The Platform

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in 2014. (Fabio Chironi/Swiss Parliament)

Countries like Kazakhstan must thread the diplomatic needle when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In the intricate ballet of geopolitics, Kazakhstan is performing a particularly deft dance. As Russian shells continue to tear through Ukrainian soil, Kazakhstan is threading the needle of diplomacy, advocating for a swift, peaceful resolution while avoiding antagonizing its heavyweight neighbor, Russia.

Let’s be clear: Kazakhstan’s government isn’t just paying lip service to international norms. It has been deeply involved in peacekeeping efforts worldwide, whether those efforts focus on armed conflict, humanitarian woes, or simmering international tensions.

So, yes, Kazakhstan shares a close-knit alliance with Russia. But don’t mistake this friendship for blind loyalty. Western nations have been quick to raise the red flag, warning that sanctions could be slapped on members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) found assisting Moscow. Yet Kazakhstan has been unambiguous: While it doesn’t endorse the sanctions heaped on Russia, it won’t lift a finger to help Moscow dodge them either. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev underscored this in June during a meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“[Kazakhstan is] committed, first of all, to the WTO rules, and also follow all the rules that have been adopted in the international market. As for the so-called export of dual-use goods to Russia, this is absolutely not true,” Tokayev insisted.

Actions speak louder than words, and 2022 saw Kazakhstan taking decisive steps to comply with sanctions. They laid down the law—a blanket prohibition on military and dual-use goods destined for Russia. This was a non-negotiable position that garnered universal support within Kazakhstan’s corridors of power.

And the numbers don’t lie. U.S. data reveals that Kazakhstan’s exports of nine strategic goods to Russia nosedived by a jaw-dropping 88% in 2023. Think about that. Exports shrank from 17.6% to a paltry 1.1% in just the first five months of the year.

Domestic law enforcement has been equally vigilant. They foiled an audacious scheme to smuggle 14 combat drones into Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan last November. Plus, this year, they seized over 3,000 bulletproof plates and a cache of electronic gear with dual-use potential.

Russian companies might be salivating at Kazakhstan’s catalog of goods—from cutting-edge electronics to aircraft parts—but the Central Asian nation remains unwavering in its commitment to transparent financial dealings and adherence to international sanctions.

All this has given Kazakhstan a thumbs-up from Washington, reinforcing its standing on the world stage. Yet, it’s a precarious balance. Western sanctions run the risk of cooling the warmer tones between Astana and Washington. Worse yet, they could push Kazakhstan further into the waiting arms of Beijing and Moscow—a nightmare scenario for both the European Union and the United States, and a tacit admission that sanctions may be a double-edged sword.

In this high-stakes geopolitical game, Kazakhstan isn’t just surviving; it’s managing to keep its footing on the diplomatic tightrope, meticulously calibrating its actions to mitigate economic risks. And in doing so, it’s giving us all a masterclass in modern-day diplomacy.

Theo Casablanca is a blogger who lives in Brasília.