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Kazakhstan Crisis and the Prominence of the CSTO as an Alternative Security Partnership

Image credit: The Kremlin

By Christopher Mott

Is the world seeing the rise of an alternative type of international security alliance where nations collaborate under the ideological rubric of countering the influence of non-state actors and advocacy groups? Recent events in Central Asia imply that the liberal consensus about international civil society pushed by North Atlantic powers may have lost its appeal, and that alternative conceptions of international security cooperation could be on the rise in some parts of the world.

Over the past few weeks, the world witnessed major protests and riots unfolding in the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, particularly centered around the economic and cultural hub and former capital city of Almaty. Having begun initially as a reaction to the sudden increase in gas prices on January 2nd, the unrest soon spread with thousands having been detained and hundreds killed.

Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, asked the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)–the Eurasian alliance of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Armenia, and Belarus–to intervene. The CSTO affirmed its support for the Kazakh government by deploying a mostly Russian international contingent to the country. The small size of this force hardly overshadowed the domestic Kazakh security services, but the purpose of invoking the CSTO treaty was likely to show the seriousness of the Kazakhstani government’s international backing as an inter-elite dispute unfolded during the crisis. Tokayev turned the table on his former mentor, Nazarbayev, by calling on Russia for help–turning dreams of a ‘Turkic world’ espoused by Turkish nationalists into dust.

That this was done for more domestic and political—rather than military—considerations has now all but been admitted by Tokayav’s government following the dismissal of ex-President Nazarbayev (longtime friend and partner of Erdogan) from his post as head of the Security Council and official criticism of the wealth inequality that arose during Nazarbayev’s 29-year reign. It was also a signal of Russia’s enduring influence in the region and a major blow to Turkey’s larger ambitions in Central Asia and the calls for a greater Turkic community that has Russia, China, and even Iran concerned. 

On January 10th, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that “victory” had been achieved against a revolt by “terrorists” in Kazakhstan and implied that foreign actors had been responsible for the upheaval. On January 11th, the deployment was declared successful, and Putin stated that the troops would begin returning to Russia

It was Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s former head of state, who back in 2016 warned of the potential for such an insurrection to occur in the country. Putin himself this week brought up the term “colour revolutions” against which he is determined to defend the post-Soviet space, while Tokayev condemned what he called an “attempted coup d’état” by groups of “armed fighters.” The “colour revolution” descriptor is often used as a moniker for crises that were manufactured in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005 where pro-Russian governments were brought down by protest movements which were alleged to have foreign backing, particularly from the United States and NATO-allied nations.

Due to Kazakhstan’s distance from core U.S. interests and its willingness to engage in international trade and liberal market economics, it seems unlikely that the United States is pursuing direct regime change against Kazakhstan in particular. Although the timing of the unrest—coming at a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine—is curious, the crisis in Kazakhstan appears to be coincidental. Nevertheless, this type of conspiratorial rhetoric finds a receptive audience not only in the ruling class of the post-Soviet world but also in many countries further afield. From Ethiopia to Iran, many governments pin their domestic troubles on an American/Western puppet master, and not without reason. U.S. and E.U. interference in 2014 in Ukraine has been well-documented, as has—most destructively—NATO’s covert involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The European Union has also been extremely active, via non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in the recent instability in Belarus. These past transgressions make any claims of the U.S. or E.U. interference on behalf of protestors appear plausible on paper, whether or not it is true or false in any particular instance. 

Considering that the U.S. and many of its allies support ‘democracy-promotion’ and civil society building with the help of NGOs which are often based in NATO countries and supported by their governments, many nations outside of Washington’s alliance networks view these organizations as Trojan horses meant to gather intelligence, create opposition groups, and foment political unrest against the incumbent regime. As such, it was always only a matter of time before some of these formerly targeted countries began to use the narrative of foreign provocation as propaganda to strengthen their hold on power and create cover for their domestic security operations. The crisis in Kazakhstan is a test case as to how Russia, Kazakhstan, and others outside the Western alliance could now specifically justify their internal security moves as promoting stability and defending state sovereignty from colour revolutions, thus forming an ideologically aligned bloc as a counterweight to what is seen as western-influenced ‘activism’. With Russia completing the swift withdrawal of CSTO forces from Kazakhstan having delivered stability to the beleaguered nation, this case could raise the stock of Russian security assistance in the eyes of governments around the world suspicious of the U.S. and its allies.

Increasingly, more countries putting a premium on non-interference could see this Eurasian security arrangement as more appealing given its benefits for their independence, upturning the long-held Beltway view that champions civil society NGOs as a form of soft power projection that only benefits Washington. In fact, operating explicitly against these organizations—or what is perceived to be aligned with these organizations—now gives diplomatic and soft power credibility to rival blocs such as the CSTO. With the invocation of the alliance between Kazakhstan, Moscow, and company to defend against the perceived threat of colour revolutions, this could signal the evolution of the CSTO into a new counter-colour revolution security partnership, whose model and approach could offer non-Western countries a viable alternative to NATO, and whose security guarantees come at often exorbitant costs to a country’s sovereignty and strategic autonomy—a particularly attractive option for states that have strained relations with Washington. 

When the United States was an unquestioned global hegemon, its ability to weaponize ‘democratization’ against its rivals to advance the liberal international order was assumed to be an inevitable push towards a linear and universal method of ‘progress’. But now, in a more multipolar world, a policy viewed as missionary interventionism creates its own counter-movement to nullify the strategic advantages it might have once provided. In its inherent universalism, unhinged liberal internationalism has the paradoxical effect of elevating a regime (however incompetent and corrupt) in the eyes of its citizens as preferable to foreign plots, be they real or imagined, thus raising the prospects of its long-term survival.

Dr. Christopher Mott (@chrisdmott) is a Research Fellow at IPD and a former researcher and desk officer at the U.S. Department of State.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor