How Russian ally Kazakhstan is taking a stand against the Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Kazakhstan' President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during their meeting at Moscow's Kremlin on February 10, 2022. (
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Kazakhstan' President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during their meeting at Moscow's Kremlin on February 10, 2022.MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
  • Russian ally Kazakhstan has been subtle but firm in its opposition to the Ukraine war.

  • Some hawkish Russians have called for the "de-Nazification" of Kazakhstan, stoking fears it could be next.

  • Kazakhstan is balancing its friendly relations with Russia with building stronger ties with the EU.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, its longtime ally Kazakhstan did not rush to its support.

The former Soviet republic in central Asia, which shares a 4,750-mile long land border with Russia, maintains close relations with its neighbor. But despite being one of its closest allies, Kazakhstan has made subtle but firm moves to show it does not support Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Kazakhstan's official position on the war is to call for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution, Magzhan Ilyassov, Kazakhstan's new ambassador to the UK, said in a press briefing attended by Insider.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, fears have also been stoked that Russia could turn its sights to Kazakhstan next.

"I wouldn't lie and tell you that we're just watching it and think it's nothing to do with us," Ilyassov said.

"We're neighboring the Russian Federation. There are parts of our community and society that are very concerned about what's happened. There are some people who can extrapolate the scenario that it can happen to Kazakhstan."

However, the ambassador pointed to the two countries' strong trade and economic ties and said it would not make sense for Russia to take any "hostile action" against the nation.

A delicate balancing act

Kazakhstan has been toeing the line between maintaining a friendly relationship with its neighbor while also building stronger ties with the European Union. While already sharing close trade and investment ties, the EU and Kazakhstan pledged to forge "ever closer" relations at a meeting in Luxembourg in June.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi attends the EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council Meeting in Brussels, Belgium on May 10, 2021.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi attends the EU-Kazakhstan Cooperation Council Meeting in Brussels, Belgium on May 10, 2021.Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Although it has not outright criticized Russia for invading Ukraine, Kazakhstan has made its position clear.

It denied a request to send troops to fight with Russia near the beginning of the war and has sent planeloads of humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Kazakhstan also declined to recognize the Russia-created breakaway republics Luhansk and Donetsk in southern Ukraine, which the country's president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made a point of stating in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin while speaking at an economic forum in St Petersburg in June.

The threat of 'de-Nazification'

Earlier this week, a guest on the show of Vladimir Solovyov, a well-known Russian TV presenter and propagandist, said that "the next problem is Kazakhstan" because "the same Nazi processes can start there as in Ukraine."

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Putin baselessly used "de-Nazification" as a pretext for invading Ukraine in February.

Other Russian politicians have made similar comments about Kazakhstan, with Sergey Savostyanov, a Moscow city parliament deputy, praising Russia's so-called mission to "denazify" Ukraine and suggesting it should next turn its sights to countries including Kazakhstan.

A social media post by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also questioned Kazakhstan's sovereignty and called it an "artificial state" this summer, but it was later deleted, and hackers were blamed.

"People don't understand why somebody on Russian TV would say that, what Kazakhstan has to do with Nazis," Ilyassov said.

He said that while people in Kazakhstan were upset by the comments, it was important to note that Solovyov is a known provocateur, and Russian politicians who have made these comments tend to be very junior and perhaps looking to score points – meaning it is likely not reflective of any official position.

Russia has indicated its unhappiness with its neighbor

Although Russia is presumably displeased by Kazakhstan's lack of support, it has chosen not to retaliate in any overt ways at a time when it has been slapped with global sanctions and alienated by the West.

However, Russia has made small moves to suggest unhappiness with its neighbor.

"There have been some strange incidents, and no one is 100% sure if it's a coincidence or if it was designed," Ilyassov said.

He pointed to this summer when, two days after Tokayev's comments in St. Petersburg, Russia temporarily shut down an oil terminal on the Black Sea that is key to exporting Kazakh oil, ostensibly due to "environmental concerns."

The president has since told his government to diversify its oil supply routes.

Kazakhstan aims to improve its reputation

In January, mass protests broke out across Kazakhstan over rising fuel prices, which was met with a brutal crackdown that led to the deaths of over 200 people.

CSTO leaders in Yerevan, Armenia on November 23, 2022.
CSTO leaders in Yerevan, Armenia on November 23, 2022.Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure via REUTERS

Russian-led troops were deployed to the country after Kazakhstan's president asked for assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation known as CSTO, consisting of several post-Soviet states. The move was criticized by Western leaders at the time, as Russia was amassing troops on the border of Ukraine.

Kazakhstan has since tried to distance itself from the incident. Ilyassov said that Russian troops were there among others from all member states and left after nearly two weeks without being involved in any action. He added that an investigation was ongoing into the events following the January protests.

Tokayev, who came to power in 2019, was re-elected as president in a snap election this week. He was congratulated by both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

An influx of Russian people and businesses

Kazakhstan map
Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, and is bordered by Russia and China.Google Maps

Kazakhstan is vast, equivalent to the size of western Europe (1,000,000 sq mi), and it is the biggest landlocked country in the world. It has a diverse population of 19 million, which includes ethnic Kazakhs and Russians, and has also experienced an influx of Russian businesses and individuals.

When Putin ordered the partial mobilization of reservists to Ukraine, it sparked an outpouring of fighting-age Russian men fleeing the country.

Around 200,000 of them crossed the border into Kazakhstan, according to the country's official figures, and Ilyassov said that around 80% of them passed through to other destinations. Many of the remaining Russians have registered to work in the country.

Dozens of foreign companies that had previously been based in Russia have also relocated to Kazakhstan.

As Kazakhstan continues to try and maintain its balancing act, it remains to be seen how far it can push it without angering Moscow.

Read the original article on Business Insider