When US Protection Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declared that Washington needed to see Russia so “weakened” that it will not be capable to invade a neighboring state, he lifted the veil on US targets in Ukraine. He additionally held out the prospect of a long-term US-Russian contest for energy and affect.

Austin’s remarks have been problematic on a number of fronts. For one, they legitimized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification of the invasion of Ukraine as a protection towards US-led efforts to field Russia in and doubtlessly undermine his regime.

“US coverage towards Russia continues to be suffering from lack of rhetorical self-discipline. First calling for regime change, now the aim of weakening Russia. This solely will increase Putin’s case for escalating & shifts focus away from Russian actions in Ukraine & towards Russia-US/NATO showdown”, tweeted Richard Haas, the president of the New York-based Council of Overseas Relations and a former senior State Division official. Haas was referring to US President Joe Biden’s comment final month, which he subsequently walked again, that Putin “can’t stay in energy.”

Leaving apart the truth that Austin’s comment was inopportune, it additionally urged an absence of imaginative and prescient of what it’s going to take to make sure that Putin doesn’t repeat his Ukraine operation elsewhere within the former Soviet Union. That’s an endeavor that will contain trying past Ukraine to foster nearer ties with former Soviet republics that don’t instantly border Ukraine.

A brand new strategic focus: Kazakhstan

One place to look is Kazakhstan, a possible future goal if Russia nonetheless has the wherewithal after what has grow to be a draining slug in Ukraine. Mr. Putin has lengthy set Kazakhstan up as a possible future goal. He has repeatedly used language with regards to Kazakhstan that’s just like his rhetoric on the synthetic character of the Ukrainian state.

Referring to his notion of a Russian world whose boundaries are outlined by the presence of Russian audio system and adherents to Russian tradition fairly than its internationally recognised borders, Mr. Putin asserted final December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking nation within the full sense of the phrase.”

Mr. Putin first despatched a chill down Kazakh spines eight years in the past when a scholar requested him 9 months after the annexation of Crimea whether or not Kazakhstan, with a 6,800 kilometer-long border with Russia, the world’s second-longest frontier, risked a destiny just like that of Ukraine.

In response, Mr. Putin famous that then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist get together boss, had “carried out a singular feat: he has created a state on a territory the place there has by no means been a state. The Kazakhs by no means had a state of their very own, and he created it.”

To make sure, Russian troops invited in January by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to assist put down anti-government protests have been fast to withdraw from the Central Asian nation as soon as calm had been restored.

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Recognizing the chance

Mr. Putin’s remarks, coupled with mistrust of China fuelled by the repression of Turkic Muslims, together with ethnic Kazakhs, within the north-western province of Xinjiang, and the shutdown of Russia’s Black Sea Novorossiysk oil terminal, Kazakhstan’s important Caspian oil export route, have created a chance for america.

Final month, Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations Common Meeting vote that condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, its sovereign wealth fund introduced that it will not do enterprise in rubles in compliance with US and European sanctions towards Russia. This week, Kazakhstan stopped manufacturing of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine towards Covid-19.

In an obvious effort to stir the pot, Russian media accused Kazakhstan of stopping Russian nationals from expressing assist for Mr. Putin’s invasion and firing Kazakhs who supported the Russian president’s actions from their jobs. On the identical time, opponents of the battle have been allowed to stage demonstrations.

“As Washington policymakers search for methods to counter Russian affect and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, serving to Kazakhstan cut back its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its financial system, and coordinate with neighboring Central Asian states to restrict the affect of each China and Russia could be an excellent place to begin,” mentioned Wall Avenue Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead.

Final month, Mr. Tokayev, the Kazakh president, promised sweeping reforms in response to the January protests.

A high-level Kazakh delegation visited Washington this week to debate nearer cooperation and methods to mitigate the influence on Kazakhstan of probably crippling sanctions towards Russia.

Supporting Kazakhstan would contain a renewed US engagement in Central Asia, a key area that constitutes Russia’s in addition to China’s yard. The US is perceived to have deserted the area with its withdrawal from Afghanistan final August.

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The regional implications

It might additionally imply enlarging the figurative battlefield to incorporate not solely navy and monetary assist for Ukraine and sanctions towards Russia but additionally the strengthening of political and financial ties with former Soviet republics comparable to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are, alongside Kazakhstan, members of the Russian-led Eurasian Financial Union (EEU), which Mr. Putin, referring to Kazakhstan, described as a bulwark that “helps them keep inside the so-called ‘better Russian world,’ which is a part of world civilization.”

The invasion of Ukraine has given Uzbekistan second ideas. Uzbekistan did not vote on the UN decision, however Uzbek officers have since condemned the battle and expressed assist for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

In consequence, Uzbekistan seems to have reversed its ambition to affix the EEU and forge nearer ties to the Collective Safety Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the area’s Russian-led navy alliance.

“The best way Central Asia thinks about Russia has modified. Whereas earlier than, Russia was seen as a supply of stability, it now appears that its presence in a really delicate safety dimension has grow to be a weak spot for regional stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” mentioned Carnegie Endowment Central Asia scholar Temur Umarov.

“I believe that Central Asian governments will search to attenuate the affect of Russia, which will likely be tough to do, however they don’t have any selection because it has grow to be an unpredictable energy.” Mr. Umarov predicted.

The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially replicate Honest Observer’s editorial coverage.