Russian-led troops sent to help Kazakhstan’s government quell violent protests have begun leaving the country, according to Russia’s defense minister.
Roughly 2,300 troops were dispatched to Kazakhstan last week by a Moscow-dominated alliance of former Soviet countries, after Kazakhstan’s president appealed for assistance amid the protests that saw his government lose control in the country’s biggest city, Almaty.
Kazakhstan’s government has since re-established its grip after its security forces forcibly ended the unrest, using live fire to clear the streets in Almaty, where over a hundred were killed. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev this week announced the foreign troops from the alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), had completed their mission and could leave now that the situation in the country was stable.
Russia’s defense ministry on Thursday said the first Russian paratrooper units had taken off from Almaty. Four Il-76 transports would fly the troops and their equipment to their base in the Russian city Ivanovo, the ministry said.
Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, said the withdrawal was ongoing and would be completed by Jan. 19. In a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Shoigu said the several hundred troops from other CSTO countries — Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia — would all leave on Russian aircraft on Friday. A contingent sent from neighboring Kyrgyzstan would leave by land, Shoigu said.
Putin in the meeting said the troops had completed their mission and thanked Russia’s military command.
“On the whole we need to return home — we’ve completed our task,” Putin said.
Video published by Kazakh news media on Thursday showed CSTO troops taking part in a farewell ceremony in Kazakhstan, marching on a parade ground at a military institute in Almaty. Photos also showed Russian paratrooper boarding transport planes at the city’s airport.
Russia sent the largest contingent from the CSTO alliance, which was established as Moscow’s answer to NATO following the fall of the Soviet Union. The deployment was the first time Russia has acted through the alliance to assist a friendly regime against street protests in one of its former Soviet neighbors.
Peaceful protests began in Kazakhstan over fuel prices but they escalated into a violent uprising against Tokayev’s regime in the middle of last week. Armed mobs stormed government buildings and there was widespread looting in Almaty. Tokayev and Putin have claimed foreign-backed forces inside the country sought to exploit the unrest to stage an “attempted coup” against Tokayev.
Russia deployed soldiers as well as armored vehicles from the 45th Guards Special Purpose brigade, the 98th Guards Airborne Division and the 31st Separate Guards Order.
The Russian-led troops were not used in combat operations or against protesters, according to Kazakhstan’s authorities. Instead the foreign soldiers were used to guard key facilities, freeing up Kazakh security forces to restore order elsewhere, the government said. Russia’s defense ministry released video of Russian troops patrolling a power station.
Western countries, worried about Russian intervention in Kazakhstan, expressed concerns about whether Moscow might seek a more permanent presence in the country and whether its independence could be eroded. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week told reporters: "One lesson in recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it's sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.”
The situation in Kazakhstan has calmed and Tokayev’s government appears to be back in control. In Almaty, normal life is returning, although there remains a heavy security presence in the city, according to an ABC reporter there.
Kazakhstan’s authorities said they arrested nearly 10,000 people during the protests. The interior ministry on Thursday said 524 people were currently in pre-trial detention and that 412 of them had been charged with offenses relating to the unrest. At least 164 people died, including 18 police officers, and over two thousand were injured, according to the government.