Source: Paul Miller

As fears mount over the possibility of another Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration stands at risk of being painfully reminded of the steep cost of American retreat.

After last year brought the catastrophic combination of the U.S. pullout and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the start of 2022 has added insult to injury. On January 11, the U.S. announced $308 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan — meaning that Washington is still paying dearly for its miscalculations in Kabul.

In its quest to avert the next crisis overseas, the Biden administration should look no further than another embattled Central Asian nation. While energy prices fueled the protests in Kazakhstan from January 2-11, there is a far deeper geopolitical takeaway for the U.S. — and it involves the usual suspect in an influence war that continues to confront America.

The unrest in Kazakhstan prompted the deployment of troops from member nations of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a post-Soviet alliance comprised of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia. The CSTO was formed in 2002, shortly after an American-led coalition intervened in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks. Today, the CSTO functions as what former senior French defense official Pascal Ausseur recently described as a “mini-NATO… with Russia in place of the U.S. on the other side.”

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems befuddled by the CSTO’s military intervention in Kazakhstan, starting on January 7 that “it’s not clear why they (Kazakh authorities) feel the need for any outside assistance, so we’re trying to learn more about it.” Yet it should be no mystery to Blinken that the troop deployment reveals far more about Russia — and its CSTO proxies — than it does about the leadership in Kazakhstan alone. It embodies the Kremlin’s strategy of aggressively safeguarding its influence in the former Soviet Union, falling in line with the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the ongoing specter of Moscow’s influence over Ukraine.

Another piece of this puzzle lies in Armenia, the CSTO member country that is home to both the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri and the Russian 3624th Airbase in Erebuni Airport near Yerevan. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, in his capacity as chair of the CSTO’s Security Council, was the leader who formally announced the bloc’s military deployment to Kazakhstan. Pashinyan praised the “purposefulness of our actions towards the earliest possible stabilization of the situation and the return of the country to normal life is obvious,” mirroring Putin’s pattern of utilizing terms like “stability” when in reality, Russia is stirring unrest.

Ironically, Pashinyan himself rose to power after leading protests known as the “Velvet Revolution” — a movement that failed to deliver on its promises, with Armenia remaining mired in an economic malaise that accompanies its staunch loyalty to Russia. During the first three quarters of last year, 103,000 more Armenians left the country than entered it, aligning with the longer-term Armenian population decrease of approximately 15% since the country gained independence in 1991.

With Armenia continuing to move in a discouraging direction, it should be no surprise that many of the country’s citizens are opposing Pashinyan’s deployment of Armenian troops as part of the

CSTO’s military intervention in Kazakhstan — citing the former domestic protest leader’s hypocrisy in attempting to squelch protests abroad, as well as the fact that the CSTO declined Armenia’s request to intervene in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict last year. The Armenian people are justifiably asking themselves: Is steadfastly hitching our wagon to Moscow actually worthwhile? But rather than affirming Armenians’ thirst for change, the Biden administration invited Pashinyan to address its Summit for Democracy in December.

Meanwhile, although Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on January 11 that Russian forces would begin withdrawing, Putin is singing a different tune, refusing to provide a deadline for withdrawal and raising the possibility that CSTO troops could be stationed in Kazakhstan indefinitely. He also compared the developments in Kazakhstan to the 2014 unrest that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president.

Further, Putin recently published a manifesto denying Ukraine’s right to sovereignty and threatened that if Ukraine is not excluded from joining NATO, Russia’s “response will be military.”

Putin is sending the unmistakable message that the Kremlin will expand its sphere of influence by any means necessary — especially in countries and regions where America has left a strategic void. And the Russian strongman will not hesitate to persistently deploy his de facto vassal states, such as Armenia and the other members of the CSTO, in the pursuit of his objectives.  

That is precisely why American policymakers, considering the substantial cost of strategic retreat, must now guide the country in standing up to Russia — from Kazakhstan to Ukraine and beyond.