Kazakh-Russian Relations in the Context of the War in Ukraine

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Kazakh-Russian Relations in the Context of the War in Ukraine

Does Kazakhstan owe Russia a “debt” for Moscow’s help in January? And what should we make of Kazakhstan’s neutral position on the unfolding conflict in Ukraine?

Kazakh-Russian Relations in the Context of the War in Ukraine

Demonstrators with Ukrainian national flags and posters reading “No war!” gather to protest against the Russian military invasion in Ukraine, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Sunday, March 6, 2022.

Credit: AP Photo/Vladimir Tretyakov

Currently, Russia is at war with — or as the Kremlin calls it, engaged in a “special operation” in — its former Soviet counterpart and previously so-called “brother nation” Ukraine. Not that long ago Russia was on another mission, in another close partner and ally state: Kazakhstan. 

At the time many questions were raised about Kazakhstan’s and Russia’s relations, and, in particular, about how their relations would evolve in the future. Now, the question has taken on new weight, with Russia entering a full-scale war, facing extensive global sanctions, and being cut off from the rest of the world. What does it all mean for Kazakhstan, considering it had just received a helping hand from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization in January?

Just two months ago, unprecedented unrest erupted in Kazakhstan unlike anything seen in its 30 years of independence. It started with protests fueled by socio-economic grievances, which soon expanded into politically charged demands. Then the situation devolved, with chaos and violence breaking out. Despite its sizable and capable military, one that ranks 64th in the world, according to the Global Firepower ranking, and a relatively small population of 19 million, when things got really out of hand, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) for help. 

The request was sent to the CSTO on January 5, after three days of protests across Kazakhstan. The next day, Russian troops readied to deploy to Kazakhstan. The swift response and approval from the Russia-led organization sparked much chatter, not only in the West but across the CSTO region itself, as several previous requests for assistance filed by other member states never received such a response. In Kazakhstan’s case, ignoring the unclear intricacies of the crisis, the CSTO promptly made a decision to mobilize its peacekeeping troops for the first time in its history. Despite an international outcry and fears that troops could potentially make their stay permanent, CSTO troops, including Russian forces, entered Kazakhstan. They left about a week later, on January 13.

In the time that the CSTO troops were present, Tokayev was able to consolidate his grip on power and stabilize the situation. Bringing the country to the other side of the crisis has earned him political points, and re-established his position as president. However, considering that it was only possible to achieve stability with the help of the Russia-led CSTO, various commentators aired opinions about a possible “debt” Nur-Sultan would owe to Moscow. 

Some public figures in Russia even made the suggestions that, from January on, “Tokayev’s source of legitimacy is no longer the people of Kazakhstan, but Putin.” But now, almost two months later, we can observe that there has been no major shift in Kazakhstan’s internal or external politics in Russia’s favor. 

One can speculate, then, that Russia decided to help Kazakhstan more so to protect itself than as a favor to Tokayev. There are several reasons for that: First, before the crisis Kazakhstan had long been one of Russia’s most stable and reliable partners. Many of Russia’s other partners — Belarus, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — have been mired in conflict and turmoil over various kinds in recent years; other former Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia have broken and uneasy relations with Russia. Kazakhstan descending into chaos and instability was hardly something Russia wanted to see.

Second, Russia holds significant economic interests in Kazakhstan. Having the country go up in proverbial flames would have invariably impacted economic and business operations not just for ordinary Russian businesses but also high-ranking individuals.

Third, supporting Tokayev was a natural decision for the Kremlin. Putin has long known and worked with Tokayev, who before becoming president in 2019 served as chair of the Senate with earlier stints as prime minister and foreign minister. It is evident that Putin does not like new political figures very much. Considering the situation unfolding in Kazakhstan, perhaps the CSTO acted just in time to prevent alternative leaders from emerging and thus kept Kazakhstanis marching around Tokayev.

Finally, a significant share of ethnic Russians still reside in Kazakhstan and look up to both Putin and the Russian state. Judging by unofficial data, many are holders of Russian passports. Salvaging them from the dangerous situation unfolding in January not only won points for Putin from them, but also from Russians in Russia and other post-Soviet states. Now, seeing war in Ukraine, one can even suggest that Kazakhstan’s January events were a perfect opportunity to showcase the “goodwill and fairness” of Russia, ahead of the February invasion of Ukraine.

From the above, we can see that Russia may have had its own reasons to assist Kazakhstan in January and so there is no “debt” owed to Russia by Kazakhstan at all. But as the situation stands now, if there is a “debt,” Nur-Sultan isn’t paying it.

We can clearly see that Kazakhstan does not support the war in Ukraine. NBC reported, citing sources in the U.S. National Security Council, that Kazakhstan had refused to send troops to Ukraine at Russia’s request. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan officially stated that it is not considering recognizing the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states. The two regions, which have been beset by unrest since 2014, served as the pretext for Russia’s invasion. In addition, Kazakhstan has so far consistently abstained from international votes, such as those in the United Nations, voting neither for nor against measures directed at Russia.

Tokayev and Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi have repeatedly stated that they will follow the principles and norms of the U.N. when it comes to the Ukrainian conflict. This position is different, for example, from that of Belarus. Like Kazakhstan, Belarus is a member of many alliances with Russia and has turned to Putin during times of internal crisis. But Belarus outright supported Russia in the United Nations General Assembly, one of only five countries to do so in the world, and Kazakhstan did not.

As a result of the war, and the ensuing sanctions on Russia, Kazakhstan’s economy is suffering too. Kazakhstan has numerous economic linkages to Russia, including membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The Kazakh currency, the tenge, fell with the Russian ruble, with the Kazakh economy facing unprecedented difficulties. Complicating things even more for Kazakhstan, some in the West want to take aim not just at Russia but Russia’s partners. A member of the British Parliament, Margaret Hodge, asked if similar measures as the sanctions targeting Russia could be imposed on Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan “for their support of Putin and his policies.” The British ambassador to Kazakhstan was later summoned to the Kazakh foreign ministry over the comment. 

Whether Kazakhstan agrees broadly or not at all with Putin and his policies, the country is in no position to either openly support or condemn Russia. Situated politically and geographically between Russia, China, and the West, Kazakhstan has always tried to exercise a “multi-vector” foreign policy and stay on good terms with all. Although China and the West have considerable influence over the country, Kazakhstan has always been especially vulnerable to Russia’s influence. There are many reasons for this, including historic, economic, and energy intricacies, and the significant share of ethnic Russians in the northern border cities of Kazakhstan. From time to time, Russian officials refer to these cities and territories as historically “Russian” and openly contemplate their return. Considering this underlying sentiment, for Kazakhstan the Ukrainian question is not a question of choosing to align with either the West or Putin; it is a direct question about the country’s territorial integrity and security. Kazakhstan is now in a tricky position both politically and economically. Despite the international community’s expectations, a neutral stance is the best option Kazakhstan has. 

In conclusion, while Kazakhstan may not be in “debt” to Russia after all, its circumstances are complicated. Kazakhstan abstaining from outright supporting Russia is a signal loud enough to indicate the Kazakh government’s divergence from the Kremlin’s chosen course. If Kazakhstan can maintain a neutral stance, and good relations with Russia and the West, it can possibly play a peacemaking role. On March 2, Tokayev had phone calls with both Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, calling on both countries to work toward a peaceful settlement. Days later, Kazakh authorities allowed a large protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to proceed unhindered in Almaty.