Escaping A Bear Hug: Kazakhstan Seeks Closer Ties To US And Europe

Eight years ago, Kazakh shrugged off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks suggesting he could pull a Ukraine on Kazakhstan. They did so again in January when Mr. Putin reiterated his denial of Kazakh nation and statehood while Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border. Today, Kazakhs no longer discount Mr. Putin’s words.

As a result, the days are likely gone when Kazakhstan would invite Russian troops to squash a popular revolt and rioting fuelled by infighting among the country’s elite. But, to be fair, Russian troops withdrew within days early this year after helping to restore law and order, despite Mr. Putin’s rhetoric.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 puts Mr. Putin’s assertion that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word” in a different light, even if few, if any, believe that the Russian leader is about to take action.

Nevertheless, today, Kazakhs pay attention to accusations by Russian commentators and officials that Kazakhstan has become an enemy by failing to support Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made his opposition to the invasion clear when he attended in June the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Sitting next to Mr. Putin, Mr. Tokayev insisted that Kazakhstan did not recognize breakaway Russian-supported “quasi-state formations” such as Ukraine’s regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Tokayev further appeared to confirm Russian assessments of Kazakh hostility when he declared that Kazakhstan hoped to offer an alternative to Western businesses leaving Russia because of US and European sanctions imposed in response to the invasion.

Earlier, Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations General Assembly vote that condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund announced that it would no longer do business in Russian rubles. Kazakhstan also stopped producing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.

More hard-hitting, Kazakhstan reversed its long-standing monetary policy, allowing the Kazakh tenge to track the ruble. In doing so, it effectively decoupled its currency from its Russian counterpart.

Russia saw the move as a step towards a Kazakh withdrawal from the monetary committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the regional organization of former Soviet republics established after the demise of the Soviet Union.

The lessons of the January revolt and the Russian invasion have also prompted Kazakhstan to focus on strengthening its armed forces, building a local defense industry, and reducing its reliance on Russia for arms purchases.

Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian country to border Russia, is vulnerable because its 7,644-kilometre Kazakh-Russian border is the world’s longest continuous international frontier and its second-longest by total length, after the Canada–United States border.

In retaliation for Kazakh support of efforts to reduce European Union dependence on Russian energy, Russia this month halted the flow of oil through a pipeline that pumps oil from Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

The closure, ordered by a Russian court initially for one month, followed on the heels of a telephone call between Mr. Tokayev and European Union Council President Charles Michel.

Mr. Tokayev hopes that the EU will help Kazakhstan develop “alternative transcontinental corridors,” including “an international trans-Caspian traffic route” that would bypass Russia and link it to a pipeline that connects the Azerbaijan capital of Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Focused on connectivity, the Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and Turkish ministers of foreign affairs and transport met in late June to discuss the accelerated development of the route or Middle Corridor that would link Europe and China, bypassing Russia.

The EU-Kazakh discussion reflects heightened European interest in Central Asia. In an earlier indication, European Union officials said that the EU would become the top investor in the world’s tallest dam in Tajikistan. The move was aimed at helping Central Asia reduce its reliance on Russia and constituted part of the EU’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It’s an approach that is gaining traction in Washington.

“As Washington policymakers look for ways to counter Russian influence and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, helping Kazakhstan reduce its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its economy, and coordinate with neighbouring Central Asian states to limit the influence of both China and Russia might be a good place to start,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead.

Even so, the increasingly tense Russian-Kazakh relationship has not prevented Kazakhstan from planning to participate, alongside, among others, China, Iran, India, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, in Russia’s International Army Games next month, the first time the event is being held since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The games are likely to be a mere blip on a downward trend.

Mr. Putin signalled that he had not lost sight of Central Asia because of Ukraine by last month visiting Takijistan, home to Russia’s largest foreign base, and Turkmenistan for a Caspian summit that Mr. Tokayev also attended. It was Mr. Putin’s first trip abroad since his troops invaded Ukraine.

“The war of words is likely to escalate in the coming days and weeks. Moscow is certainly likely to use its control of pipelines, its propaganda apparatus, and its ties with China to try to rein in Kazakhstan. Nur-Sultan, in response, will likely pursue a more nationalistic policy at home and seek closer relations with the West,” said Russia and Central Asia analyst Paul Goble, referring to the Kazakh capital that was renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019.

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