor in 2019 but relations between the two men had soured.

The strategy for the attempted coup, according to Kazakhstan-based political observers, was two-fold.

Top members of the Kazakh security forces challenged the authority of Tokayev, trying to persuade him to give up power, and hired thugs ransacked government buildings in Almaty and looted shops to show people that he had lost control. Several police officers were killed on 5 January during the violence, mainly in Almaty.

And so the Kremlin acted.

In the early hours of 6 January, Putin sent 2,000 Russian paratroopers to Kazakhstan to impose order. They were deployed under the umbrella of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Kremlin-led military alliance of former Soviet states that had never been used before.

[See also: Russia’s hold over its neighbours keeps deepening]

This Russian deployment was a shock to ordinary Kazakhs, and was also a reminder of the control that the Kremlin can exert.

“When the Russian soldiers came, this for me was an occupation,” said Dinara Yegeubayeva, a TV news presenter who came out of retirement to broadcast interviews and analysis about the unrest on her Instagram channel. “I had to do something about it.”

The official narrative is that Tokayev asked the CSTO for help but some analysts said that Putin, with his planned invasion of Ukraine on his mind, may have phoned Tokayev and told him that he was deploying Russian soldiers to Kazakhstan.

“He [Putin] needed the unrest in Kazakhstan sorted out before Ukraine and this was his way of showing this,” said one analyst in Nur-Sultan.

The role of the CSTO soldiers, mainly from Russia, was to guard airports and other strategic installations but their heavily televised arrival in the early hours of 6 January was a major Russian show of force for Tokayev, who arrested the pro-Nazarbayev head of Kazakhstan’s security forces.

The Russian paratrooper deployment also freed up the now-loyal Kazakh military to move into Almaty, where Tokayev said “20,000 terrorists” were trying to overthrow the government. He issued a “shoot-to-kill” order, cut phone and internet lines and closed the country’s borders.

One analyst said that the success of the Russian paratroopers’ deployment may also have influenced Putin at a crucial stage of his planning for his invasion of Ukraine.

“He saw the psychological impact of sending in Russian paratroopers into Kazakhstan and thought it would have a similar effect in Ukraine,” the Kazakh analyst said.

The Golden Warrior monument stands in the centre of Republic Square in Almaty, the former Kazakh capital. It is a symbol of Kazakh nationalism but bullet marks now scar its base. This was where, just after dusk on 6 January, unidentified gunmen shot and killed peaceful demonstrators.

The Kazakh government has said that it needs to investigate the shootings, although there have been virtually no sightings of so-called terrorists, and soldiers were supposedly in control of the area at the time.

By 7 January, the Kazakh military had control of Almaty. Anti-government protesters had been cleared from the streets and a curfew had been imposed, although some people strayed out looking for shops that might be open. This included Aykorkem, whose 18-year-old brother and elder sister took her with them as they drove around the city. Their car was shot up near Republic Square.

Eyewitnesses told the New Statesman that they saw soldiers shooting other civilians without shouting any warnings.

Over the next week, police wearing black balaclavas also forced their way into Almaty’s hospitals. They dragged away hundreds of injured men to police stations where they were tortured. At least six people died in police custody.

In an interview, the deputy Kazakh foreign minister, Roman Vassilenko, blamed rogue elements of the police for torturing the protesters and said that the government was investigating.

“This is a very complex situation,” he said. “There are 243 ongoing investigations into torture.”

He also denied that Putin had told Tokayev that he was sending his paratroopers to Kazakhstan.

For Dimash Alzhanov, a Kazakh political analyst, the failure of the protests in January showed the futility of rising up against kleptocratic regimes backed by Putin. The shootings and the systematic torture, he said, were warnings to ordinary Kazakhs to behave.

“You have to look at Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus as the same thing, not separately,” he said. “This is the result of the immediate post-Soviet legacy.”

But western European embassies have generally backed Tokayev, looking to reward him for his neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his insistence that he will nudge Kazakhstan towards a more democratic future.

Other diplomats, though, are more sceptical and said that the 69-year-old Tokayev represents a continuation of the Nazarbayev programme. Since the unrest, he has allowed Nazarbayev’s family to retain their most important economic assets, including Kazakhstan’s largest bank, although their political power and influence within the Kazakh security services have been crimped.

Nazarbayev is a vainglorious man preoccupied with his legacy. He ruled Kazakhstan from the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union and calls himself Elbasy, or “Father of the Nation”. When he quit as president in 2019, he renamed the capital after himself, and in one memorable interview last year he rattled off his successes as Kazakh leader to a fawning young female TV interviewer while showing off his, rather wooden, golf swing with a gold-plated driver.

Despite retiring as president, Nazarbayev had tried to retain control over Kazakhstan by enshrining his immunity from prosecution and chairmanship of the all-important National Security Council in the constitution. This was his solution to the succession problem facing leaders of Soviet kleptocratic regimes who want to transfer power but retain wealth and influence.

Since the January unrest, this has all been ripped up. Nazarbayev remains in Nur-Sultan and in the system but is a marginalised figure.

“The Nazarbayev succession project didn’t work,” said a diplomat. “Leaders around the Soviet region thought that he may have worked it out. Now they will have to think again.” It is a lesson unlikely to have been lost on Putin, nearly 70 and at the summit of Russian politics since 1999.

In his apartment, Meldekhan flicked through photos on his mobile phone. They showed a black car with bullet holes through its front, both sides and rear. One of these bullets had hit Aykorkem in the head.

“In Kazakhstan, you have no rights,” he said, explaining that he planned to flee the country the next day.

Meldekhan then wandered through into his bedroom where he gently opened a cupboard. Inside, lined up on hangers, were Aykorkem’s dresses. A tiny pair of trainers had been laid underneath them.

Aykorkem’s death is well-known in Almaty and her image was painted as a tribute on to the side of a small electricity transmission station owned by a state-run company. Workmen painted over it at the start of June for “safety issues”.

“This is nonsense,” said Meldekhan. “The mural was nothing to do with me but I couldn’t believe it. They don’t even want her memory to exist. My little girl.”

He then started sobbing.

[See also: Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?]