July 21, 2022

Diane Francis

This newsletter is about an obscure country to most people, but represents a significant geopolitical development in the war against Russia that the mainstream media has missed. In January, Kazakhstan’s new President asked Putin and other former Soviet republics to send a few thousand peacekeeping troops to quell a violent uprising mounted by a former dictator. But in June, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said on Russian television with Putin sitting beside him that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was unjustified. One outraged Russian politician later warned that such defiance could result in Ukrainian-style consequences. Undaunted, the Kazakh leader publicly offered on July 4 to increase its oil shipments to Europe, and Moscow immediately shut down the Kazakh pipeline through Russian territory that delivers oil to Europe. The Kazakh leader then announced that new export options will be explored by his government.

Kazakhstan is now the third, and biggest, former Soviet republic to openly defy Putin. Ukraine’s attempt to do so in 2014 resulted in an invasion and now all-out war. Belarus’s 2020 pro-democracy street protests resulted in its recapture. Now Kazakhstan, the biggest and most resource-rich of the former republics, is doing so. During the Cold War, all three possessed nuclear arsenals but in 1992 all were pressured to sign the non-proliferation treaty and give their weapons to Russia. Defanged, they continued to be under Russian influence, but what distinguishes Kazakhstan is that it is in Central Asia, not Eastern Europe, and its government has built closer ties with China and Turkey than with Russia.

The country is the world’s ninth biggest exporter of oil, and has huge stores of natural gas that it ships to Central Asian neighbors and then onto China. It is also a mining giant, with more than 300 world-class mines, and produces more than 40 percent of the world’s uranium. But it lacks a huge military and is the world’s biggest landlocked nation — a fact that still gives Russia some leverage over its distribution system. But this is changing and a new all-Kazakh pipeline to the Caspian Sea will give direct access to European markets via Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

The Kazakh President is uniquely “global” after spending decades as a diplomat, including stints as a United Nations Under Secretary of State and Kazakh Foreign Minister. He speaks English, French and Mandarin, as well as Russian and Kazakh, and has built strong relationships in Europe, in China, and, most importantly, Turkey, the “mother country” of the Turkic peoples who comprise the majority of populations across Central Asia in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and the Kyrgyz Republic.

In 2020, Turkey and Kazakhstan signed a military cooperation agreement, as did Ukraine that year, which includes the defense industry, military intelligence sharing, joint exercises, information systems and cyber defense. More symbolically, in 2021 the Kazakh government announced it would scrap the Russian cyrillic alphabet and transition the country’s written language Kazakh to a Latin-based alphabet like Turkey’s. And this May, Toyakev scrapped the

traditional Soviet May 9 Victory Day celebrations, in protest against the invasion of Ukraine, and flew to Ankara to meet with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kazakhstan confidently distances itself from Putin for several reasons: First of all, its populace voted for democratization; secondly, Russia is preoccupied and its stature has declined as a result of its genocidal invasion; thirdly, Putin’s imperial phantasy is a direct threat to Kazakhs and other former Soviet republics; and lastly, Kazakh’s exports to Russia represent only 10 percent of its total export income, China is 19 percent and many other European and Asian countries comprise the other 71 percent. Its biggest customer for oil and gas is China and most of its revenues are derived from its successful mining sector.

But Putin’s Ukraine playbook is hazardous for Kazakhstan, which is to stir up its Russian-speaking minority who live along its border with Russia by using mercenaries to create separatist movements. Roughly 20 per cent of Kazakhs are ethnically Russian and Tokayev was reminded of this threat after he “challenged” Putin in June on television. “There are many towns with a predominantly Russian population that have little to do with what was called Kazakhstan,” Konstantin Zatulin told Radio Moskva. Another Putinite sneered “actually, Kazakhstan’s territory is a big gift from Russia and the Soviet Union.”

But just before his remarks to Putin, 77 percent of Kazakhs voted in favor of constitutional and democratic reforms in a national referendum. And Tokayev, albeit a member of the corrupt dictatorship that ruled the country for 30 years, promises to bring about reforms and has arrested several notables from the prior regime. Only time will tell if he’s a revolutionary, but he’s certainly a geopolitical one and is now frontman for Central Asia’s pivot. On July 18, Azerbaijan signed a monster deal with the European Commission to double gas exports by 2027 and quadruple them in 15 years via the Southern Gas Corridor through Turkey, and gas-rich Turkmenistan hopes to do the same. Both deals could completely replace Russian gas in Europe.

Also, China has spent billions in Kazakhstan, building roads and railways there in order to link China with Europe, bypassing Russia altogether. On June 29,  Beijing’s propaganda arm, Global Times, wrote that the 8,445-kilometer “China-Europe” freight train had turned Kazakhstan into the major conduit between Europe and China. Now, 49 percent of freight train trips between China and Europe go across Kazakhstan. While it takes about 40 days to transport goods from China to Germany by sea, it takes 16 to 18 days by railway through Kazakhstan. It has succeeded in joining Europe and Asia, and now there are at least six railways, six roads, and 72 air corridors through its territory.

Meanwhile, Kazakh’s leader remains unflappable and above the fray. After his confrontative exchange with Putin in June, a tactful Tokayev told a Bloomberg conference, in perfect English, that Putin was a “staunch ally” with whom he had recently enjoyed a nice evening.

It’s doubtful that Vladimir Putin felt the same.