After his re-election, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made his first foreign visit to Moscow on November 28, an action that, up to now, most observers would have seen as a clear expression of loyalty or even subservience to Russia by the head of a post-Soviet state. But for reasons both immediate and longer term, even the most pro-Kremlin of commentators have refrained from such suggestions in this case, reflecting a new reality in which Kazakhstan, hitherto one of Russia’s most reliable allies, is pursuing a course increasingly independent of and at odds with the Kremlin. The Russian leadership is assuredly aware of this, and one measly meeting is not going to change that.
Three clear signs underlined this trend during the Moscow meeting itself, reflecting the profound shifts in relations between the two countries that have taken place this year. First of all, the meeting between Tokayev and President Vladimir Putin was, as Russian observers have pointed out, long on beautiful, but empty, words and short on specific commitments. The joint communiqué was indeed long on promises of mutual support and Kazakhstan’s continued membership in Russian-led organizations, including the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Community and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Kremlin.ru, November 28). Yet, its only specific commitment was to expanding gas transit capabilities, something the two countries first agreed to 20 years ago but have not done much to promote in the intervening years (Kasparov.ru, November 29). The communiqué was silent on Kazakhstan’s relations with the West or on any specific commitment by Tokayev to rein in those who raise questions about Russia’s past and present policies in Kazakhstan. For those reasons, Russian commentators viewed the summit as anything but a success (Ia-centr.ru, November 29; Stanradar.com; Rosbalt.ru, November 30), all the more so as the integration projects Kazakhstan re-committed itself to are increasingly becoming hollow shells (REGNUM, July 29; Thinktanks.by, November 19).
Second, and likely especially offensive to Putin, immediately after their meeting, Tokayev did not return directly home as his predecessors might have but rather traveled onward to Paris, thus signaling his desire to develop even better relations with Europe, which is now at odds with Russia over Ukraine. Moreover, even as he was talking with Putin, Tokayev was simultaneously continuing his conversations with China and the United States about expanding relations. In both cases, the Kazakhstani leader hopes to counterbalance Russian power and avoid shipping his country’s exports via Russian territory (Turantoday.com; Nv.ua; Mk.ru, November 29).
Third, and most important, even as the Moscow meeting was taking place, Astana and Tashkent released a draft treaty committing their countries to cooperation in the event that either are attacked by “a third country,” a locution that most in Moscow will understand as a clear reference to Russia and a sign that neither state has much confidence in the CSTO nor in the other Russian-led regional projects meant to “keep the peace” (Kun.uz, November 28). From Putin’s perspective, this is perhaps even more an act of lèse-majesté than Tokayev’s widely covered remark to the Kremlin leader in June 2022 that Kazakhstan does not support Russia’s policies in Ukraine. Subsequently, the Kazakhstani leader declared that Astana would welcome Russians fleeing Putin’s “partial mobilization” order as well as Russian firms seeking to get out from under Western sanctions. Furthermore, Tokayev’s decision to cancel the Victory Day celebrations in Kazakhstan this year was a direct shot at Russia’s national pride (YouTube, June 20; The Moscow Times, September 27).
Russian commentators, and undoubtedly Russian officials, were outraged by these actions. They had expected more from the Tokayev-Putin meeting than such rebuffs. But the most thoughtful of them recognized that such expectations were not only overblown but also unrealistic given the state of Russian-Kazakhstani relations over the past year and Astana increasingly turning from the Kremlin toward the West and China (Ritmeurasia.org, November 29). Moscow’s anger that Tokayev has not shown gratitude for Russia’s CSTO intervention against the riots in Kazakhstan nearly a year ago has also not abated. Instead, it has been exacerbated by Astana’s increasingly public stance against Putin’s war in Ukraine and Russian commentaries that have left many in Kazakhstan fearful Moscow wants to attack the Central Asian country next, making it “a second Ukraine” (Fondsk.ru, June 4; see EDM, August 11; and for a dissenting Russian view that highlights the dangers Moscow has brought upon itself by such an approach, see Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 19).
Kazakhstani commentators have expressed outrage in response to such statements, but Tokayev has done even more, taking three specific steps that highlight his commitment to uniting Kazakhstan against any Russian threat and bolstering ties with other allies, such as China or the West, which would raise the price of any future Russian aggression. To begin with, the Kazakhstani president has dramatically increased cooperation with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to ensure that Kazakhstan’s oil can be shipped to the West along routes that bypass Russia. To that end, he has supported expanding Kazakhstani ports on the Caspian, called for the launch of ten new tankers and other ships this year alone, as well as reached agreement with his partners in the Caucasus to expand trade via the region (Casp-geo.ru, March 11, November 23, 29). Moscow views all these steps as hostile acts and argues that the US is using Kazakhstan to put additional pressure on Russia (Casp-geo.ru, November, 29, 30).
Next, while welcoming the influx of Russians and Russian firms fleeing Putin’s policies, Tokayev has been sensitive to the danger that Moscow might try to use Kazakhstan’s newly arrived Russians in combination with those who already reside in the country to undermine Astana, something some Russian commentators have openly suggested the Kremlin may try to do (Eurasianet, November 2; Ritmeurasia.org, December 1). To that end, the Kazakhstani leader has promoted the spread of the Kazakh language and taken steps to accelerate Kazakhstan’s shift from its Soviet-imposed Cyrillic alphabet to a Turkic Latin script (Idel.Realities, October 23). Such steps will simultaneously intensify the flight of some Russians and further infuriate Moscow.
Finally, since Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine, Tokayev has overseen a massive buildup of Kazakhstan’s military, both land-based and on the Caspian Sea (see EDM, June 24, 2021; Tengrinnews.kz, May 6). Moscow is especially likely to be alarmed by Kazakhstan’s naval expansion after the Kremlin announced plans this week to open a sea bridge to Iran as part of its efforts to circumvent Western sanctions and avoid potential conflicts in the South Caucasus (Realtribune.ru, November 30).
Given all this, some Russian commentators, including Mikhail Rostovsky, are calling for a more realistic assessment of the situation, one that would lower Russian expectations in the near term and recognize that any mistakes made by the Kremlin could drive Kazakhstan further away from Moscow (Mk.ru, November 29). Whether this advice will be followed remains to be seen, but if it is not, then, Kazakhstan will assume an ever-larger role in the final demise of Russia’s hold on the post-Soviet space.