Wednesday, December 28, 2022


Russia’s weakened position due its failing war in Ukraine is accelerating the decline of its influence in its “near abroad.” The one region where this trend has the most impact is Central Asia, where it is creating a window of opportunity for Kazakhstan to shape a new regional order. Kazakhstan is building upon its multi-vector foreign policy doctrine, which allows the Central Asian nation to assert itself in Eurasia. This strategic regional transformation is an opportunity for Americans and Europeans to help the Kazakhstanis steer the region through these turbulent times toward security and prosperity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 29 called for a “gas union” with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to coordinate natural gas shipments between the three countries and to other nations, especially China. A day later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained that the proposed tripartite plan was prompted by a “need for synchronization” of natural gas exports of the three nations. This move by Moscow comes as European nations began decreasing their dependence on Russian supplies and Central Asian nations are seeking alternatives to energy exports that are routed through Russian territory. It underscores a Russian geoeconomic offensive on its “eastern front” — adding to an increasingly perilous geopolitical environment, which Astana, the nation’s capital, will have to navigate cautiously.

The Kazakhstanis don’t have to start from scratch; over the years, they have purposefully established their country as a hub of international diplomacy. It is an outcome of its signature multi-vector foreign policy spearheaded by former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This doctrine has continued under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev since he came to office in 2019. In many ways, Kazakhstan’s national security paradigm has been shaped by its location in the heart of Eurasia, bordering both Russia and China and in relative proximity to Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India.

When Russia launched its war in Ukraine in late February, it represented a major stress test of Kazakhstan’s ability to pursue its multi-vector approach. Eight months later, with the conflict stalling, Kazakhstanis have demonstrated the ability to balance relations between Russia, China and the West.

Astana is now taking its multi-vector foreign policy strategy to greater heights by trying to distance itself from the Russian behavior that the world deplores. The multi-vector doctrine is a product of an age when Kazakhstan, as a relatively new sovereign state, was trying to navigate between former liege Moscow, its desire to expand strategic and economic ties with Washington and Brussels and manage a Beijing seeking to strategically push westward.

These are treacherous geopolitical crosscurrents. Russian influence in Central Asia has been on the wane since well before it decided to invade Ukraine. Early in the war, Kazakhstan came out saying it would never recognize areas seized by the Russians in the Donbas region as sovereign territories, nor would it recognize the annexation of Crimea. There is good reason for Kazakhstanis to take such a stand because of their significant ethnic Russian minority in the north, and the Kremlin playing the ethnic role as evidenced by former Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, who questioned Kazakhstan’s sovereignty in early August.

Kazakhstan has also abided by the postwar international sanctions’ regime on the Kremlin. The Russians have expressed their displeasure, having blocked on a couple of occasions Kazakhstani crude exports via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium to the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Astana realizes it has to do business with Moscow to continue its oil exports here and now while trying to maintain a modus vivendi. Indeed, Kazakhstan requested assistance from Russia in the wake of the January 2022 uprising, and Moscow dispatched a Collective Security Treaty Organization task force of some 2,500 troops. This force, however, was in and out of the country in five days. In the end, the deployment was largely symbolic.

A key example of this is Kazakhstan’s push to establish the Middle Corridor of Eurasian transportation routes as an alternative trade route that bypasses Russian territory. This project represents a challenge to Russia’s efforts to control the east-west exports of energy and other commodities. Kazakhstan will not just need U.S. and Western investments to realize its objective of reducing dependency on Russia for trade routes but also diplomatic support to be able to withstand pressure from the Kremlin.

Unfortunately, when it comes to enhancing relations with Central Asia, for the past 20 years Washington and Brussels have been punching well below their weight. The U.S. imperative to counter China alone should have been sufficient reason for Washington to increase its focus on the heart of Eurasia. But now, as the Russian war in Ukraine slogs on, this may become a top priority for the United States and the EU. A weakening Russia is an opportunity for Washington to play a greater role in enhancing state resilience in Kazakhstan as a political and economic transformation takes place after the presidential election of Nov. 20, which Mr. Tokayev won handily.

Mr. Tokayev is looking to depersonalize the Kazakhstani state, which was clearly evident by the mid-September decision to revert the name of the capital back to Astana after three years of being referred to as Nur-Sultan. The current leadership of Kazakhstan is trying to build the capacity of their state to deal with a rapidly changing geostrategic environment.

With the Kremlin struggling to shape events in Central Asia, China trying to fill the vacuum, the threat of radicalism radiating out of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and even the smaller players like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan fighting intermittently, the chances of destabilization in the region remain appreciably high. As Kazakhstanis try to deal with what are truly challenging times, they deserve American support and engagement.

• Kamran Bokhari is director of analytical development at the New Lines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington. He is also a national security and foreign policy specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. Follow him on Twitter @KamranBokhari.

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