March 2. 2024. 2:46

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How Kazakhstan changed in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Kazakhstan emerged after the 24 February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as an influential player in the region, taking a more assertive stance in its relations with Moscow and the West, writes Thomas Matussek.

In light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has significantly shifted the way it approaches its relations with Central Asia, a region that is re-emerging as one of the key geopolitical and trade hotspots that link Europe with Asia.

Despite the region’s historic strategic importance, in the years leading up to the invasion, the EU and its allies’ approach towards Central Asia lacked clearer goals and the assertiveness necessary to achieve them. In a region traditionally considered Russia’s sphere of influence, the EU’s interests were limited to trade, security cooperation and energy, but only in the context of ensuring stability. This allowed for a consolidated Russian presence in Central Asia, as exemplified by a number of regional agreements, economic and security unions controlled by Russia that took shape as part of Putin’s long-term vision to ensure the region remained underfoot.

However, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overnight, the region’s geopolitical landscape has dramatically changed. The region’s countries are beginning to understand the price of the isolation that comes with maintaining too close an orbit with Russia. In fact, it is becoming clearer and clearer that in the new global realignment of countries, the price for sticking with Russia will become economic and political seclusion, something that rapidly growing countries in Central Asia simply cannot afford.

Because of their unique positions, countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are swiftly repositioning themselves internationally. Kazakhstan, in particular, has emerged as an influential player in the region, taking a more assertive stance in its relations with both Russia and the West.

For some time, Kazakhstan had maintained a relatively neutral posture in the face of geopolitical tensions in the region, often skilfully balancing its interests between Russia, Europe and China without causing much attention internationally. However, the country’s response to the Ukrainian crisis has been noteworthy, and its slow exit from a tight political tango with Russia has begun attracting interest from politicians and businesses across Europe and the West.

Kazakhstan has publicly condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and its President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been vocal in calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, refusing to play a role in Putin’s attempts to escape international political isolation. In June 2022, Kazakhstan’s leader even told Putin face-to-face that Astana would not recognise the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Donbas republics, a pivotal moment in relations between the two countries.

Understandably, the West is increasingly supportive of Kazakhstan’s path despite not being willing to confront Russia on a wider scale. The country is clearly signalling to its Western partners the intention to change the terms and nature of its relationship with Russia. Recently, the country closed its trade mission in Moscow, and its citizens even sent aid and ‘Yurts of Invincibility’ as part of a humanitarian gesture to help the people of Ukraine. Afterwards, instead of bowing down, the country publicly defended these actions even after Russia’s demarche and did so with a language previously unheard in the relationship between the two countries.

At the same time, Kazakhstan has been working on strengthening its ties with the West, and it is noteworthy that there has never been as much engagement between EU and Kazakhstani stakeholders as it exists today. Against this background, Kazakhstan has launched the newly established Astana International Forum, which will take place between 8-9 June this year. The government envision that the Forum will become a significant platform for asserting the country’s presence on the regional and international stage while appealing to global investors interested in investing in the region.

What is interesting about this announcement is that it shows two things: firstly, that Kazakhstan is seeking to not only strengthen its ties with the West but also with other ‘middle powers’ who share the same everyday challenges as they do, and secondly, Kazakhstan is actively seeking to diversify its economy and attract new partnerships and investment from across the globe. For example, it recently agreed with Germany to increase its oil exports to the country as a replacement for Russian oil which is now excluded from many European markets.

This is part of a broader effort to deepen economic ties with Germany, and in my view, it is understandable why Germany sees new opportunities. Germany is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner after Russia, and German companies like Siemens and BASF have been active in Kazakhstan for years.

However, with no progress in Ukraine in sight, and the likelihood that the conflict will be drawn out for years, western foreign policy in Central Asia will inevitably need to evolve and become more assertive as countries continue to drift away from Russia. Europe must be prepared to adapt its approach and take advantage of the opportunities that cooperation with Central Asia could bring in the near future.