“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.