Kazakhstan: why is the steppe on fire?

7 Jan

And then it gets down to the level of farce, as the EU starts calling on Kazakh authorities to “respect the right to peaceful protests.” As in allowing total anarchy, robbery, looting, hundreds of vehicles destroyed, attacks with assault rifles, ATMs and even the Duty Free at Almaty airport completely plundered.

Pepe Escobar, January 6, 2022


Yesterday Moon of Alabama began a piece – The U.S. Directed Rebellion in Kazakhstan May Well Strengthen Russia – by quoting from a 350 page Pentagon commissioned report by the think tank Rand in 2019. Here in slightly abridged form is the extract:

Some level of competition with Russia is inevitable. This report defines areas where the USA can gain advantage. We examine nonviolent measures to exploit vulnerabilities and stress Russia’s military and economy, and political standing at home and abroad. These would not have defense or deterrence as their prime purpose, although they might aid both. Rather, these are elements in a campaign to unbalance the adversary, leading Russia to compete in domains or regions where the USA has a competitive advantage, causing Russia to overextend militarily or economically or to lose domestic and/or international prestige and influence.

Chapter 3 of the report assesses four “economic measures” to that end. For each, the potential benefits, risks  and likelihood of success  are set out, and a conclusion  given. The four measures being:

  1. Hinder Petroleum Exports
  2. Reduce Natural Gas Exports and Hinder Pipeline Expansions
  3. Impose Sanctions
  4. Enhance Russian Brain Drain

In Chapter 4, the same template is applied to six “geopolitical measures”:

  1. Provide Lethal Aid to Ukraine
  2. Increase Support to the Syrian Rebels
  3. Promote Regime Change in Belarus
  4. Exploit Tensions in the South Caucasus 1
  5. Reduce Russian Influence in Central Asia 2
  6. Challenge Russian Presence in Moldova

In its overarching conclusion for Chapter 4, the report says this:

Russia’s commitment in Eastern Ukraine is its greatest point of external vulnerability; local opposition is active and Ukraine is a more capable adversary than any of the other states where Russian troops are committed. But even here, Russia has local military superiority, so controls the possibility of escalation dominance. Any increase in US arms and advice to Ukraine would need to be carefully calibrated to increase the costs to Russia without provoking a much wider and even more violent conflict.

Note those last few words. As in the South China Sea, the terrible potential of Russia’s western borderlands arises at least as much from the possibility of miscalculation – one US provocation too many – as from deadly intent.


But let’s return – given these insights into the psychology of “think tanks” risibly promoted as impartial by the self-servingly credulous (and at times mendacious) journalists of corporate media in the West 3 – to the northernmost and largest of Central Asia’s “stans”.

Early hours of January 7 in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan (née Astana) 4

More peaceful protests in the south-east (Belt & Road facing) business hub of Almaty, three days earlier on January 4

Writing today, in less florid tone than usual but as insightfully informed as ever, Pepe Escobar begins thus:


So is that much fear and loathing all about gas? Not really.

Kazakhstan was rocked into chaos virtually overnight, in principle, because of the doubling of prices for liquefied gas, which reached the (Russian) equivalent of 20 rubles per liter (compare it to an average of 30 rubles in Russia itself).

That was the spark for nationwide protests spanning every latitude from top business hub Almaty to the Caspian Sea ports of Aktau and Atyrau and even the capital Nur-Sultan, formerly Astana.

The central government was forced to roll back the gas price to the equivalent of 8 rubles a liter. Yet that only prompted the next stage of the protests, demanding lower food prices, an end of the vaccination campaign, a lower retirement age for mothers with many children and – last but not least – regime change, complete with its own slogan: Shal, ket! (“Down with the old man.”)

The “old man” is none other than national leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, 81, who even as he stepped down from the presidency after 29 years in power, in 2019, for all practical purposes remains the Kazakh gray eminence as head of the Security Council and the arbiter of domestic and foreign policy.

The prospect of yet another color revolution inevitably comes to mind: perhaps Turquoise-Yellow – reflecting the colors of the Kazakh national flag. Especially because right on cue, sharp observers found out that the usual suspects – the American embassy – was already “warning” about mass protests as early as in December 16, 2021.

Maidan in Almaty? Oh yeah. But it’s complicated.

Brief aside: Pepe draws an unfinished analogy here with the US-backed Maidan Square “colour revolution” which ousted Russia-leaning Yanukovych. The prime beneficiary, Petro Poroshenko, headed a deeply divisive regime, pro NATO and semi fascist. Its Russophobic writ alienated the eastern half of a Ukraine whose current borders lack historic integrity and amount to a gun at Russia’s head. This, and not “Russian aggression”, is why the fears and seething resentments of  Donbass (Donetsk) and Crimea cannot be assuaged/appeased under Kiev rule. Least of all in conditions of “free market” chaos.

Other than to secure its military base in the Crimea (not least to forestall the nightmare of nukes falling into the hands of the Bandera-idolising goons of the Azov Battalion, and to protect an overwhelmingly Russian populace east of the Dneiper River) what would the Kremlin want with the economic basket case which is now Ukraine? Beyond the immediate non-negotiables just set out, the goal for Russia is to ensure that the lands through which first Bonaparte and then Hitler struck at her will not become the portal for a third Storm from the West.

Not that any of this will be apparent to the complacent consumers of the Guardian’s drip-fed drivel. Might I instead recommend this 38 minute interview featuring Aaron Mate and Douglas Macgregor, retired US Army Colonel and former Pentagon senior advisor? And my December 22 post, Ukraine and Georgia are Russia’s red lines? It features another gamekeeper turned poacher – their proliferation a sign that something is deeply amiss in the centres of Western power 5 – the former Reagan appointee, Paul Craig Roberts.

Now back to Pepe’s analysis of current events in Kazakhstan …

Almaty in chaos

For the outside world, it’s hard to understand why a major energy exporting power such as Kazakhstan needs to increase gas prices for its own population.

The reason is – what else – unbridled neoliberalism and the proverbial free market shenanigans. Since 2019 liquefied gas is electronically traded in Kazakhstan. So keeping price caps – a decades-long custom – soon became impossible, as producers were constantly faced with selling their product below cost as consumption skyrocketed.

Everybody in Kazakhstan was expecting a price hike, as much as everybody in Kazakhstan uses liquefied gas, especially in their converted cars. And everybody in Kazakhstan has a car, as I was told, ruefully, during my last visit to Almaty, in late 2019, when I was trying in vain to find a taxi to head downtown.

It’s quite telling that the protests started in the city of Zhanaozen, smack into the oil/gas hub of Mangystau. And it’s also telling that Unrest Central immediately turned to car-addicted Almaty, the nation’s real business hub, and not the isolated, government infrastructure-heavy capital in the middle of the steppes …

Pepe concludes with this:

Putin, Lukashenko [Belarus leader] and Tokayev [Kazakh leader, nominal or not] spent a long time over the phone, at the initiative of Lukashenko. The leaders of all CSTO 6 members are in close contact. A master game plan – as in a massive “anti-terrorist operation” – has already been hatched. Gen. Gerasimov will personally supervise it.

Now compare it to what I learned from two different, high-ranking intel sources.

The first source was explicit: the whole Kazakh adventure is being sponsored by MI6 to create a new Maidan right before the Russia/US-NATO talks in Geneva and Brussels next week, to prevent any kind of agreement. Significantly, the “rebels” maintained their national coordination even after the internet was disconnected.

The second source is more nuanced: the usual suspects are trying to force Russia to back down against the collective West by creating a major distraction in their Eastern front, as part of a rolling strategy of chaos all along Russia’s borders. That may be a clever diversionary tactic, but Russian military intel is watching. Closely. And for the sake of the usual suspects, this better not be interpreted – ominously – as a war provocation.

Read full piece

* * *

  1. South Caucasus = Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic and parts of the Russian Federation.
  2. On Rand/Pentagon thinking, the conclusion for the fifth of Chapter 4’s six measures reads: Reducing Russian influence in Central Asia would be very difficult and could prove costly, and Russia’s influence might be reduced there in the long term without this measure. China will continue to expand there through its Belt and Road Initiative, and Japan and India have also engaged with the region, all of which could reduce Russia’s dominance. The main reason for increasing U.S. engagement in the region would be to benefit the United States: gaining modest help in implementing U.S. foreign policy goals, creating new opportunities for U.S. businesses, and channeling China’s outward efforts in directions amenable to the United States. Without great cost, however, increased engagement would be unlikely to extend Russia much economically, and backlash would need to be guarded against.”
  3. I can’t overstate the folly of thinking that events such as those unfolding in Kazakhstan can be grasped by careful readings of the more ‘serious’ output of Guardian and Beeb, WashPo and CNN. For systemic reasons I never tire of repeating, these sources, while they do employ subjectively honest reporters and commentators, are tainted beyond redemption. Consult them by all means. But it’s never been easier to triangulate their mix of truth, half-truth, flat-out whopper and – most telling of all – glaring omission. A wider range of resources, some cited in posts like this, is available. Use it.
  4. Should Tokayev – hitherto seen as a stooge of his predecessor, former President Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev – emerge with renewed authority from the failed coup, the capital renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019 will likely revert to its former name of Astana.
  5. I began a post eleven months ago saying: “By ‘gamekeepers turned poacher’ I mean former establishment figures like UK Ambassadors Craig Murray and Peter Ford. Or CIA men like Philip Giraldi and Ed Snowden. Or UN Weapons Inspectors Ted Postol and Scott Ritter, and Reagan appointees Paul Craig Murray and the late Stephen Cohen. I might throw in senior politicians like France’s Roland Dumas and Iceland’s Ögmundur Jónasson.” But the list is longer and points us to the reality that, despite the increasingly truth-economical efforts of corporate media noticeably degraded in recent decades – not that they were ever what they claimed – the gap between the world as reported, and as it really is, has widened to create huge cognitive dissonance for men and women of conscience in positions of relative power.
  6. CSTO = Collective Security Treaty Organization: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. See the map this post opens with. Note Uzbekistan: not a CSTO member. Recall that former UK ambassador (and much besides) Craig Murray was sacked by his boss for revealing that the then despot of that particular “stan”, one Islam Karimov, had the delightful habit, while robbing his impoverished fiefdom blind, of boiling political foes alive. Craig’s spilling of beans had irked Blair since Karimov – a monster, yes, but our monster was also the toady who let “coalition” forces use Uzbekistan’s former Soviet airbases for those criminal strikes on Iraq.

16 Replies to “Kazakhstan: why is the steppe on fire?

    • Dave thanks again for offering instances of precisely the wider range of reading I advocate in footnote 3.

      (On a minor note, I do wish both Pepe Escobar and Andrei Martyanov (respectively Brazilian and Russian) would adopt a more sober tone. They have so much of value to offer, but I fear their fondness of turns of phrase OTT to English sensibilities will needlessly deter the kind of reader who really should be reading what they have to say.)

  1. Yesterday’s Canadian BC reports of the Kazakh situation, was preceded by a long piece on the “insurrection” in Washington last January. The contrasts were hilarious and obscenely revealing of the nature of propaganda: the farce in DC, in which nobody was killed and nothing much happened, was painted in the most lurid tones, and the politicians put on a clinic in the art of insulting the intelligence of the populace’s pets’ companions. Nancy Pelosi, may her tribe decrease, actually imported the cast of the musical “Hamilton” to sing about what she calls Democracy.

    And the ‘reporter’ fired off the script as if auditioning for the lead in a sequel.

    It was all very funny, very stupid, utterly dishonest, and a complete misrepresentation of the sad little demo emanating from a population in which all critical faculties are cauterised shortly after birth.

    And then came the, very understated and sympathetic, account of events of Central Asia where public opinion, provoked beyond reason, has risen as one against an authoritarian regime which has driven it to the justifiable but unhappy extreme of massacring police officers and setting the not-White House ablaze.

    It is difficult to believe that those who heard the Cold War revival propaganda barely disguised as reporting will not have ended up rolling around the floor and howling with laughter. But most will have swallowed it all “The Insurrection threatening Democracy” and the “Spontaneous popular explosion of righteous anger” not as an exhibition of the traison of clercs employed as journalists but as another day in the life of a planet under siege by forces led by Putin.

    More ducks please Phil.

  2. Found this in support of what most intelligent people seem capable of comprehending:
    Dr. Marcus Papadopoulos and Alexander Mercouris on recent events (attempted colour revolution) in Kazakhstan by Eva Bartlett

    Dr. Marcus Papadopoulos:
    “The closeness between the Kazakhs and the Russians can be described as a fraternal bond which cannot be broken and cannot be disrupted. Indeed, in the March 1991 referendum in the Soviet Union, over 90% of the electorates in Kazakhstan (or to be more precise the Kazakhstan Soviet Socialist Republic) voted to preserve the union of Soviet socialist republics. Indeed, the result in the whole of central Asia was very similar. So, in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the electorates there also voted, over 90%, to preserve the Soviet Union.

    Following the disillusion of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, along with the other central Asian republics, were shocked to find that they were now independent countries, and the Kazakhs, like the Tajiks and the Uzbeks, were very angry with Russia. They were very disappointed with Russia, that they had been separated from Russia. That is a reality that is rarely, if ever, told in the West.

    Now, turning to 2022 and the violent protests in Kazakhstan. I am of the firm opinion that the protests–the violent protests–which have seen soldiers killed, police officers killed, violent protesters storming police stations, storming an airport, attempting to storm the parliament, demonstrating a competence in the use of firearms…has been engineered by Western special services to strategically weaken Russia, so that Russia has to contend with two exceedingly dangerous fronts on its borders: namely Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

    Because what we have seen over the last few weeks is Moscow giving its efforts to focus on Ukraine–and let me assure you and your audience that the threat emanating from Ukraine, not from the Ukrainian people, from the Ukrainian authorities and their patrons America, Britain and the European Union poses an enormous threat to the security of the Russian Federation.

    But returning to Kazakhstan, the timing of the outbreak of these violent protests is no coincidence. Coincidences do not occur at such a high level in geostrategic politics. So as I said moments ago, this is a way of Western special services–by which I mean American special services and British special services–attempting to disrupt, undermine, Russia’s efforts on Ukraine. And, Russia, thankfully, in 2022 is again a superpower, and Russia can contend on more than on more than one front. But nonetheless, this is a danger which Russia will meet head on.”

    It all seems so obvious and leaves me wondering how anyone could believe in the false narratives being posited by very egregious sources. Then I came across your post, as if confirmation was even needed, but it helps!

    Hope all is well with you and yours.

    🙂 Susan

    • Thanks, Susan, a good overview IMO.

      Eva Bartlett first got my attention with her reports on Syria. I recall five years ago how she wiped the floor with a smug Norwegian journalist, Christopher Rothenberg, who’d patronised her with this:

      You talk about corporate media, the Western media, the lies, and all of this. Could you explain what might be the agenda from us in the Western media and why we should lie. Why the international organizations on the ground should lie? Why we shouldn’t believe all these absolutely documentable facts that we see from the ground? These hospitals being bombed. These civilians that are talking about the atrocities that they have been experiencing. How can you justify calling all of us liars?

      Well it’s now much clearer to more people that we were indeed lied to on all these things and more. And for the few paying attention, it’s also much clearer that (a) imperialism had a number of motives – variously explored on this site, your own and many others – to topple the region’s last ba’athism and (b) that on those things non negotiable to imperialist ruling classes, media independence vanishes, for reasons I set out here, without a trace. As I said in a recent post on Sinophobia:

      EITHER China is so bad – e.g. has slain millions in this century alone by wars and bombs, drone strikes and murderous sanctions … e.g. declares itself the Exceptionalist Nation, above international law – that even its seeming positives – e.g. lifting 730 million of its citizens (yes, Uighurs and Tibetans too) from extreme poverty, as even the US led World Bank admits – well, they too turn out to be pretty rotten once The Free World’s fearless journalists have had a closer look.

      OR all of the said corporate media in the West are systemically corrupt …

      But back to Eva. Her response in 2016 was magnificent.

      How many journalists do you have on the ground in Syria?

      As Rothenberger, the smirk wiped from his face, struggled to answer, she continued:

      The answer is zero. You have no reporters in Syria.

      She was right of course. For me and others, Syria was one of the issues – others being Putin, Corbyn and Assange – which led me to conclude that all Western media, liberal wing not excepted, were serving power not truth. In the years since I have deepened my understanding of why that is, but have never seen cause to revise this view.

      Alas, the video of that interview – linked from my post a week later and from sources including this one – has been pulled. Besides being highly informative, that exchange was exquisite!

      Finally, I’m well thanks and hope the same goes for you. We both have work to do yet!

  3. I find it personally quite galling that despite an excellent education that challenged received wisdom and the status quo, a reasonably critical and analytic mind and a good understanding of western imperialist meddling in Libya and Syria, I can still accept (initially) the liberal / left of centre narrative re events in Kazakhstan. It really underlines the power of the dominant ideology – and a continuing deep seated desire on my part not to see the West as always the ‘bad guys.’

    Thank you once more Phil, and your other contributors, for providing a more insightful perspective.

    • Thanks Bryan. You’re right to feel galled rather than guilty. Basic instincts, which on the whole have served our species well, are being manipulated (not necessarily – or even usually – consciously at the level of individual journalists) by the criminals who rule and their systemically compliant media.

      I liken this to that other wing of capitalist propaganda, advertising. (This is one of the reasons, others stemming from its superb and multifaceted artistry, that made Mad Men so compelling.) We all at some level think ourselves immune to advertising: that “it may work on others but not on me”. The evidence (trillions of dollars changing hands on Madison Avenue and its equivalents across the capitalist world) says otherwise.

      So we should be wary of personalising this. As regards the tendency to buy (neo)liberal narratives on “colour revolutions” and the like, I’ve observed the same in myself and on the marxist left. The good news is there’s an antidote: cultivate a mindset wedded to the truth, easily established empirically and in logic, that (a) we are ruled by criminals; (b) while our corporate media may tell the truth on lesser (but still important) matters, on core issues they are systemically incapable of prioritising truth over power; and (c) one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is the question, cui bono?

  4. Phillip, have been following events in Syria, Libya and Iraq (Burstani and his crew)and Israel’s activities along the Mosel – Nineveh border countries for years with Syrian Free Press, SANA and Syrian Perspective so it was refreshing to have fellow westerners speaking truth to the hypocritical and perfidious lying toilet rags and shedding light on the realities. Never regretted it.

    As for Caitlin’s comment, unfortunately while we are subject to that bungling idiot at the top of the “pile” we ARE the property of the US.

    And then of course there is Afghanistan, we and US plebs have suddenly developed an over weaning desire to better the lives of Afghani women, something we didn’t give a damn about over the last twenty five years. As for the many Afghans trying to flee, they were just as afraid of their fellow Afghanis who they betrayed to the US dollars being plonked firmly in their hands by US GI’s and considered enrichment at the expense of their fellow Aghanistans a far better profitable venture than women chasing the GI’s out of the small towns and villages. I remember only too well the “Save Syria’s Children” propaganda campaign, how easy the half million Iraqi child deaths were dismissed as mere casualties of war, but Syrian Children were somehow different and Afghani women were “in fashion”.

    Have a horrible head cold since xmas but in good health otherwise, trust me after 30 years of dodging flu and cold viruses to catch one finally, in the midst of a CO/SARS virus frenzy.


    PS. You have some good interest in this article which is excellent to see, Dave as always with his finger on the pulse.

    • Have a horrible head cold since xmas but in good health otherwise, trust me after 30 years of dodging flu and cold viruses to catch one finally, in the midst of a CO/SARS virus frenzy.

      Take care of yourself Susan. I’ve lost two friends, both older even than me, to Covid. While I don’t know how old you are, it’s clear that, like me, you’ve notched up a good few spins round the sun. And as I said in an earlier reply below this post, you’re needed for a good few more yet.

  5. Two interesting and relevant linked Twitter threads from the same source here:



    See also latest over at Moon of Alabama.

    The main concern being pushed here is the potential of links between the Biden family and the now former head of security who has been arrested for treason to undermine the Geneva talks scheduled for tomorrow.

    Though another way of looking at that might be one which focuses on the potential for strengthening the hand the RF will be playing?

    • You didn’t link to yesterday’s Moon of Alabama piece, Dave, so here it is:


      I urge everyone, especially Brits who may think all of this far removed from their concerns, to read it. I’ve abridged these extracts:

      It is a mystery who is behind the rebellion. I had presumed a CIA operation but it may have been outsourced to MI6. There are other possibilities.

      This smells strongly of the color revolution as used by the USA. The gangs which attacked police, fired buildings and stormed arms stores were well trained. They worked in formations, obviously under command. Some seemed to be trained snipers, as some shots hit policemen at distance. Three of the policemen killed were beheaded, suggesting Jihadists. Some are said to have been foreign and the total force was put at 20,000. This fuels speculation that they came from Turkey, where Erdogan has used Jihadis from Syria for foreign policy purposes. But for whose benefit would he do this in Kazakhstan?

      Besides teasing out the Turkish aspects – those, says MoA, of an unruly Nato member but still under Washington command – MoA offers some detail (for a relatively short article) on the British angle:

      Mukhtar Ablyazov became a wild east capitalist after the USSR fell. He gained a share of BTA Bank when it was privatized by then President Nazarbayev. He used the bank to gain $5 billion for himself and in 2009, after trouble with Nazarbayev, fled the country. BTA broke down, defaulting on some $10 billion of debt, one of its biggest creditors being Royal Bank of Scotland, bailed out by the British taxpayer.

      Like many shady billionaires from the former USSR, Ablyazov was granted political asylum in London. He hired several companies with CIA, MI6 and Mossad background to gain material against Nazarbayev, as insurance against arrest orders on him in Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. Several court cases against him were opened in London. After he lied on oath to a UK court, about who owned the $20 million house he lived in, a judge sentenced him for 22 months. He never served it. Simply vanished.

      He resurfaced in Rome, then France, dogged by court cases and arrest notices. He hired PR firms and lawyers to defend himself. A judge in Britain eventually halted his extradition to Russia and he was allowed to stay in France.

      (The whole, much longer story is told in a 2017 Financial Times weekend piece which is free to read.)

      Ablyazov is a perfect example of what Chatham House recently called The UK’s kleptocracy problem:

      The growth of London as a centre for financial and professional services coincided with the collapse of the USSR and the rise of post-Soviet kleptocracies in the 1990s. These states and their elites have since become a major source of clients for UK-based services firms and of investors in UK assets.

      After noting Mukhtar Ablyazov’s recent rehabilitation, in Western media, as Kazakh “opposition leader” (= Good Guy), the Moon of piece ends:

      An MI6 cooperation with Ablyazov and Reuters putting him up as the ‘opposition leader’ makes perfect sense. Turkey in the mix might well have added to the training of the gangs, and Jihadi elements. Karim Masimov [former head of Kazakh security, arrested yesterday on treason charges] may have been bribed to help them, or was compromised via his Biden connection. The criminal Wild Arman [a mafia boss, said to have led the riots in the capital, Astana] will have worked for money no matter from where.

      That still leaves several open questions.

      One, how did Russia know what would happen? Her CSTO forces were in the air 13 hours after Tokayev requested help. Even a quick reaction force needs time to pack, get to the airport and leave. CSTO troops from Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan were also quick. Someone must have given them warning.

      (Those CSTO troops are not active in the streets but guarding bases, airports and government buildings. They free up Kazakh forces to fight the gangs. Gunfire was still heard this morning in Almaty. The operation is continuing.

      What was the game plan? Burning government buildings and killing police is not enough for a coup. One needs to go for the head of the beast, and there was no known attempt to do that.

      For now it looks as if Tokayev is sure to win. There will be no ‘western’ sanctions as several large ‘western’ corporations are making good money with recovering resources in Kazakhstan. Were they to be expelled in retaliation, it would be a big win for Russia and China.

      This all was quite predictable outcome. So why launch this operation?

      The only answer that makes sense to me is that it was an attempt to divert Russia’s attentions from the ‘western’ threat. As such it has failed.

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