Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during their meeting at the Kremlin on February 10, 2022. Since then, Russian-Kazakh ties have become less secure. Photo: Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin

Russia’s ally Kazakhstan is struggling to balance close ties with Moscow and its own national interests as the war in Ukraine creates destabilizing ripple effects across Central Asia. Kazakh authorities have not openly supported Russia’s invasion and are making moves that could, at least to a certain extent, distance Nur-Sultan from the Kremlin.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine, Kazakhstan has tried to cling to a neutral stance.

Although Nur-Sultan is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, as well as its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the energy-rich Central Asian nation has supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and openly stressed that it does not intend to recognize the Russia-backed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

On the other hand, Kazakhstan did not support any anti-Russian resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, nor has it joined anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies.

However, Timur Suleimenov, deputy chief of the Kazakh presidential office, no doubt surprised Moscow when he publicly announced that Kazakhstan “will not be a tool to circumvent the sanctions on Russia by the US and the EU.”

“We are going to abide by the sanctions. Even though we are part of the Economic Union with Russia, Belarus and other countries, we are also part of the international community. Therefore the last thing we want is secondary sanctions of the US and the EU to be applied to Kazakhstan,” Suleimenov pointed out on March 29.

Two days later, Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev spoke over the phone to discuss the war in Ukraine. Previously, Moscow shut down a key oil export terminal near Novorossiysk on Russia’s Black Sea, allegedly due to damage caused by a storm.

About 80% of Kazakhstan’s crude exports are shipped from the facility. The Central Asian nation has been forced to curtail production as it waits for repairs that could take as long as two months, according to reports.

So could Suleimenov’s statement be interpreted as a way to gently pressure the Kremlin to open the port and allow Kazakhstan to continue supplying oil to the EU?

Kazakhstan’s fuel shipments have been impacted by the Ukraine war. Image: Twitter

According to reports, Russian and Kazakhstan oil exports via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium from the Black Sea may fall by up to one million barrels per day, or 1% of global oil production. More than 80% of Kazakhstan’s total oil and gas exports go to the EU, and the Kremlin is unlikely to rush allowing its nominal ally to continue providing energy to one of Russia’s major adversaries in the emerging new Cold War.

Although Kazakhstan exports energy to the West, Russia remains one of its most important trade partners. The land border between the two countries is the second-longest in the world – 7,644 kilometers (4,762 miles). Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine more than 130,000 Russians have reportedly moved to Kazakhstan. Many of them are reportedly trying to relocate their business – especially if it is linked with the IT sector – to the Central Asian nation.

Nur-Sultan, for its part, likely quietly hopes to benefit from Russia’s isolation from the West. As a result of sanctions, Russia is expected to increase its trade with Asian countries, and some reports suggest that Kazakhstan, due to its geographical position, has already started playing the role of a regional transportation hub.

However, Russia’s decision to halt grain exports to former Soviet republics until June 30 could have an impact on several neighboring Central Asian nations. Kazakhstan, as a significant producer of grain and flour, is unlikely to be directly affected given that the country produces three million tons of flour. About half of that volume is exported to Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture has announced plans to impose restrictions on the export of wheat and flour, which means that governments in other Central Asian states could soon face riots over food shortages.

In January, it was Kazakhstan that faced large-scale riots, which were triggered by a sharp rise in fuel prices. The violent protests paralyzed the energy-rich country, causing President Tokayev to request CSTO support to restore stability. Around 2,000 CSTO troops, including Russians, have been deployed to the former Soviet republic, and Tokayev has since managed to reconsolidate his power.

Yet Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense said in mid-April it is not considering sending its troops to Ukraine under the CSTO’s umbrella, even though Moscow keeps accusing Ukraine of conducting strikes on Russian territory.

According to Article 4 of the CSTO Treaty, “an act of aggression (an armed attack that threatens security, stability, territorial integrity, and sovereignty) against one of the member states will be considered as a collective act of aggression on all member states of the CSTO.”

People take to the streets to protest in Almaty before a crackdown by the Kazakh government and arrival of Russian troops as part of the CSTO in January 2022. Photo: WikiCommons

But can the Kremlin really count on its CSTO ally Kazakhstan?

Nur Sultan’s decision not to hold a traditional Victory Day Parade on May 9 could be interpreted as yet another attempt to distance the nation from the Kremlin, even though 39% of Kazakh citizens support Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, according to a recent survey.

At the same time, 46% of respondents to the same survey believe that Kazakhstan should remain neutral, and only 6% support Ukraine in the ongoing conflict.

Despite scant pro-Ukrainian sentiment, a large-scale pro-Ukrainian rally took place in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty on March 6. Authorities moved quickly to prevent similar actions elsewhere in the country.

At the same time, Kazakh authorities have also decided to ban the Russian military symbol Z, although the government has hesitated to impose any restrictions on Russian media, which is widely available in the country.

More significantly, new geopolitical realities caused by Western sanctions have forced Nur-Sultan to stop using Russia’s state-owned Sberbank financial platform, even though in September 2021 Kazakhstan said it planned to abandon the country’s well-regarded e-government system and replace it with Sberbank’s GosTekh platform.

Nur-Sultan is expected in the months ahead to continue carefully maneuvering while gradually distancing itself from Moscow. Given that Russia is not in a position to retaliate, the Kremlin will likely, for now, turn a blind eye to Nur-Sultan’s slow but steady shift away from its orb.

Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter at @nikola_mikovic

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”