Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Is the West Undervaluing Kazakhstan?

Russia’s war with Ukraine has led many traditional Russian allies to reconsider their relationships with their much larger neighbor. This provides opportunities for Europe to secure new energy resources and for the U.S. to finally counter Chinese expansion into Russia’s historic sphere of influence.

Kazakhstan has long been close to Moscow’s orbit, sharing the longest continuous border with Russia and being a member of several multilateral agreements and organizations led by Moscow. Russia’s intervention to preserve the Kazakh government earlier this year led Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s president, to reassert his own independence from Russia, as Kazakh citizens see Tokayev as an illegitimate ruler, placed in his position with Russian help.

Tokayev has boldly told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will not recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics and has announced that Kazakhstan will begin to export more of its extensive energy resources to Europe.

Given these developments, Europe has an opportunity to further secure alternative sources of energy, while the U.S. can actively counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has allowed China to secure military and economic assets across the region. Kazakhstan is the major land route that China plans to use to expand its influence into Europe. By ensuring Tokayev’s stability and curtailing both Russian and Chinese encroachment into Kazakhstan’s economy, the U.S. can massively impede China’s BRI plans.

Tokayev walks a tightrope between keeping relations with Russia stable and ensuring that Kazakhstan’s flexible multi-vector foreign policy continues to pay dividends. But now he’s run up against Russian anger over Kazakhstan’s lack of support for its war in Ukraine. Most recently, a Russian court suspended operations of the Caspian Oil Consortium for thirty days — a deliberate attack on the Kazakh economy, as oil and natural gas are two of Kazakhstan’s top exports and as the company accounts for 80 percent of all Kazakh oil exports. In response, Kazakhstan withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

The suspension comes in addition to the Russian state media outlet Russia Today denouncing the “ingratitude” of Kazakhstan toward Moscow.

Tokayev has ordered Kazakhstan’s national oil company, KazMunayGas, to begin searching for alternative routes for oil sales that would bypass Russia. This could mean a new source of natural gas and oil for European countries like Germany who have been reliant on Russian natural resources.

There is another country that also has a thirst for energy and is more heavily involved in Kazakhstan’s economy than the U.S. or Europe: China. Since Kazakhstan spans most of Central Asia, shares a 1,782-kilometer border with China, and has the largest economy in the region, the country occupies a crucial role in China’s BRI. Chinese investment in Kazakhstan are focused on transportation infrastructure on top of mining, agricultural, and manufacturing operations that will fuel the production and movement of Chinese exports.

China makes up more than 18 percent of Kazakh foreign trade, and as of 2020, there are more than 700 joint ventures that have been launched between Kazakh and Chinese companies. Chevron continues to be the largest private oil producer in Kazakhstan and has several partnerships throughout Kazakhstan, but China’s proximity means that it is its largest trading partner and a massive source of foreign direct investment. Ordinary Kazakh citizens, however, are much more hesitant to accept Chinese investment dollars than their leaders.

The detention of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang Province has set off several waves of protests across Kazakh cities in recent years. Ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Turkic groups have been tortured, sterilized, and killed in what China calls “re-education camps.” Most importantly, it was a Kazakh instructor at one of these camps, Sairagul Sauybay, that revealed the abuses in these camps to the world in 2018. Kazakh protestors have forced the government to make public several projects that have received Chinese investment and Kazakhs have objected to Chinese factory relocations and a scheme to allow foreigners to buy up large amounts of farmland in the past.

Kazakhstan has the largest diaspora of Uyghurs outside China. That fact, along with the fact that Tokayev wants to be seen as a leader independent of Russian interference, means Kazakhstan would be more than open to U.S. and European investments and trade. These are strategic opportunities Western powers should seize. Shoring up Kazakh sovereignty by giving Tokayev options for Western partnership will help placate Kazakhs worried about Chinese expansionism and will accomplish the major strategic goal of halting China’s BRI right on China’s doorstep.

Europe’s energy needs can be fulfilled by assisting Kazakhstan to build new oil and gas infrastructure to bypass Russia, which will in turn allow President Tokayev to showcase Kazakhstan’s independence from Russian influence. Tokayev needs alternative markets for oil and presides over a population that’s increasingly worried about Chinese expansionism and human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. would be able to bottle up the BRI at its most important land corridor and demonstrate its commitment to countering China, on top of supporting persecuted minorities in Xinjiang.

Working with Tokayev’s government to facilitate oil sales to Europe will buttress the Kazakh economy and get Europe the energy it needs while reducing Russia’s ability to wield oil resources as a geopolitical weapon. The U.S. can assist in building out this new infrastructure, furthering U.S. investment in Kazakhstan, giving the government an alternative to Chinese investment, and allowing Tokayev to present to his people that he is fighting for persecuted Muslims in Xinjiang. Kazakhstan, Europe, and the U.S. all have the opportunity to benefit economically and politically by working more closely together. Russia and China have both squeezed Kazakhstan in recent years. It is time for Europe and the U.S. to make Central Asia a political priority.