The War in Ukraine Has Revealed an Independent Kazakhstan
Astana is undergoing a diplomatic and political shift amid the Russo-Ukrainian War, and observers should keep a close eye on its balancing act.
The Kazakhstani government will not recognize the illegal Russian referenda meant to validate the annexation of occupied Ukrainian regions into the Russian Federation. This is just the latest evidence that Kazakhstan’s foreign policy is made in Astana, not in Moscow.
Kazakhstan’s position regarding Moscow’s plans to annex Ukrainian territory has been clear. During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev discussed three “foundational principles” of international affairs today: “the sovereign equality of states, the territorial integrity of states, and peaceful coexistence between states.” Without mentioning Ukraine by name, Tokayev noted that “these three principles are interdependent. To respect one is to respect the other two. To undermine one is to undermine the other two.”
Not long after, as the illegal referenda occurred in the occupied territories, Astana made Tokayev’s message even more explicit. “As for the holding of referendums ... Kazakhstan proceeds from the principles of territorial integrity of states, their sovereign equivalence, and peaceful coexistence,” said Aibek Smadiyarov, an official in the Kazakhstani Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Astana (along with other Central Asian governments) has also warned its citizens against fighting in Ukraine.
These decisions will certainly not please Moscow, and a new wave of threats can be expected. In August, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev labeled Kazakhstan an “artificial state” in a post to his followers in Vkontakte. (The post was later deleted, with the excuse that his account was hacked). Previously, in April, Tigran Keosayan, a prominent Russian commentator, said on his YouTube show that Kazakhstan was “ungrateful” and “sly” for not supporting Moscow, adding that Kazakhstan could meet the same fate as Ukraine. The Russian TV channel Tsargrad has criticized Astana as well.
Russia and Kazakhstan have remained generally cordial partners since the fall of the Soviet Union, and they are close defense and trade allies. While Astana will not blindly follow Moscow, it will also not antagonize it. For example, Kazakhstan did not vote on a UN resolution for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to deliver a recorded speech at the UN General Assembly (Russia and Belarus voted against this resolution). Kazakhstan also participated in Russian-sponsored multinational military exercises in August and CSTO exercises from September to October.
One outstanding issue that could strain bilateral relations is northern Kazakhstan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, around 37 percent of Kazakhstanis were ethnic Russians. However, many migrated back to Russia, enticed by the benefits offered by Moscow. Currently, Kazakhstan has around nineteen million citizens, with Kazakhs constituting just over 69 percent, while 18 percent are ethnic Russians. Many ethnic Russians live in northern cities close to the border with Russia.
Thus, one concern is that Moscow could seek to annex Northern Kazakhstan and justify it by claiming to be protecting ethnic Russians. Statements by Medevev, who accused Kazakhstan of engaging in a “genocide” against ethnic Russians, could even be seen as arguments to justify future operations, in the same way that Moscow claimed it had to invade Ukraine to protect Russian speakers.
While the possibility of a conflict between Moscow and Astana currently remains far-fetched, it is something that analysts must consider as they monitor bilateral relations.
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the International Tax and Investment Center, explained to me that Kazakhstan is engaged in a “ballet-like balancing act” with China, Russia, the United States, and the European Union. “Staying within the international law field and not recognizing the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory through staged ‘referenda’ is squarely within that paradigm,” Cohen noted.
There is one more variable to consider: Russian migrants. Since the war began, Russians, particularly men seeking to avoid the draft, have traveled to Finland, Georgia, Turkey, the Baltics, and Central Asia. The Kazakhstani government has behaved in a humanitarian way by opening its borders to draft dodgers.
The critical issue is figuring out how this migration will affect Kazakhstan in the near and medium future. According to a statement released by Kazakhstani authorities, “353 thousand citizens of the Russian Federation are temporarily staying [in Kazakhstan], of which 6940 [are here] for work.” News outlets report that some 98,000 Russians crossed into Kazakhstan in the week after President Putin announced the partial mobilization.
It is unclear if the Russians in Kazakhstan will travel elsewhere or stay. Will they eventually try to become residents, or will they return home once the war and the draft end? There are already reports of some Russians traveling back from Kazakhstan. This migration will alter Kazakhstani demographics, likely impacting the Russian government’s future policies and attitude toward Astana.
The Kazakhstani government has taken a bold position vis-a-vis Ukraine by not recognizing the illegal referenda. This development is highly significant coming from an otherwise close Russian defense and trade partner. Defense and trade are umbilical cords that unite Kazakhstan and Russia. Still, Astana has demonstrated that it will not sacrifice independent decision-making to maintain these close relations.
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst and president of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington DC.