Russian troops were loading onto planes taking off from Kazakhstan on Thursday after President Vladimir Putin said their mission to quell protests that turned into unprecedented unrest in the Central Asian country had ended.
The decision to dispatch troops was a first for the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), an alliance of ex-Soviet states often touted by Russia as a Nato equivalent, following an urgent plea from Kazakhstan’s leadership.
At a ceremony marking the end of the mission, soldiers lined up as anthems from each of the six member countries were played before official speeches.
“The peacekeeping operation is over,” said Russian General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of the contingent that included troops from Belarus, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the pullout would be completed by Wednesday next week, several days ahead of a January 22 deadline set by the alliance to complete the withdrawal.
“We must come home. We’ve completed our mission,” Putin told Shoigu during their meeting.
The plea from Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, during the height of the unrest, for Moscow to intervene was a turning point of the protests.
The move sparked concerns that Moscow would leverage the mission to shore up influence in Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.
During his first visit to Kazakhstan’s main city Almaty on Wednesday — where life has been gradually returning to normal — Tokayev praised the “psychological importance” of the CSTO mission.
The financial hub of 1.8 million people was devastated during clashes between security forces and government opponents that gave way to a spree of looting.
One strategic complex the troop contingent was guarding was Almaty airport, which was reportedly seized by government opponents last week.
The airport’s press service said that it was handling both domestic and international flights again on Thursday.
Last week’s violence erupted on the back of rallies over a rise in fuel prices and against a background of deteriorating living standards and endemic corruption.
Tokayev has framed the clashes as a coup attempt assisted by local and international terrorists and said that economic damage from the violence “could total $2-3 billion”.
Putin hinted that the violence was reminiscent of “colour revolutions” instigated with foreign help and at least 12,000 people have been detained, police said, with at least three journalists reportedly under arrest.