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Kazakhstan’s global image has largely been shaped by several different factors: its historic ties to Russia, corruption, and the prolonged rule of its former president. While it has made great strides in addressing corruption and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev is no longer in office, it still has had to contend with being seen as too closely tied to Russia.

However, the country’s foreign policy appears to be changing by the day. The war in Ukraine has forced Kazakhstan to reconfigure its historic relations with Russia making for a new path forward.

After Kazakhstan requested Russian military assistance in quelling the unrest in January, many observers feared that Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev would begin to resemble Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko and lean into whatever Russia asked as a quid pro quo. Strangely enough, this did not happen, and Toqaev has increasingly shown significant willingness to defy the Kremlin.

Aside from rebuffing Russian requests to augment Russian forces with Kazakh military personnel in Ukraine, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17, said his country would not recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

When asked by moderator Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the news channel RT, about Russia’s war in Ukraine, Toqaev said, “It has been calculated that if the right of nations to self-determination were actually implemented across the globe, then instead of the 193 states that now make up the UN there would be more than 500 or 600 states on Earth…naturally, it would be chaos.”

Toqaev added, “for this reason, we do not recognize Taiwan, or Kosovo, or South Ossetia, or Abkhazia. This principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which, in our opinion, Luhansk and Donetsk are.”

Admittedly, Vladimir Putin didn’t do himself any favors when earlier he had suggested that all former Soviet republics are part of “historical Russia” and that to defy the Kremlin risked unleashing Russia’s fury.

I was recently in Nur-Sultan, the country’s capital, to observe the historic constitutional referendum that took place. I asked a senior Kazakh official in the foreign ministry some questions during an hour-long discussion about the war in Ukraine. He made the following observation:

“We have offered our mediation services if they are needed. We supported Turkey in its effort when it was hosting [negotiations] between Russia and Ukraine when they were still taking place. This is a very painful conflict. Because we consider both Russians and Ukrainians our brotherly people, we jointly fought the Nazis in the Second World War, and we were part of the same country for many decades. [There are] numerous uncountable ties between our countries, between Russia and Kazakhstan, and between Ukraine and Kazakhstan. So, this conflict just cut through our society. It’s a very painful situation.”

This shift in how Kazakhstan navigates relations with Russia and the West has been partly driven by the war in Ukraine, the economics of Western sanctions imposed on Russia, and also by Russia itself.

It’s no secret that Kremlin mouthpieces on Russian television are pro-Russian. Pro-Kremlin commentators’ tendencies to wax poetic about the benefits of a Third World War, what Western cities should be hit first with a nuclear bomb, or to threaten former Soviet republics with invasion would make any country closely tied to Russia question its allegiances.

Tigran Keosayan, the husband of Margarita Simonyan, warned Kazakhstan on his YouTube channel over its willingness to split with Russia over the war in Ukraine.

“Kazakhs, what kind of ingratitude do you call this?” Keosayan said. “Look carefully at what is happening in Ukraine…If you think that you can get away with trying to be so cunning, and imagine that nothing will happen to you, you are mistaken. The world has changed, everything has changed.”

Keosayan’s threat was prompted by Ukraine’s decision to not hold a Victory Day parade to mark the end of the Second World War. An official with the Kazakh foreign ministry explained to me that the decision was driven by economics. It had only been held a few times since Kazakhstan’s independence, so the decision not to hold it during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was purely coincidental.

Kazakhstan’s shift away from Russia is also economic, but this is a harder choice to make. Its economy is deeply tied to Russia’s economy and vice versa. A senior official with the foreign ministry explained the situation:

“The [Russian] sanctions are really painful for our economy. So far, three months since the beginning of the conflict, things are not as bad as we thought they would be. Because somehow, we managed to weather the situation and Russia has managed somehow to stabilize the ruble because Kazakhstan’s economy is very closely tied to Russia’s economy. Russia is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, as a nation, because if you count it as a bloc, it will be the European Union, but that’s 27 countries. So, there are a myriad of ties between Kazakhstan and Russia, including, for example, the presence of 10,000 Russian companies in Kazakhstan. So naturally, whatever happens with Russia’s economy has a direct impact on Kazakhstan’s economy. Not only that, the other thing is that whatever happens in terms of Russia as a transit route for our exports, also has a direct impact on Kazakhstan, because through Russia, pass the overwhelming majority of our goods that go to Europe including oil, minerals, and all other exports that we send to Europe.”

Due to this interdependency, Kazakhstan will be forced to navigate competing poles of interest between the West, Russia, and China. This is best exemplified through its multi-vector foreign policy. Rachel Vanderhill, Sandra Joireman, and Roza Tulepbayeva write: “Kazakhstan has followed a foreign policy of multivector diplomacy since its independence from the former Soviet Union. While multivectorism was a strategy of necessity in its early years, it has evolved to empower Kazakhstan to effectively protect its independence and negotiate its relationship with the great powers on its borders and further afield.”

The official at the foreign ministry describes the approach taken by Kazakhstan:

“Kazakhstan has navigated its foreign policy course, during the 30 years of its independence, based on this multi-vector foreign policy principle, and we will continue the same course, we don’t have any other way. Because of all these situations and other factors, such as the fact that we are a very big country, but with only 19 million people for the ninth-largest country in the world, we had to rely on and promote diplomacy and multilateral structures as much as we can.”

In remarks via Zoom during a conference in Brussels, Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, had this to say considering the security and economic challenges in the region:

“The way forward for Kazakhstan, the multi-vector foreign policy, which was drafted in the early 90s, has served us well, we will continue to remain to this multi-vector foreign policy. Europe, for example, is our largest investor and largest trading partner. But I would say there is this English expression, ‘it takes two to tango.’ Well, for Kazakhstan to continue to be able to develop its multi-vector foreign policy, there is a greater need for engagement with Kazakhstan, not just by our neighbors, I mean, they are our neighbors, and this cooperation will develop naturally, but by the like-minded partners, and I mean, the EU and the United States and Kazakhstan is now extending its hands to the West. And I think it is important that this hand is shaken back in return. And we have seen this already in recent weeks and days, when the EU welcomed the political reforms in Kazakhstan, welcomed the results of the referendum, and expressed its readiness to continue to engage with Kazakhstan. There needs to be more concrete action.”

At the same event, Vassilenko suggested: “We have built good relations with all nations, including Russia and China, and this policy has allowed us to act as an objective mediator in international crises such as the conflict in Syria. Our geographic position allows us to act as a bridge politically and economically. We have also built the largest economy in the region but there have been cracks and problems and these contributed to the tragic events in January when the country suffered the worst violence it has seen since independence 30 years ago. Important lessons have been learned from this.”

Another speaker at the conference, veteran Kazakh diplomat Kairat Abusseitov, head of International Programmes for the Nursultan Nazarbayev Foundation, suggested “We [Kazakhstan] still need to do a lot to stay on that beam and strike a balance on that beam is not easy. This has even become more difficult in today’s world but this is a key element of our government policy and all the more important as challenges are coming all the time, day after day and week after week. The role of Kazakhstan is absolutely important as we are a bridge between Europe and Asia although, to be honest, we are becoming a bit tired of being a bridge because that implies that there is a great gap between the two continents. I would rather that we would be more of a railway of ideas between the two continents and I hope this new concept of thinking will happen.”

To ensure a more democratic, transparent, and liberalized Kazakhstan, the West will need to meet Kazakhstan halfway. U.S. foreign aid to Kazakhstan in 2022 amounted to $17 million, which falls behind Uzbekistan at $23 million and Tajikistan at $40 million. This isn’t to suggest that Kazakhstan wants to be beholden to U.S. foreign aid but considering that China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Kazakhstan, the time might come when the U.S. needs to seriously consider what Kazakhstan’s needs and wants are to ensure that its multi-vector foreign policy succeeds.

John Lyman is the Editor-in-Chief of International Policy Digest. John completed a Master of Arts in European Studies in 2008 from the University of Amsterdam. John also holds Bachelor degrees in Political Science and Homeland Security from Virginia Commonwealth University.