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Putin's Targets

Will eastern Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan be next?


The Russian government tells the world that the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine need to be protected. The de facto annexation of Crimea has occurred. A logical and necessary step from Putin’s point of view. After all, more than 58 percent of the Crimean population is Russian. Are eastern Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan, with their large percentage of Russians, next? This is, on the whole, unlikely. However, it can no longer be excluded, in particular regarding eastern Ukraine.

Many Russian-speaking people living in Ukraine and in many other post-Soviet states no longer consider themselves Russian. This illustrates a truth regarding national identity: Things change fast. Punjabis from Lahore and Amritsar speak the same language but have distinctively different national identities: Indian and Pakistani. Bangladesh is even younger that Pakistan, yet it did not take long for its citizens to acquire a new identity. During the last four to five decades many, if not most, of the three-million-plus Turks living in Germany lost much of their Turkish identity. In particular, this applies to those under 30. They sway to and fro between two cultures, whether or not they have obtained German citizenship.

The Soviet Union ceased to exist almost a quarter of a century ago—plenty of time for the formation of new identities to take place. Take the example of a 27-year-old Crimean journalist, Ekaterina Sergatskova, who has called Crimea a “flip-flopper.” According to her, people in Crimea want to undo the progressive revolution that took place in the Maidan. They look backward to Russia rather than forward to the European Union (EU). Sergatskova’s first language is Russian. Both her parents grew up in the Soviet Union. She lives in Simferopol, which is a Russian-speaking city. Yet, Sergatskova is siding with the Ukrainian Revolution. This is just one example. A Russian-speaking person living in Simferopol or Kharkiv may call herself “a Russian” but this does not mean that she is allegiant to the Russian state. Putin and his government are deeply delusional in assuming that the same language and a shared imperial past have a capacity of maintaining the mentality of “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” for a quarter of a century.

Even just amid the former Soviet countries, Russia’s imperial influence has waned rapidly in the last quarter century. Uzbekistan, for instance, is a country where many people, including the educated elite and the working class, speak Russian as their first language. Many Uzbeks only have a very rudimentary knowledge of their own language. Though long-term dictator Islam Karimov has made an effort to emphasize Uzbek nationalism and the Uzbek language since independence in 1991, Russian is still widely spoken. But this has not meant that everyone in Uzbekistan, including the sizable number of ethnic Russians, consider themselves Russian and wish to see a return of Russian dominance or even of being ruled directly by Moscow.

Will Russia ever be able to get to a state of post-imperial peace regarding its former empire? It will certainly need many years and much introspection on the part of the Russian government and people to achieve this. It may also require the support, understanding, and constructive engagement of both the E.U. and the U.S. to arrive at a post-imperial settlement along the periphery of the Russian borders. Although it has been almost a quarter of a century since the Soviet Union has collapsed, Russia under Putin has not even made a start at developing new post-imperialist thinking.

Meanwhile, there are signs of disapproval by the ruling elite in Kazakhstan regarding the Russian military involvement in Ukraine. Putin’s longtime supporter President Nursultan Nazarbayev is cautiously silent, but spontaneous protests in front of the Russian Consulate in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, have not been disbanded by the police. This should not be surprising: Russians in Kazakhstan constitute about 24 percent of the population—more than 3 million people. In northern Kazakhstan, almost 50 percent of the population is Russian, with some areas having a majority of Russians. It is not inconceivable—following the logic behind the annexation of Crimea by the Russian army—that Putin may, at some point, want to return parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian orbit, particularly if this country becomes politically unstable.

In “Rebuilding Russia,” an essay written on the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, Alexander Solzhenitsyn called for the creation of a new Russian state that would combine Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Kazakhstan. Regarding Kazakhstan, he wrote:

Today, the Kazakhs constitute noticeably less than half the population of the entire inflated territory of Kazakhstan. They are concentrated in their long-standing ancestral domains along a large arc of lands in the south … the population here is indeed predominantly Kazakh. And if it should prove to be their wish to separate within such boundaries, I say Godspeed.

It is quite possible that President Putin wants his legacy to be the implementation of Solzhenitsyn’s ideas as expressed in 1991 when the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Putin is a great admirer and was a friend of Solzhenitsyn's.

Just a few weeks ago, it was unimaginable that Ukraine’s sovereignty would be under attack from Russia. It seems unlikely that Putin will turn to Kazakhstan, but the region does have symbolic significance. While Sevastopol harbors the Russian Black Sea fleet, the Kazakh city of Baikonur is home to the Russian space programs—where the first and legendary cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went to space.

Nevertheless, in the end, the clear lack of a common Russian identity in northern Kazakhstan and eastern Ukraine means that Putin will probably shrink from this course of action, certainly regarding northern Kazakhstan. 

Peter Eltsov, a Washington based political analyst, has conducted research in Russia, Ukraine, the Caucasus, South and Central Asia, and the Middle East. He taught and conducted research at Harvard, Free University in Berlin, the Library of Congress, and Wellesley College. Klaus Larres is the Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University/SAIS in Washington, DC.

An earlier version of this piece stated that Russia is the the "lingua franca" of Uzbekistan. It has been changed to state that Russia is still widely spoken. The original version also containted a typo. "Anyone" has been corrected to "everyone" in the following sentence: "But this has not meant that everyone in Uzbekistan, including the sizable number of ethnic Russians, consider themselves Russian and wish to see a return of Russian dominance or even of being ruled directly by Moscow."