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Former Soviet countries are part of Russia’s domain and risk Ukraine’s fate if they go up against the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has insinuated.
The Russian president made the remarks while on stage with Kazakhstan’s leader, with experts interpreting them as a “clear threat” against the neighbouring country.
Putin sat still, sucking in his lips before hitting back: “What is the Soviet Union? This is historic Russia.”
He went on to calmly praise Kazakhstan as a brotherly nation before adding in a thinly veiled threat: “The same thing could have happened with Ukraine, absolutely, but they wouldn’t be our allies.”
One observer based in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, said that Mr Tokayev had “humiliated Putin in front of his supporters” and that the threat was real, adding: “He’s making him aware that Kazakhstan may be Russia’s next prey.”
Another commentator, based in Almaty, said: “He’s saying that if you are good neighbours, that’s fine. But if you step out of line and go pro-West, we can conquer your land because it is ours.”
Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Mr Tokayev was especially vulnerable because he had relied on Putin’s support in January to defeat rivals in a fight for power in Kazakhstan.
“This is a clear threat,” he said of Putin’s comments. “Tokayev has no power base domestically and knows since January he is dependent on Putin.”
Other Kazakh analysts were more sceptical, saying that Mr Tokayev would only have stood up to Putin over Ukraine if it was worth the risk and that a Russian invasion of Kazakhstan was unlikely.
“Kazakhstan is already firmly rooted in the Russian domain of influence. Putin doesn’t need to reimpose the borders of the USSR to control it,” said Dimash Alzhanov, a Kazakh political analyst.
However, viewed from northern Kazakhstan, an invasion does not feel like an abstract concept.
“It’s a very real fear and it would be easy for Russia,” said Viktor, the owner of a curtain shop in Uralsk, a city of about 300,000 people lying 45 miles away from the border with Russia.
“People’s views are stronger now and they don’t talk to each other,” he said. “The Russian propaganda now is so strong. Russians here have their heads and their hearts over the border with Putin.”
Grand Russian Imperial buildings line the main street in Uralsk, a reminder that it used to mark the edge of Russia’s Tsarist empire. Roughly a third of the population is Russian, a common character of towns in north Kazakhstan, although most of the country is predominantly ethnic Kazakh.
Kazakhstan is a mineral-rich country. Many of its metal and rare earth deposits lie in the north of the country. One of its largest oil and gas projects, Karachaganak – in which Shell is a shareholder – is near Uralsk. The Kazakh army is poor and no match for Russia’s, even in a weakened state.
Kremlin hawks have been circling and threatening the country. Last month, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, accused Kazakhstan of hosting US biological laboratories which may be used for building weapons, an accusation he lobs at Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s foes.
A three-and-a-half-hour flight from Uralsk, in south-east Kazakhstan, lies Almaty, the relaxed former capital. There, in a Scottish-themed bar a fortnight ago, a pub quiz was in full swing.
“People here are very nervous that we’re next after Ukraine,” said Sabir, a shop interior architect.
On screens above shelves filled with bottles of whisky, two grainy black and white portraits of a man and a woman flashed up.
“Name the child of these two parents,” said the quizmaster.
There was an alarmed commotion among the teams. Could the quizmaster really have slipped in a reference to Putin, considered by most Kazakhs to be a warmonger, at a time like this?
“It can’t be, can it?” said Sabir. “That can’t be Putin’s parents, can it? That’s crazy.”