Kazakhstan and Ukraine

Democratic backsliding in the post-Soviet Russian sphere of influence

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The recent events in Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet countries clearly illustrate the Russian desire to command local support and cement its regional influence.  Russia will likely continue to exercise this sphere of influence by intensifying its pressure within local governments, accompanied by a formidable military presence. In doing so, Russia will pose new security threats to the American allies in Eastern Europe and the United States itself.

What Happened in Kazakhstan?

During the early January civil unrests and protests in the Kazakh city of Almaty and other regions of the country, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev welcomed Russian armored support and invervention as he gave a shoot-to-kill order on civilians to disperse protests. These protests began over fuel prices and eventually led to a sizable uprising challenging Kazakhstan's current president and regime. Many of the original peaceful protesters agree that violent groups aimed to use the demonstrations to create an attack on the government and are responsible for the escalation. However, it still leaves many concerned about how quickly Russia became involved. It makes sense for Russia to support an allied leader financially or with extra resources, but the rapid deployment of troops and other lethal means demonstrates just how much Russia wants to hold on to its authority.

Other Cases of Russian Leverage:

The events in Kazakhstan are not the first use of Russian influence to increase its regional power on the borders of Europe. Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus, is a close Russian ally that has begun the process of integrationand military cooperation with Russia. This has included Russian strategic bomber patrols over Belarus, integration of oil and natural gas production and distribution, and common financial markets.

Using military action, Russia has also created a security dilemma in Ukraine. Russia has sought control over Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. With an invasion ongoing, Russia looks to further its success in Belarus and Kazakhstan with the occupation and annexation of Ukraine . 

What it Means for Other Post-Soviet States:

The desire for Russia to increase its sphere of influence to include other post-Soviet neighbors comes with costs to those countries. As seen in Kazakhstan, the swiftness of Russian intervention is likely to keep any party or leader that disagrees with Moscow from holding any power, and conversely would ensure that those who echo Moscow receive full support. This intervention erodes the democratic process in already fragile, often emerging democracies. The threat of Russian intervention in states not strong enough to defend themselves can reverse decades of progress towards democracy, and foster corruption, suppression, and exploitation of national institutions and the citizens they represent. Using erosion to pressure integration, such as in Belarus, can be copied across Central Asia and Eastern Europe and will allow access to additional resources for Russia to use in any future conflict or negotiation. The United States is also not likely to intervene in any armed conflict on behalf of those countries, leaving weak states to defend themselves against an established, expanding power. 

Meddling and democratic erosion will continue to threaten more states in the Russian near abroad in the future. As Russia has expanded the export of gas and other energy sources, it has lured countries desperate for cheap energy into its orbit. Once such partnership is established, Russia has often used energy as a form of coercion to keep governments in line. Continuing to bend the will of countries to meet the demands of Moscow will accelerate democratic backsliding and place states in the predicament mentioned above.

The Threat to the United States:

Until recently, most conflicts between the United States and Russia were seen in the form of policy or economic sanctions. However, armed conflict becomes more plausible as Russia looks to challenge the United States’ and other countries commitment to NATO and other alliances by exerting its sphere of influence, continuing to carry out military action, and possibly reconstructing a multi-state union. As Russia pushes further into its invasion of Ukraine, the United States and its European allies have begun to drastically increase aid to Ukraine, including the possible deployment of U.S. troops

If Russia continues to prey on states, especially those with NATO or other ties, it will lead to increased tensions and possibly large-scale conflict reminiscent of the Cold War. As both sides hold advanced technology, weaponry, and training, the likelihood of a large number of casualties is very high. While this outcome is avoidable through negotiation and other forms of conflict resolution, continued aggression from either side would lend itself to an increase in tension and conflict. 


The Russian attempts to regain power and control in its sphere of influence will increase the democratic backsliding of fragile democracies in post-Soviet states. This pressure has direct effects on U.S. interests and allies abroad and has the potential to create security dilemmas in both Europe and Central Asia. Persistent security threats will test the United States' commitment to NATO and its Eastern European allies as Russia expands and threatens its border states. Until both sides achieve peaceful negotiations and resolutions, Russia and the United States will continue to see increased tension and risk armed conflict. 

About the Author

Tyler Murray is a master’s student at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Tyler is pursuing degrees in International Security and Homeland Security with concentrations in Intelligence and Counterterrorism. He hopes to use these degrees to strengthen the relationship between intelligence and counterterrorism efforts to minimize the risk of terrorist actions worldwide.