Kazakhstan is a former Soviet republic that shares a 7,591-kilometre (4,717-mile) land border with Russia. It is also home to the second-largest ethnic Russian population among ex-Soviet states after Ukraine. These factors make Kazakhstan vulnerable to Russian interference and aggression, especially after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
We will examine how Russia poses a threat to Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and security, and how the Kazakh government and people are responding to this challenge.
Russia’s military intervention in Kazakhstan
One of the most alarming examples of the Russian military threat to Kazakhstan was Moscow’s military intervention in January 2022. Following days of violent protests across the country triggered by a fuel price hike, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested assistance from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of six former Soviet states dominated by Moscow.
Russia quickly deployed about 3,000 troops to Kazakhstan under the pretext of restoring order and protecting its citizens. However, many observers saw this as an attempt by Putin to assert his influence over a neighboring country shaken by unrest and discontent.
The Russian intervention raised fears that Moscow could use its military presence as leverage over Astana or even annex parts of northern Kazakhstan where most ethnic Russians live. Some analysts also warned that Russia could exploit the chaos in Kazakhstan to launch a new offensive against Ukraine from its southern flank.
The Kazakh government tried to downplay the role of Russian forces and insisted that they would leave as soon as possible. However, some reports suggested that Russia was reluctant to withdraw its troops and wanted to maintain a permanent military base in Kazakhstan.
The Kazakh people were divided over the Russian intervention. Some welcomed it as a necessary measure to restore stability and security. Others saw it as an infringement on their sovereignty and dignity. Many protesters chanted anti-Russian slogans and demanded that Tokayev resign for inviting foreign troops.
Russia’s Economic Pressure on Kazakhstan
Another way that Russia threatens Kazakhstan is through economic pressure. As a major trade partner and energy supplier, Russia has significant leverage over Kazakhstan’s economy. Moscow can use this leverage to coerce Astana into complying with its political interests or punish it for defying them.
For example, after Tokayev publicly challenged Putin’s claims over eastern Ukraine at a forum in St Petersburg in June 2021, some pro-war commentators in Russian media threatened to cut off gas supplies or impose trade sanctions on Kazakhstan.
Russia can also use its control over oil pipelines that cross its territory to limit or manipulate Kazakhstan’s oil exports. Out of total exports of 68 million tonnes a year, 53 million tonnes of Kazakh oil move through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), one of the world’s largest pipelines that crosses Russia to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.
Russia has been accused of using CPC as a tool for political pressure on other countries such as Georgia or Azerbaijan. It has also been reluctant to expand CPC’s capacity despite repeated requests from Kazakhstan.
To reduce its dependence on Russia, Kazakhstan has been seeking alternative routes for exporting its oil westward across the Caspian Sea via Azerbaijan or Turkey. In November 2021, Tokayev announced plans to increase trans-Caspian shipments tenfold in the coming years, from 2 million tonnes to 20 million tonnes.
However, this strategy faces several challenges such as high costs, logistical difficulties, and geopolitical risks. Moreover, it does not solve the problem of transporting oil eastward toward China or India where demand is growing rapidly.
Russia’s sanctions-busting scheme via Kazakhstan
A third way that Russia threatens Kazakhstan is through sanctions-busting scheme via its territory. After Western countries imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine last year, Moscow sought circuitous routes for importing technology and goods that were banned by the West.
One such route involved using third countries such as Turkey or former Soviet republics as transit points for smuggling sanctioned items into Russia. Kazakhstan became one of these transit points due to its long border with Russia and lax customs controls.
According to Reuters sources, Russian companies have flooded their Kazakh partners in recent weeks with new requests to help them circumvent Western sanctions and import everything from bearings and aircraft parts to rare earth metals across the border.
How Kazakhstan resists Russian pressure
Despite these challenges, Kazakhstan has not succumbed to Russian pressure and has taken steps to defend its sovereignty and security. Some of these steps include:
- Asserting its position: President Tokayev has publicly stated that his government does not recognize Russian-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine and that it upholds the inviolability of internationally recognized borders. He has also expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
- Diversifying its economy: To reduce its dependence on Russia for trade and energy, Kazakhstan has sought to increase its exports of oil west across the Caspian Sea,
avoiding Russia to the north. It has also accelerated plans to boost trans-Caspian shipments tenfold in the coming years, to 20 million tonnes.
- Strengthening its security: To enhance its military capabilities, Kazakhstan has increased its defense spending and modernized its armed forces with new equipment from Western countries such as France, Germany, and Turkey. It has also participated in joint exercises with NATO allies such as the United States.