Russia’s influence in Kazakhstan is increasing despite the war in Ukraine

Some hoped the war would pivot Astana’s foreign policy towards the West – but economic ties with Moscow have deepened.

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Last week, during a visit to Russia, Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev made a seemingly wry comment to President Vladimir Putin, stating that there are no doubts about the outcome of the forthcoming Russian presidential elections. This comment follows Tokayev’s choice during his November 2023 visit to speak initially in Kazakh rather than Russian for the first time.

Many media commentators characterize these moments as snubs to Putin – evidence that Kazakhstan is distancing itself from Russia. Yet these apparent slights have to be seen as part of a much more nuanced bilateral dance between the two countries.

Kazakhstan shares a 4,500 mile border with its northern neighbour, and decoupling their interdependent economies is not easy. President Tokayev owes his position to a Russian intervention in January 2022, and economic ties have only grown since then.

If not managed carefully, Kazakhstan’s proximity to Russia risks the independence of its domestic and foreign policies, particularly when Tokayev’s reforms have failed to undo the country’s centralized, autocratic governance structure.

Effects of the war on Ukraine

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 led some observers to assume that Kazakhstan would pivot its foreign relations away from Russia towards the West.

For every visit of Kazakh ministers to Washington to discuss sanction regulations, another visit is made to Russia to pledge continued alignment with Putin.  

The country has maintained an officially neutral position towards the war and no longer sees Russia as its security guarantor in the same way it once did.

But Tokayev is in debt to Putin following the intervention of the Russian-led CSTO, foiling an attempted coup by elements of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s family in January 2022. Tokayev also lacks Nazarbayev’s gravitas in the bilateral presidential relationship. And Kazakh and Russian security agencies retain tight ties.

Kazakhstan has pledged to uphold Western sanctions on Russia, but for every visit of Kazakh ministers to Washington to discuss sanction regulations, another visit is made to Russia to pledge continued alignment with Putin.  

Lingering ties

Trade with Russia has increased since war began. 2022 and 2023 have been record years for Russia-Kazakhstan economic cooperation, with trade at $26 and $27 billion respectively – including the export of dual-use goods that could support Russia’s war effort.

Almost half of all foreign companies working in Kazakhstan are now Russian, and there is huge interest in Kazakhstan from Russian state-owned enterprises and private companies with links to the Kremlin.

Russia now controls 25 per cent of Kazakhstan’s uranium production, after Tokayev quietly permitted the sale of important strategic licenses.

Kazakhstan frequently criticises Russian-led regional economic integration efforts, but Kazakh business elites have enduring and lucrative ties with Russia, and Moscow has other important economic leverage over its southern neighbour.

Energy leverage

Russia controls Kazakhstan’s main export route, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which exports 79 per cent of Kazakh crude and contributes 60 per cent of the country’s GDP. Russia has twice demonstrated that export through this pipeline can cease. It also supplies electricity (and could soon supply gas) to Kazakhstan.

Additionally, Russia now controls 25 per cent of Kazakhstan’s uranium production, after Tokayev quietly permitted the sale of important strategic licenses. At the end of 2022 Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, purchased a 49 per cent stake in the company that owns two licenses for the development of Kazakhstan’s giant Budenovskoye uranium field.

Energy interdependence is growing: A $6 billion deal announced in 2023 will see Russia build three coal plants in Kazakhstan. And during Tokayev and Putin’s meeting last week, Kazakhstan’s national oil and gas company, KazMunayGas, announced a joint venture with Russia’s Tatneft for geological exploration for hydrocarbons in the Atyrau region.

No New Kazakhstan

On coming to power, Tokayev pledged to create a New Kazakhstan, promising to remove the power that the Nazarbayev family and their associates held over the country’s political economy.

The human rights situation is deteriorating, with the imposition of stricter rules on unauthorised assembly.

Kazakhstan’s middle classes had hoped for a more open and fairer society after 2022’s upheaval. But Tokayev’s reforms have not upended the autocratic and highly centralized system of governance created by Nazarbayev.  

Tokayev has launched investigations into – and confiscated assets from – some Nazarbayev-linked oligarchs. But most of ‘Old Kazakhstan’ remains untouched and frequently return to Kazakhstan for public events.

Meanwhile Tokayev no longer mentions democracy in his speeches. A snap presidential election held in November 2022 featured no real opposition. And the human rights situation is deteriorating, with the imposition of stricter rules on unauthorised assembly.

A much anticipated ‘reshuffle’ took place in February and saw Tokayev appoint a new government headed by Prime Minister Olzhas Bektenov, the low-profile former head of the anti-corruption service. Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Murat Nurtleu has twice met with the Russian Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Alexey Borodavkin, since then.

No ‘pivot’ to the West

Russia and China have a shared interest in seeing Kazakhstan become more integrated with their economies and move partly away from the West, without fully closing a window to the unsanctioned world for Russia. China has surpassed Russia as Kazakhstan’s key trading partner, with 2023 trade turnover amounting to $31.5 billion, an increase of 30 per cent on 2022

The EU and the US are the largest investors in Kazakhstan, but the West’s influence is dwindling as Tokayev looks to other partners.

Meanwhile the West’s strategy for the region has lost its way since the ignominious departure from Afghanistan in 2021. The EU and the US are the largest investors in Kazakhstan, but the West’s influence is dwindling as Tokayev looks to other partners to provide unconditional and often informal financing mechanisms.

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Western countries remain reluctant to impose sanctions on Kazakhstan for its export of dual-use goods to Russia, fearful of pushing the country even closer to Moscow and Beijing. But this balancing act is precarious, and Tokayev’s actions do not suggest he has the ability or the will to change the status quo.

If the ruling administration continues to fail to reform, more social unrest is likely to follow. Kazakhstan is experiencing a youth bulge – more than half of the population is under 29 and economic proximity to Russia and government statism is not going to produce the requisite jobs.

An arch diplomat, the Kazakh president will continue to attempt a balance: refraining from showing support for Russia’s actions while not being accused by Moscow of acting against Russia.

The West can still play an important a role offering young Kazakhs education, independent media, technology and Western values. 

But geography, economic and cultural ties matter, and Russia looks set to remain a key strategic partner for the Kazakhstan over the next difficult decade of geopolitics.