Kazakhstan Is Breaking Out of Russia’s Grip

Leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states pose for a family photo during a summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16. Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP
Leaders of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member states pose for a family photo during a summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on Sept. 16. Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik/AFP

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may not have changed the global world order, but it has certainly changed the geopolitics of Asia. Before the war, if Belarus was Russia’s closest ally to the west and China to the east, Kazakhstan was unquestionably its greatest ally to the south. Unlike Belarus or China, however, Kazakhstan is not looking for any extra opportunities in its relations with Russia, instead trying to quietly dismantle an alliance it never really wanted without provoking Moscow’s wrath. Chinese President Xi Jinping picking Kazakhstan for his first foreign trip since January 2020, and promising to support Kazakhstan in “safeguarding national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”, gives a golden opportunity to further this goal.

Not a single official in Kazakhstan has expressed support for Moscow since its invasion of Ukraine in February—not even to voice an understanding (like China’s) of Russia’s “reasonable security concerns”. Instead, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has openly refused to support Russia. Kazakhstan has not recognized the self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region and is not helping Russia to circumvent economic sanctions. Domestically, Kazakhstan has fought any signs of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine among Kazakh society by banning Russian military propaganda symbols and canceling the May 9 Victory Day parade.

Russian pro-government media and Telegram channels claim that Kazakhstan has gone so far as to supply Ukraine with arms. The allegations are based on a supposedly leaked contract under which the Kazakh company Technoexport is purported to be exporting Soviet-era weapons and ammunition to Ukraine via Jordan and the United Kingdom. Kazakhstan officially rejects those allegations, but whether it is sending arms to Ukraine or not, it is obvious that Kazakhstan is trying to alienate itself from its toxic ally Russia.

The alliance between Astana and Moscow is not just a result of the Soviet legacy. For the last three decades of independence, Kazakhstan has unfailingly participated in all of Russia’s integration projects, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Kazakhstan is well aware that it is limited by insurmountable barriers in its relations with Russia, such as the reliance of Kazakhstan’s economy on Russia for basic items such as food and clothing. (More than 40 percent of the Kazakh market’s needs are covered by imports from Russia.) When Russia stopped sugar exports this year over fears of domestic shortages, Kazakhs found themselves facing shortages and price increases.

For this reason, Kazakhstan has to keep looking over its shoulder at the Kremlin. And by stabilizing the situation in restive Almaty with minimal effort in a matter of days back in January, Moscow showed just how much leverage it has in Kazakh domestic politics. But this power also creates a strong incentive for Astana to try to loosen Moscow’s grip.

Russia, on the other hand, wants to keep the status quo in its relations with Kazakhstan. Russia’s isolation makes Kazakhstan a much more precious partner than ever before. Moscow also understands that its bargaining position is at a historic low, since it needs Astana to potentially share the burden of sanctions by accommodating some Russian companies, allowing the parallel export of sanctioned goods, or preventing Kazakh companies from cutting ties with their Russian counterparts. It also needs Kazakhstan to continue to be the key engine for the Russian integration project, the EEU.

Since independence, Kazakhstan has seen its main foreign-policy priority as reducing Russia’s dominance and diversifying its ties with the world. Every conflict that Russia has had on its western borders (such as Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014) only reaffirmed Kazakhstan’s belief that it had chosen the right path. Astana has never recognized Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or other Russian buffer quasi-states and was not ready to consider Crimea as part of Russia because, otherwise, it would have indirectly legitimized Moscow’s potential attempts to act the same way with Kazakhstan.

The deeper Moscow digs itself into a confrontation with the West and the international community, the more prepared Kazakhstan is to ditch Russia where possible while trying to avoid incurring losses as a result of Moscow’s displeasure.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the red lines in its relationship with Russia have been unclear for Kazakhstan. If earlier Kazakhstan holding military drills with NATO would not have angered Russia, now Moscow sees itself as being at war with the West and may act much more aggressively.

At the same time, the absence of red lines opens up a less obvious opportunity for Kazakhstan. While Russia is weak and spending all of its energy and resources on Ukraine and the stabilization of Putin’s regime, Astana is using the moment to expand its cooperation with other countries seen by Moscow as acceptable.

Several months after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Tokayev visited Turkey for the first time since his inauguration. It was a groundbreaking visit: The parties boosted their relationship to the level of a strategic partnership and agreed to start producing Turkish drones in Kazakhstan. But more importantly, Kazakhstan agreed to exchange military intelligence with Turkey. This is the first time a country that is part of the CSTO has agreed to exchange sensitive intelligence with a NATO member.

Another recent port of call for Tokayev was Baku. While Kazakhstan refuses to support Russia’s military campaigns, it has not shown the same reluctance to take sides in the ongoing territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Although the Azerbaijani army defeated Kazakhstan’s CSTO ally Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, that did not stop Tokayev from congratulating Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on “restoring the territorial integrity” of his country. The two parties agreed to intensify their economic cooperation, which is very important for Kazakh business, suffering not only from the aftershock of anti-Russian sanctions but also from Moscow’s deliberate pressure on the Kazakh economy.

Tokayev’s bold moves have taken many by surprise, since it was Putin who saved him from being toppled in January in what Tokayev claimed was an attempted  coup. Those who argue that the Kazakh leadership owes the Kremlin assume that Moscow decided to get involved back in January in search of new opportunities and to expand its influence in the region.

Kazakhstan understands, however, that Moscow’s main motivation during the unrest was fear for its own security should the situation in the neighboring country get irrevocably out of control, since the decision-making process in the Kremlin is risk-oriented but not opportunity-seeking. Still, symbols and rumors matter in politics, and for this reason, Tokayev does not want anyone to see him as a leader appointed by the Kremlin; he wants to quieten down those who were unhappy with Russian intervention domestically. His announcement of a snap election this fall is an attempt to gain legitimacy from the people of Kazakhstan.

In Russia, the hawkish part of the political elite is unhappy with the news coming out of Kazakhstan, and Moscow is ready to remind Astana of the price it will pay for worsening relations. Russia accounts for a fifth of Kazakhstan’s total external trade, while over half of Kazakhstan’s cargo transits Russian territory. If pushed, Russia could cut off Kazakhstan’s main source of income. Right now, 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports are through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), in which Russia holds a 31 percent stake. In the last few months, there have been no fewer than five incidents involving the CPC that have led to a complete stop or substantial decrease in oil exports from Kazakhstan to Europe.

Shutting down the CPC would deprive Kazakhstan’s budget of more than 40 percent of its income. The maximum amount of oil that can be exported from Kazakhstan to Europe via the alternative route in the Caspian Sea is around 100,000 barrels a day, while the CPC carries more than a million. Although for now none of the alternative routes can match the CPC in terms of volume, price, or speed of delivery, Kazakhstan wants to have at least some freedom of maneuver in its export routes. One of the possible alternatives is via the port in Baku, which was the main reason for Tokayev’s recent visit there.

Officially, Moscow continues to repeat its mantra about stable allied relations blossoming with Kazakhstan, but in reality, its frustration with its ally may be turning into outright anger. Naturally, the Kremlin has not publicly admitted this, but it allows the hawks among Russian officials and commentators to threaten Kazakhstan. Fake news about a “genocide of Russians” in Kazakhstan has fueled talk of the “denazification” of Kazakhstan.

In March, Sergey Savostyanov, a Moscow city parliament deputy from the Communist Party, suggested including Kazakhstan in a “demilitarization and denazification zone” to protect Russia’s security interests. In August, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, suggested in a social media post that after Ukraine, Moscow might turn its attention to the fate of northern Kazakhstan. Medvedev claimed that his account had been hacked, but the well-known Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar is sure that it was composed by the ex-president’s large staff with the aim of portraying Medvedev as a war supporter.

Although Russia launching another war on its border is highly unlikely (especially after the recent successful counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces), the biggest downside of Kazakhstan’s newly emerging strategy toward Russia might well turn out to be the unpredictability of decision-making in the Kremlin.

Temur Umarov is a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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