Where Does Kazakhstan Stand on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine? Commentary
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Where Does Kazakhstan Stand on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

When Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine in February, the international community responded with “unprecedented” and “severe” sanctions against Russia. Their expansive scale essentially leads to Russia’s economic and even political isolation. The purpose of the sanctions is clear: to punish Putin’s regime for the violation of international law and stop its military aggression against Ukraine. The scope of sanctions targets Russia’s central bank and financial system, its key state-owned enterprises, and Russia’s officials and super-rich (oligarchs). Russia’s economy got hit immediately. The Russian ruble collapsed. The capitalization of Russia’s stock market reached a historical low. Russia’s credit rating dropped to ‘C,’ indicating “a sovereign default is imminent.” International companies have ceased their operations in Russia. A wave of anti-war protests swept across the country, with more than two thousand people being detained. Many Russian citizens are fleeing the country that offers no liberal values and economic prospects.

The adverse impact on Russia’s development is clear and far-reaching. However, not only Russia faces severe consequences of Vladimir Putin’s decision. Central Asia and Kazakhstan, in particular, also experience an adverse effect of anti-Russian sanctions. What does the war in Ukraine mean for Kazakhstan? Where does Kazakhstan stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? The answer to these questions has at least three dimensions: geopolitical, economic, and social.

Geopolitical Neutrality

Central Asia has been a strategic connecting point that keeps the balance in the region among powerful states like Russia, China, India and Turkey. Central Asian states have been careful of not picking sides in the complex geopolitical game. The image of Central Asia, and particularly Kazakhstan, as being neutral, has drawn different international interests. This neutrality and a multi-vector policy have been perceived as an institutional asset that Kazakhstan has successfully utilized over the years.

Kazakhstan is the second-biggest economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region and the region’s second-largest recipient of foreign direct investments (after Russia). The country is a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), both led by Moscow. The CSTO was instrumental in suppressing mass protests in Kazakhstan this January, which President Tokayev named as an attempted coup. After obtaining help from Moscow, President Tokayev demonstrated a clear intention to maintain close ties with Russia.

Predictably, the political leadership of Kazakhstan has been reserved in its public rhetoric about Ukraine. It is worth mentioning that neither of the Central Asian countries supported the General Assembly resolution on Ukraine and imposed sanctions on Russia. President Tokayev shared his view only at the beginning of March when he called on “both states to find a common language at the negotiating table” and offered Kazakhstan as a mediation platform. Later, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tleuberdi was more explicit when mentioned that the country does not consider recognizing the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics as independent states.

At the same time, the leadership’s ambivalent position can strike back and inflame criticism from the EU and its allies. For instance, British MP Margaret Hodge wondered whether sanctions against Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan were being considered in light of their support of Vladimir Putin.

It seems that Kazakhstan’s political leadership is facing a tricky and challenging decision while, in the meantime, the spillover effect from the sanctions put Kazakhstan’s economy under harsh test.

Economic Dependence

As of June 2021, Russia’s share in the total trade turnover of Kazakhstan amounted to 23.7%. The share in imports reached 40.8% and exports–only 12.1%, meaning that Kazakhstan heavily relies on goods from Russia. In 2021, Russia was the largest trading partner for Kazakhstan, with a total trade volume of $24.2 billion. In addition, Russia is extensively represented by its companies in the domestic market of Kazakhstan–almost 7.8 thousand Russian companies, as of August 2021. Finally, Kazakhstan’s main commodity–oil–transits via Russia’s pipelines. These facts clearly show that Kazakhstan is highly integrated with Russia’s economy. Therefore, sanctions against Moscow automatically affect Kazakhstan. The collapsing Russian ruble has pulled down Kazakhstan’s national currency tenge causing chaos on the domestic foreign exchange market. Kazakhstan’s blue chips traded at the London Stock Exchange lost about 25% to 45% of value.

On the other hand, some experts believe that the current crisis opens new opportunities for the country despite serious risks. Russia’s isolation might turn Kazakhstan into the most attractive and reliable destination for international investors in the region. Yet, the high economic integration of the two states is one of the major reasons why Kazakhstan’s authorities have been cautious in expressing their views about the war in Ukraine. However, this approach does not necessarily reflect the Kazakhstani society’s opinion.

National Identity

Most Kazakhstanis are sympathetic to Ukraine. Not a long time ago, President Putin commented that Kazakhstan’s statehood started with the first President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who “created a state on a territory where there had never been a state” and mentioned that Kazakhstan remains a part of the Russian world. Moscow’s political elite has been echoing Putin’s colonial master remarks outraging the Kazakhstani society. The language appears very similar to what Russia’s leadership says about the Ukrainian state these days. The act of Russia’s expansionism triggers a painful analogy among Kazakhstan’s population that has been building its identity as an independent nation for centuries.

More than two thousand people marched in a government-approved anti-war rally in Almaty to show their support of Ukraine. The country’s civil society and businesses have launched nation-wide and local humanitarian initiatives. First, the Embassy of Ukraine announced a fundraising campaign, and later, various activists united to collect donations and humanitarian aid for the people of Ukraine. On March 11, two trucks with 40 tons of cargo collected by Kazakhstanis left the capital of Kazakhstan. By then, 25 tons of cargo had already been shipped to Ukraine by air, thanks to citizens’ efforts. One of the civil initiatives, El Bolashagy, reported that people and organizations had already transferred 150 million tenge for Ukraine by March 4. Amid civil initiatives and public pressure, the state authorities finally sent the first official humanitarian aid to Ukraine on March 14.

It may seem that by sending humanitarian aid and approving civil rallies in support of Ukraine, Kazakhstan’s political leadership addresses growing domestic and international criticism of its ambivalent approach towards Russia’s invasion. However, the extent to which citizens can voice their views might still depend on the reaction from Moscow. This week, two activists who have spoken up against aggressive attacks by Russian politicians, stood against the increasing integration of Kazakhstan with Russia and actively opposed the war in Ukraine, received a five-year sentence each for their “radical” views undermining the state order. This court decision draws a parallel with another example–the detention of a Kazakh activist in 2019 who was facing seven years of imprisonment over his opposition to China’s Xinjiang policy towards Muslim and Turkic minorities. Eventually, he was released by the Kazakhstani court in exchange for ending his activism against the Chinese authorities. Both these examples represent an effort to balance relationships with big powers in the region. However, they also appear as an attempt to restrain dissent views and rising national sentiments urged by the situation in Ukraine.

Today, Kazakhstan’s business community, civil activists and independent experts increasingly argue that the country should depart from its integration with Russia, which drags the Kazakhstani economy into a deep and prolonged recession. They call for suspending or even withdrawing the country’s membership in the Moscow-led CSTO and the EAEU, which could become extremely costly for the country’s economic system and international image. If not the public sentiment and the political will, then the integration’s harsh economic consequences and the prospect of extension of restrictions to Kazakhstan might put the leadership’s own political survival at stake, compelling it to abandon its traditional ambivalence.


Roza Nurgozhayeva is an Assistant Professor of Law at Graduate School of Business at Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan.


Suggested citation: Roza Nurgozhayeva, Where Does Kazakhstan Stand on Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?, JURIST – Academic Commentary, March 22, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/03/roza-nurgozhayeva-russia-ukraine-invasion-kazakhstan/.

This article was prepared for publication by Raghu Gagneja, a JURIST Assistant Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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