As the war in Ukraine exposes Russia’s political and military weaknesses, countries once firmly in the Kremlin’s orbit are engaged in a frantic reshuffling of geopolitical alliances. The burgeoning relationship between Kazakhstan and Turkey is among the most active examples.
Kazakhstan, long a Russian ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union, is being wooed by Turkish investment and military hardware. Although Kazakhstan’s economy is and will likely remain heavily linked to Russia, at least in the short term, Ankara is gradually developing close ties with Nur-Sultan in a bid to strengthen its own position in the region.
Not long ago, Russia’s hold on Kazakhstan looked secure. After mass violent protests that paralyzed Kazakhstan in early January, Russia and other CSTO countries deployed some 2,000 troops to the former Soviet republic, allegedly to stabilize the situation in the energy-rich nation. As a result, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev consolidated his power, while Russia played the role of savior.
But Russia’s gains were temporary, and the invasion of Ukraine has strained relations between leaders in Moscow and Nur-Sultan. Kazakhstan has not endorsed the Kremlin’s military activities and has even begun sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
President Tokayev also decided not to hold a traditional Victory Day parade in the capital on May 9, sending a symbolic message to the Kremlin that Kazakhstan is looking to leave Russia’s sphere to influence.
More important, Kazakhstan has refused to recognize the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, as well as the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea. And because Moscow has not pushed Nur-Sultan for support, Kazakhstan has continued to pursue its own “multi-vector” foreign policy, originally established by the country’s former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Closer military ties with Turkey are one element of this multi-vector approach. Two days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Olzhas Kusainov, head of the Kazakhstan Defense Ministry’s International Cooperation Department, met with Fatih Pala, the Turkish military attaché in Nur-Sultan.
Then in early May, President Tokayev visited his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara, where the two nations agreed to co-produce Turkey’s Anka drone, and to hold joint drills near Turkey’s coastal city of Izmir this spring.
Kazakhstan is also planning significant increases to its military budget, and some experts point to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the impetus. For instance, there are fears that Moscow may have territorial claims to northern Kazakhstan, where ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population.
While any attempt to annex parts of Kazakhstan seem unrealistic at the moment, given Russia’s poor showing in Ukraine, Kazakhstan will continue strengthening military ties with regional allies like Turkey as a hedge against further Russian expansionism.
Besides defense, Turkey and Kazakhstan are strengthening economic cooperation. Presidents Erdogan and Tokayev signed more than a dozen agreements during their meeting this month, deals in areas such as information technology, culture, agriculture and education.
Ankara and Nur-Sultan are even said to be developing transport ties to bypass Russia via the Trans-Caspian international transport route, which travels through China, Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and onward to Europe.
Meanwhile, total trade volume between Turkey and Kazakhstan now exceeds US$5.3 billion annually, and Erdogan has pledged to push that to $10 billion. While this is still less than half of the $25.5 billion in trade that Kazakhstan does with Russia, the potential for trade with Turkey feels exponential.
Many believe that Turkey’s interests in Kazakhstan, and in Central Asia in general, are part of Erdogan’s ambitions to establish a neo-Ottoman Empire, a so-called Turkic World. But even if there is an element of truth in that assumption, it is also true that Turkey’s goals are driven by economic interests that are heavily linked with energy.
Kazakhstan is a petroleum powerhouse, with some 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves. It is also one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, and among the top 10 producers of coal, iron and gold. Thus, in order to reduce its energy dependence on Moscow, Ankara may have little choice but to increase its influence in Kazakhstan.
Although Russia still has significant leverage in Kazakhstan – due to territorial proximity, cultural ties, and Kazakhstan’s economic integration in the Eurasian Union – Turkey can offer something that Russia cannot: a clean slate.
Russia’s military debacle in Ukraine could significantly impact the Kremlin’s position in Central Asia, and in Kazakhstan in particular. If Russia were to suffer a humiliating defeat, Nur-Sultan would seek security assurances elsewhere. And Turkey, eager to make its own mark on regional politics, is already preparing the ground for such an outcome.
This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.
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