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Russia has been pulled into a conflict in neighboring Kazakhstan


All right, even as Vladimir Putin is negotiating with the West over the future of Ukraine, he's been pulled into a conflict in another neighboring country, Kazakhstan. A Russian-led force of some-2,500 troops arrived there last week at the invitation of the president amid a wave of popular unrest that turned violent. For the latest, we have NPR's Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes on the line with us now. Charles, last week we saw video of protesters setting fire to buildings and also involved in deadly clashes with security forces. What's the latest now?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Well, yeah. So this morning, we heard from Kazakhstan's president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who addressed leaders of countries involved in this Russian-led regional security force. And let's listen in for just a bit.


PRESIDENT KASSYM-JOMART TOKAYEV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So Tokayev here is saying that constitutional order in Kazakhstan has now been restored and anti-terrorist operation by state forces was nearing its completion. He says that nearly 8,000 people have been detained, more than a thousand people injured, and that authorities are still trying to determine the number of dead. It's thought to be in the dozens, if not more.

Now, Tokayev also laid out his version of what had happened over these past few days. He said that what began as a peaceful protest over a hike in fuel prices was exploited by well-organized groups trying to overthrow the government. He noted that even after he'd addressed protesters' demands, government buildings and communications hubs were attacked across the country simultaneously by what he called terrorists. And Tokayev pushed back against Western concerns that shoot-to-kill orders he subsequently gave meant security forces were firing on innocent protesters, saying these were pitched battles, in fact, with arms and surgeons. And he thanked his Russian-led force of peacekeepers for coming to Kazakhstan's aid as it was attacked, noting they had secured government sites that freed up Kazakh troops to take on the terrorists and win.

MARTÍNEZ: Speaking of Russians, I assume Vladimir Putin took part in today's discussions. What did he have to say?

MAYNES: Yeah, he did. So Putin said last week's attacks on the - were an attack on the Kazakh state, he said, using what he called Maidan technologies. Now, that's a reference to the popular street revolution in Ukraine in 2014 that overthrew a Moscow-backed government.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: And Putin here says this was not the first or the last attempt by outside forces to interfere in the post-Soviet space. Putin argued that by acting together, Russia and its allies had shown they won't allow these foreign-backed street revolutions to succeed. And so it seems Putin and others, like Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who's also on the call, are arguing Kazakhstan is now a precedent, a case study for these peacekeepers to be deployed whenever there is popular discontent because in their view, there's always a hidden foreign hand stoking it.

MARTÍNEZ: I remember how Secretary of State Blinken expressed concern the other day that Russians, once in Kazakhstan, will not leave.

MAYNES: Right, and infuriating Russia in the process. You know, I should note that Putin today said Russian troops would be leaving, although he allowed they could stay there as long as the Kazakh government wanted. And of course, this is a contingent of less than 2,500 troops serving in a country the size of Western Europe. So, you know, the idea that they could have a significant military impact is absurd. But by inviting the Russian forces in, Tokayev, this Kazakh leader, seems to be signaling domestically he has mass - Moscow's backing.

After all, you know, one of the other things we've seen this past week is Tokayev sidelining his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled Kazakhstan for its entire post-Soviet history and had been seen as the most influential figure here, even after he handed the presidency to Tokayev in 2019. So Tokayev was considered a caretaker president under Nazarbayev and - until this week. How exactly beholden he'll now be to Vladimir Putin, well, that remains to be seen.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "KANDAIKI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.