Russia's War Against Ukraine and the Future of Kazakhstan's Foreign Policy
At a minimum, Russia’s war against Ukraine has created deep fissures in its relations with the other Soviet successor states in Eurasia. Most notable among these is Kazakhstan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kazakhstani-Russian relationship has been bolstered by shared interests in maintaining open trade and transit corridors, increasing regional security, and constraining ethnonationalism. All of these are threatened by the war in Ukraine and its consequences. While this is not the first time that being tied to Russia has exposed Kazakhstan’s economic vulnerability, the war in Ukraine has signaled that Russia is an unreliable and potentially dangerous economic partner. The war has also revealed both the weakness of Russia’s military and the precarity of being aligned with it—especially after Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s decision to mobilize Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) troops, dominated by Russian forces, to contain mass protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022. Moreover, the mass influx of Russians fleeing the war could upend Kazakhstan’s long-standing approach to inter-ethnic relations.
Although these fissures are unlikely to result in a clean break between Kazakhstan and Russia, they are likely to transform the nature of this relationship. Relations between the two countries have never been based on an equal partnership. Russia has always considered itself the regional hegemon and President Vladimir Putin designed both economic and collective security institutions in Central Asia to secure its hegemony. The reality is that Russia’s dominance was already in decline prior to its renewed aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. The longer the war lasts, the more acute this decline will become. In addition to shifting the balance of power between Russia and its Central Asian neighbors, a protracted war may lead China to recalibrate its own interests in the region. Whereas previously China could rely on Russia to provide regional security while expanding its own economic influence in Central Asia, an enervated Russia makes this division of labor much less viable. Nonetheless, the appeal of a prolonged war in Ukraine may be increasing for China.
Kazakhstani-Russian Relations Before the War
In the economic sphere, the two main institutions through which Russia under Putin has exerted influence in Kazakhstan are the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC). While serving both countries’ interests, these institutions have also increased Kazakhstan’s reliance on Russia for trade and transit prior to the war.
The EAEU, which also includes Armenia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan, was established on January 1, 2015, after several false starts, with the aim of creating a common market by reducing trade barriers, standardizing regulations, and coordinating economic policies across its member states. Although Russia was by far the largest economy in the EAEU at this time, and the Russian ruble has served as the organization’s primary currency, the economic benefits for Russia were minor compared to those for the other members, in terms of the volume of trade. Rather, the benefits of integration have been primarily political—the EAEU maintains Central Asia’s dependence on Russia’s economy, thereby increasing Russia’s leverage over its respective governments, and provides a potential counterweight to China and the West. For Kazakhstan in particular, membership in the EAEU has significantly increased trade with Russia, making it more reliant on both Russian exports and imports, while not significantly increasing its trade volume with other EAEU members.
The CPC began operating in 2001, though its origins go back much further to 1992, and is composed of multiple international investors, including the Russian companies Lukoil, Rosneft, and Transneft. It is crucial for Kazakhstan because it is the main export route connecting Tengiz, in the western province of Atyrau and its largest producing oil fields, with Novorossiysk, the Russian port on the Black Sea. Oil and gas account for approximately 35 percent of Kazakhstan’s GDP and 75 percent of its exports. About 80 percent of its oil and gas is exported through Russia via the CPC. Putin has used the EAEU to reinforce this dependence by pressuring Kazakhstan to agree to harmonized oil and gas standards, enabling Russia to set prices for Kazakhstan’s energy exports.
Russia has also forged and led the key institution responsible for providing regional security, the CSTO, which includes all the EAEU member states as well as Tajikistan. The CSTO’s initial purpose was to promote military cooperation by developing a common counterterrorism force— mainly to combat the threat posed by Central Asia’s porous border with Afghanistan—by holding joint training exercises, sharing equipment, and coordinating defense policies. Like NATO, its charter stipulates, in Article 4, that all members are obliged to jointly defend one another against an armed attack. Yet, despite its collective approach and rotating presidency, Russia is clearly the driving force behind the organization, providing a disproportionate amount of the CSTO’s budget and military resources. In large part for this reason, the CSTO’s mission has devolved from ensuring collective defense against external aggression to preventing domestic uprisings from overthrowing incumbent, mostly autocratic regimes. It was on this basis that the CSTO accepted President Tokayev’s request to intervene in January 2022.
Beyond regional security, close Russian-Kazakhstani relations have also been motivated by mutual concerns over discord along their 4,750-mile-long shared land border, where the majority of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan reside. Russians constitute a majority or near majority in several northern cities, including Petropavlovsk (59.28 percent), Pavlodar (41.11 percent), and Kostanay (41.88 percent). These mutual concerns have reinforced interests in economic integration and, particularly for Kazakhstan, a commitment to promoting civic (rather than ethnic) nationalism to maintain inter-ethnic peace since independence. Meanwhile, the large ethnic Russian population concentrated along their shared border has provided an important conduit for Russia’s continued influence in Kazakhstan via its soft power, and thus, increases the Kazakhstani government’s incentives to resist ethnic nationalism.
End of Russian Hegemony
One of the main unintended consequences of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is the loss of its hegemony in Central Asia. While already in decline following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, this process has been accelerated by legitimate concerns that both economic and security ties to Russia have become more of a liability than an asset. This has shifted the balance of power by encouraging leaders in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia to jumpstart their search for alternative economic and security partnerships while Russia is becoming more dependent on the regional institutions it created to maintain its dominance.
The unprecedented sanctions that Western countries imposed on Russia in response to its 2022 invasion of Ukraine not only jeopardized Kazakhstan’s trade with Russia but also through Russia to the West—namely the European Union (EU). Prior to the war, the EU had become one of Kazakhstan's largest trading partners, accounting in 2020 for 29.7% of the country’s total trade in goods. Kazakhstan’s energy exports were especially vulnerable due to concerns that oil transported via the CPC would violate Western sanctions and because Russia weaponized the CPC to punish Kazakhstan for pursuing an independent foreign policy. The CPC has been closed five times since the beginning of the war, in response to Kazakhstan’s offer to send the EU more oil in July 2022 and its refusal to recognize the quasi-states of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine in June.
Being tied to the Russian ruble has also proved hazardous for Kazakhstan. Less than a month after the war began, Kazakhstan’s currency, the tenge, had already lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar despite its strong reserves and Central Bank intervention. This has led to rampant inflation at rates even higher than those Kazakhstan experienced during the tumultuous transition from Soviet rule in the 1990s. Prices on basic goods like sugar and vegetables have been hit particularly hard: while in 2022, inflation overall was 20.3 percent, inflation on foodstuffs was over 25 percent.
Another casualty of the war is that Russia is no longer seen as a viable or desirable provider of regional security. Russia’s failure to swiftly capture Kyiv and its continued losses on the battlefield have exposed the weaknesses of its military forces and equipment. Russia’s war has also signaled that Central Asia is not its primary concern when it comes to allocating what now appear to be limited resources. This redirection of military resources, moreover, comes at a time when the region is facing both rising internal conflicts and potential lingering spillover effects from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perhaps most importantly, Russia’s war has reignited legitimate fears in Kazakhstan that its own sovereignty is under threat. These fears were laid bare in 2014 when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, prompting then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev to reaffirm Kazakhstan’s right to sovereignty and independence.
Albeit not new, concerns about the danger of close economic and security ties with Russia have reinvigorated efforts to secure new external partners and reboot regional cooperation. Since the war began, Kazakhstan has been “devot[ing] more time and energy into developing non-Russian trade routes,” building on networks that were already under construction post2014. It has also been more actively exploring alternative oil export routes that circumvent Russia. None of the four existing options alone, including the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, come close to replacing the CPC in the short- or medium-term. But together, they represent an economic lifeline for Kazakhstan in the long-term. Kazakhstan’s ability to demonstrate the viability of these routes may encourage increased investment—particularly from European importers.
Kazakhstan has also sought to diversify its security options to reduce dependence on Russia. In addition to revising its military doctrine to increase the capacity of its internal security agencies, Kazakhstan has pursued reconciliation with Uzbekistan. The two countries have signed economic agreements as well as settled their long-standing differences on border demarcation. This is a significant development because, while Kazakhstan has the largest economy in the region, Uzbekistan is both the most populous country in Central Asia and has the largest standing military force. Perhaps even more significant, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have elevated bilateral relations with Turkey to a strategic partnership to pursue military cooperation alongside greater economic cooperation. These partnerships could serve to permanently shift the axis of regional security away from Russia.
While the war has spurred Kazakhstan to actively increase its independence from Russia, it has made Russia’s survival more dependent on close relations with Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan. The EAEU and Kazakhstan have provided a vehicle for Russia to continue importing goods both by evading Western sanctions and developing closer trade relations with “friendly countries.” In fact, within a few months after the war began, Kazakhstan deliberately positioned itself as an important buffer market for Russia by attracting industrial investment from domestic and foreign companies forced to leave Russia and by fulfilling gaps left by these companies exiting the Russian market. Shipping Kazakhstani oil via its domestic pipelines has also enabled Russia to redirect the bulk of its oil sales to China and India in response to both sanctions and the G7 price cap. Thus, contrary to expectations at the start of the war, Kazakhstani-Russian bilateral trade has actually increased; by the middle of 2022, it was already four times higher than in 2021. While Russia remains one of Kazakhstan’s largest trading partners, both its exports to Russia and imports from regions and countries outside the EAEU, including the EU and China, have increased significantly.
Erosion of Russia's Soft Power
The loss of Russia’s hard power—both real and perceived—has also affected its soft power. The crux of Russia’s soft power in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, which was already waning long before the current war, is its ability to present itself “as a stable and predictable regional partner with an attractive global culture” and as a viable alternative to Western integration. One key indicator of its decline in Kazakhstan is the rising demand for Kazakhization[i] and decolonization in recent years that have challenged the government’s long-standing commitment to civic nationalism. A more proximate indicator is the weak popular support for continued membership in the EAEU and CSTO following the war in Ukraine. A survey conducted in the spring of 2022 found that Kazakhstanis also have a greater tendency to blame the conflict on Russia (28 percent) rather than the U.S. (10 percent) or Europe/EU (less than 2 percent) and to view the conflict as having a somewhat or very negative impact on their country (35 percent and 20 percent, respectively). This same survey also indicated that the percentage of Kazakhstanis relying on Russian news sources for information is quite low—even among those age 60 and over (15 percent, compared to 1-2 percent for those age 39 and younger).
Both trends will likely be exacerbated by the flood of Russian citizens into Kazakhstan due to the war. There are two distinct waves. The first wave included activists and their families fleeing political persecution as well as entrepreneurs and skilled workers seeking economic opportunity. These relocants not only have political experience, networks, and economic resources but also operate within a dense online participatory media environment. The second wave was composed mainly of young men fleeing the draft after Putin announced mass conscription in September 2022. Relative to the relocants, these migrants are younger, less educated, and less well-off.
The longer the war lasts, the more likely both waves are to remain and settle in Kazakhstan. While the numbers are not large at approximately 200,000 in total, they are contributing to inflation and acute housing shortages where they are settling—particularly in the country’s two major cities, Almaty and Astana, but also in cities along the northern border. Moreover, the optics of a large inflow of ethnic Russians counters the perception (and frankly the reality) that ethnic Kazakhs have become a stable majority in the country. This may stimulate greater demands not only for Kazakhization but also for political and economic independence from Russia. In fact, Tokayev already seems to be heading in this direction, at least rhetorically, with his “new Kazakhstan” policy, in which he clearly differentiates between Kazakhstani and Russian interests. At the same time, these wartime Russian-speaking communities, albeit diverse and divided, are unlikely to provide a strong base of support for greater integration with Russia once the war ends.
Elevated Role for China
While the war has precipitated Russia’s declining influence in Kazakhstan and Central Asia, it has strengthened China’s role. China already overtook Russia as the region’s largest trading partner in 2020, and the growth trend in both imports and exports surged in the first half of 2022. The war has also enabled China to expand its economic footprint in the region—a goal it has long sought to achieve but Russia has hindered. Since the war began, China has successfully negotiated several infrastructure projects in the region, including the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway, which will provide an alternate trade route between China and Europe via Central Asia. The war has also boosted Kazakhstan’s oil shipments directly to China by 30 percent via one of the four main export routes that circumvents Russia, though for now China prefers to purchase discounted Russian oil transited through Kazakhstan.
Moreover, the elevated role for China extends beyond economic gains to the expansion of diplomatic and security relations. Even prior to the war, there were signs that China was not entirely confident in Russia’s ability or willingness to provide regional security. In the fall of 2021, for example, China announced that it would build an outpost for Tajikistan’s special forces near the border with Afghanistan to help bolster its defenses. After the war began, China positioned itself as the guarantor of regional sovereignty, particularly for Kazakhstan. It is no accident that President Xi Jinping’s first foreign state visit since the COVID-19 pandemic was to Kazakhstan, where the two countries’ leaders pledged “mutual support on issues of sovereignty, national security and territorial integrity” the day before the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was scheduled to hold its annual summit. The longer Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, the more incentive China will have to protect its economic gains in Central Asia with security guarantees.
In summary, the war in Ukraine has created deep fissures, but not a clean break, in relations between Russia and Kazakhstan. Geography prohibits that. So does the large and potentially growing Russian-speaking minority in Kazakhstan. Rather, the war has shifted the balance of power by ending Russian hegemony in Central Asia, eroding Russia’s soft power, and elevating China’s economic and political role in the region. The longer the war lasts, moreover, the more entrenched this shift will become. This is one of many reasons that China stands to gain from a protracted war. Russia’s continued decline—not just economically but also militarily and technologically—will make it impossible to deny China’s seniority in their relationship going forward. The implications are significant both regionally and globally. Beyond expansion in Central Asia, a protracted war and enervated Russia will enable China to realize interests in the Russian Far East and the Arctic that Russia has impeded and place China at the helm of the growing antiWestern bloc that includes India and Saudi Arabia.
[i] This term refers to state policies aimed at elevating the status of ethnic Kazakhs within Kazakhstan, for example by giving preferential treatment to the Kazakh language over Russian.
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