Don’t Ignore All Sides of Russian Messaging

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — Let’s look at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s situation at home, as we try to determine what’s behind his threatening stance toward Ukraine.

As I wrote two weeks ago, Russia has a serious eight percent inflation rate that endangers Putin’s goal to raise the living standard of his citizens while the country is further suffering from a high rate of COVID-19. At the same time, Putin has been cracking down on personal freedoms with his main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny jailed on political charges, Navalny’s group banned as extremist and its other leaders arrested. More recently, Putin moved to close down the country’s oldest human rights organization and threatened to brand the newspaper of Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, as a foreign agent, which could lead to it being shuttered as well.

In addition, Putin has taken on the role of protector of the corrupt but endangered leaders of a handful of former Soviet republics that border Russia. They all belong to the Moscow-headquartered Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a six-nation military alliance (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) that aims to provide regional security to its member states through military exercises of their joint forces.

For example, last September in the Rubezh-2021 joint counterterrorism training exercise in the Kyrgyz Republic, the scenario was “to destroy illegal armed groups that have invaded the territory of a conditional CSTO member State,” according to a news release. The annual Unbreakable Brotherhood-2021 exercise was held last November, over five days in Russia with units from all six nations participating. One of two scenarios was “a tactical operation to seal off a community seized by illegal armed groups and eliminate them,” according to a Tass news report.

That latter exercise was relevant to what recently went on in Kazakhstan, along Russia’s southern border. It’s discussed with detail in a Russian-released transcript of a January 10 virtual emergency meeting of the CSTO Collective Security Council that involved Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakhstan’s President Kassyn-Jomart Tokayev, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Armenian Prime Minister of Armenia, Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister Akylbek Japarov, and Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon.

Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev described the week-long attempt to overthrow his government in part as follows:

 Spontaneous rallies were used as a pretext for provoking civil unrest. Religious radicals, criminals, outright thugs, looters and petty hooligans filled the streets as if on cue. Socio-economic and socio-political demands were put on the back burner, they were forgotten. Next followed the hot phase, and armed fighters, who were biding their time, took over.

The main goal of these events became clear – to undermine the constitutional system, destroy governance institutions and seize power. It is obvious now that these armed activities were coordinated from a single centre, and the carefully planned operation entered its decisive phase.

Proof of this is provided by the simultaneous – I repeat, simultaneous – attacks on the buildings of regional governments, law enforcement agencies, pretrial detention centers, strategic facilities, banks, the TV tower and television channels. They seized airports, blocked motorways and railway lines and hindered the operation of ambulances and fire-fighters. During attacks on military units and checkpoints, the thugs attempted to seize weapons and military equipment.”

The demonstrations, which had begun peacefully on New Year’s weekend, involved protesting higher fuel prices, but then spread across the country reflecting longtime resentment with the authoritarian government. By Wednesday, January 5, open fighting was underway in Almaty, the nation’s largest city.

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Tokayev continued: “Real fighting went on in Almaty and several other cities. For example, the attack on the Interior Ministry department in Almaty went on for two nights. The police repelled the attacks. Seven armorers’ shops were seized in Almaty alone. These attacks were staged by trained professionals, including snipers armed with special rifles…Losing control of this city would have paved the way to losing the densely populated southern part of the country and then the country in its entirety. Terrorists hoped to stretch thin the law enforcement agencies and then attack the capital of Kazakhstan. We have seen fighters converge on the President’s residence. In fact, this was a real war unleashed by terrorists against our state using various methods.

I can tell you in all certainty that terrorists, including foreign fighters, were directly involved in the aggression against Kazakhstan. It was not a coincidence that the criminals attacked morgues at night to collect and drive away with the corpses of their dead accomplices. They also took the corpses of fighters from the battlefield. We know what kind of international terrorists do this: this is how they cover up their tracks. It is obvious that they want to sow chaos in our country to seize power.”

On January 6, after 12 police officers had been killed in Amaty, along with an equal number of protesters, Tokayev called Putin for help and CSTO sent in 2,500 troops, to help restore order. In effect, lessons from the Unbreakable Brotherhood-2021 exercise two months earlier, were put to use.

While Tokayev blamed foreign fighters, the Associated Press reported last Saturday that many in the crowd complained about longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 in favor of Tokayev, his hand-picked successor. However, Nazarbayev had maintained behind-the-scenes influence as head of Kazakhstan’s Security Council.

In the wake of the fighting, Nazarbayev was removed from the Security Council and Karim Masimov, the head of Kazakhstan’s powerful intelligence agency and a Nazarbayev ally, was fired, then arrested and charged with treason. A January 17 story on eurasianet said Nazarbayev’s nephew, Samat Abish, who worked for Masimov had been dismissed while two other Masimov deputies have been arrested for treason. Three sons-in-law of the former leader were also forced out as chairmen of major Kazakhstan corporations.

What followed during the January 10 CSTO discussion focused on future threats to other member nations.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who faced six months of protests after his country’s questioned August 2020 election, said, “We have reached an inexorable conclusion: many international terrorists have accumulated on the borders with Kazakhstan, as the latest developments show…Let me remind you about the risks and threats related to the creation of so-called terrorist sleeper cells in Central Asia. These are extremists who will wake up one day…We need to find out who organized and directed them.”

Putin picked up that theme and told the group, “The people [in Kazakhstan] who protested over the situation on the fuel market and their goals are different from the people who took up arms to attack the state and their goals…We have been witnessing an international terrorist aggression. Where did these armed groups come from? It is obvious that they were trained in foreign camps and acquired combat experience in hotspots around the world.”

After acknowledging that, “the events in Kazakhstan are not the first and certainly not the last attempt to interfere in the domestic affairs of our states from outside,” Putin added, “The measures taken by the CSTO clearly show that we will not allow anyone to stir up trouble at home and will not permit the realization of another so-called color revolution scenario,” the latter being a clear reference the Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon who with his family, has ruled Tajikistan for almost 30 years, said, “An extremely destructive ideology of religious radicalism is being vigorously promoted in our countries; it is one of the main weapons in the hands of our enemies today.”

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Rahmon pointed to “the invigorated activities of international terrorist groups in Afghanistan are directly affecting the CSTO collective security zone. We know that thousands of their members have been released from prisons in Afghanistan since late August.” He added, “According to our secret services, there are over 40 terrorist training camps and centers on the CSTO’s southern borders and in the northeast provinces of Afghanistan with more than 6,000 militants.”

So, while Putin has been creating a threat to invade Ukraine on his western border, Russia itself and its neighboring CSTO allies face potential insurgencies from their own people and Islamic fighters inside their countries and operating on their borders.

Niall Ferguson, a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University supported this idea during his appearance last Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program.

One of Putin’s goals, Ferguson said, “is to undermine the viability of Ukraine as a sovereign nation state and create such uncertainty that Ukraine never can stabilize as a democracy.”

But Ferguson added that Putin’s actions toward Ukraine need “to be seen in the context of a series of crises elsewhere in the former Soviet realm, not only in Kazakhstan but also in Belarus,” i.e. the CSTO countries. “Putin cannot afford for there to be another successful democracy or semi-democracy showing Russians that there is an alternative to his brand of ultra nationalist authoritarianism,” said Ferguson.

Putin can continue to use information warfare and subversive techniques to create problems for the struggling Ukraine government of President Volodymyr Zelensky without resorting to outright warfare. But as shown above, the Russian president has his own vulnerabilities so that the U.S. and its NATO allies can use some of the same information warfare and other skills to undermine Putin’s government and those of his much more dependent CSTO countries.

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