Amid heightened tensions between Russia and Kazakhstan over the war in Ukraine, Astana is betting on high-level diplomacy to build international support for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Pope Francis’ visit on September 13 for a highly publicized global interreligious summit coincided with the first post-pandemic international trip of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met with Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on September 14. The two leaders then took part in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO) summit in neighboring Uzbekistan. Next, Tokayev headed to New York for the 77th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on September 19–20, where he will seek Western backing for Kazakhstan’s security.
This year’s gathering for the 7th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions was one of the most important for Kazakhstan, which is trying to boost its international standing as Russian military ambitions continue to threaten Central Asia.
Pope Francis called for dialogue and peace in the face of Russia’s “senseless and tragic war” in Ukraine. He earlier had described the conflict as “a war of particular gravity, in terms of the violation of international law, the risks of nuclear escalation and the grave economic and social consequences” (Vatican.va, September 8). Pope Francis was still in Kazakhstan when the graves of victims of war crimes, evidently murdered by the Russian military, were found in liberated Izyum in eastern Ukraine (Ukrainska Pravda, September 15).
President Xi’s remarks, however, were surprisingly direct in offering strong support for Kazakhstan, as hostile Russian rhetoric against the country increases. “No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue our strong support of Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as firm support of the reforms you are carrying out to ensure stability and development and strongly oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country,” Xi was quoted as saying during his meeting with Tokayev (Akorda.kz, September 14).
Threatening messages toward Kazakhstan coming from Russian politicians and propagandists have undoubtedly alerted Chinese leadership (Eurasianet.org, April 28). With a 3.5 million ethnic Russian minority (18 percent) settled mostly in the northern regions close to the 4,750 mile-long border with Russia, the Kazakhs are worried about becoming another target of President Vladimir Putin’s “Russian World” concept that was used to justify the invasion of Ukraine (Eurasianet.org, April 28). The war has polarized society, with ethnic Kazakhs firmly opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while many Russians have been influenced by Kremlin propaganda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 29). As the country is embarking on political and economic reforms, following public unrest in January 2022, ethnic peace will be essential for the successful implementation of these changes (See EDM, January 21).
The Kazakhstani government has tried to retain a neutral position on the war in Ukraine but has refused to assist Moscow’s military campaign, either by sending troops or providing direct military assistance. In addition, Astana has also declined to recognize the proxy Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” citing the UN principle of territorial integrity and inviolability of borders (DW, June 17).
Since Kazakhstan borders Russia to the north and China to the east, any instability in Central Asia’s largest economy will impact not only Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and trade corridors but also the security of China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. During the public unrest in Kazakhstan in January, Beijing did not welcome the dispatch of troops by the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as China does not want to see a strong Russian presence in Kazakhstan (News18.com, January 12).
Thus, President Xi’s statement during his stopover in Kazakhstan was a sharp message to Moscow to refrain from any actions that could destabilize the country. Later, in Samarkand, Xi also expressed concerns about the war in Ukraine while meeting with Putin, which the Russian leader surprisingly admitted to in a later press conference (Golosameriki.com, September 16).
Among notable recent events was Kazakhstan’s refusal to send troops to Karabakh on the request of Armenia to quell fresh violence with Azerbaijan. Kazakhstan is a founding member of the CSTO, whose Article 4 establishes that aggression against one signatory would be perceived as an aggression against all. “It is clear that in a situation of conflict with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan is in no way interested in sending troops there, somehow supporting Armenia to the detriment of our relations with Azerbaijan,” Aidos Sarym, a member of the Majlis (Kazakhstan’s lower house of parliament) Defense and Security Committee, told a Russian radio station (Govoritmoskva.ru, September 14). The refusal triggered rumors that Kazakhstan will leave the CSTO next year, which were denied by the authorities in Astana.
In addition to new security concerns, Kazakhstan is also facing enormous economic challenges as Russia remains a major trade partner. Although a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan has now complied with the US and EU sanctions regime against Russia to avoid secondary sanctions. Kazakhstani authorities continue to refuse to trade with Russia in a way that circumvents sanctions, despite Moscow’s pleas for an increased import of goods to replenish empty shelfs. Kazakhstani Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi said that transactions between Kazakhstani companies and the Russian Federation, which could potentially violate the sanctions regime, are subject to regular consultations with the US and EU authorities (The Moscow Times, September 14).
In sum, unlike Russia, which just incorporated the “Russian World” concept in its foreign policy, Astana is deepening relations with neighbors and Western partners based on the principle of equality. As Kazakhstan needs international support to weather security and economic challenges, it can also offer the world its energy supplies and food production, especially grains, which are in acute shortage due to Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine.