Despite having an economic partnership with Moscow, Kazakhstan refuses to follow Vladimir Putin in his ferocious attack on Ukraine and has not ceased, since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, to highlight the differences between its position and Russia’s. This position is rooted in the country’s diplomatic tradition and its resolutely multilateral foreign policy.
“At the heart of a free and democratic Europe“: the words, published on his Twitter account, are signed by Charles Michel. Wearing a bulletproof vest, the President of the European Council made a highly symbolic visit to the devastated Ukrainian capital on Wednesday 20 April. It was an opportunity for the former Belgian Prime Minister to reiterate the EU27’s unconditional support for Kiyv, just as fighting is intensifying in the Donbass, in the east of the country. Since the beginning of the Russian offensive, the Europeans have displayed a surprisingly united front against Vladimir Putin, as has the entire Western world, led by the United States; conversely, the emerging powers of China and India are cautious in their approach towards the Kremlin, refusing to condemn the invasion or to follow Western countries by adopting their retaliatory measures. In this binary confrontation, Kazakhstan’s position stands out as it pursues a middle ground, with the first step, according to Nur-Sultan, being that of encouraging a dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian officials.
A two-pronged diplomatic strategy
To condemn definitively neither Moscow nor Kiev: this is the position taken by Kazakhstan since the beginning of the conflict. Despite the risks of performing such a delicate diplomatic balancing act, the Kazakh authorities abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while categorically refusing to recognize the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
In pursuit of a delicate geopolitical balance, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on restraint from both sides and appealed to them to choose the path of negotiation over that of war. A “neither one nor the other” approach that appears out of place in the international community and that can only be explained by the history, geography, and demography of this country, which is five times the size of France.
A former member of the USSR, Kazakhstan shares a 7,644-kilometer border with Russia. The country’s past has left behind several lasting traces, such as the presence of Russian-speaking populations and Russian businesses in the country, as well as close cooperation with Russia over the space program that started with the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome. Moreover, when Nur-Sultan – the new name for the Kazak capital of Astana – experienced several days of violent riots last January, the government turned to Moscow for help to restore order.
Despite receiving Russian support in that occasion, a few weeks later Kazakhstan was resolute in maintaining a neutral position in the Ukrainian conflict. It is a choice that can also be understood by considering how the intrinsically multi-ethnic character of the Kazakh nation has shaped its diplomacy towards condemning any form of secessionism and ethnic or religious irredentism. It is this consistent diplomatic position that makes Kazakhstan one of the few states that does not recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, just as it does not recognize the claims by Russian insurgents in the Donbass.
“New iron curtain”
In a period of global geo-strategic realignment, the Kazakh position is particularly difficult as it tries to pursue a multilateral foreign policy that favors partnerships with Russia as well as the European Union, China, and the Arab-Muslim world. Through this policy, the country is trying in every way possible to protect its economy, which is very dependent on the ruble and trade with Russia, while sheltering it as much as possible from the effects of Western sanctions directed at Moscow. Kazakhstan will not be “a tool to circumvent the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union“, recently assured Timur Suleimenov, deputy head of the presidential administration, according to whom “the last thing we want is for secondary sanctions (…) to be applied to Kazakhstan“.
“Of course, Russia wanted us to be more on its side,” Suleimenov told European journalists, but Kazakhstan “will not risk being lumped in with Russia.” “If there is a new iron curtain, we do not want to be behind it,” summarized Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vasilenko in an interview with the German daily Die Welt – even though Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s cabinet assured in early April that the president and his Russian counterpart shared “a common understanding (…) on a neutral, non-blocked and non-nuclear status of Ukraine.
In its desire not to become collateral damage of a distant war, Kazakhstan thus seems to want to distinguish itself by becoming indispensable, not by force, but by remaining a platform for exchange and dialogue between nations. Somewhat referee and somewhat peacemaker, this huge Central Asian country is trying to increase its influence through diplomatic soft power. A risky bet, but one that is more necessary than ever for the stability of the world.