French President Emmanuel Macron arrived Wednesday on an official visit to Astana.
Here is how French and other Western media outlets are describing the purpose of his visit to Central Asia, which Russia views, according to analysts, as its backyard, – Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: ‘Pourquoi Emmanuel Macron se rend-il au Kazakhstan ?’, ‘Asie centrale : Macron en Ouzbékistan et au Kazakhstan mercredi et jeudi pour plus de contrats et d’influence’, ‘Emmanuel Macron veut parler de la souveraineté de l’Asie centrale’, ‘Macron in Central Asia to boost France’s profile in a region dominated by Russia, China’, ‘France’s Macron Travels to Central Asia, Seeking Friends, Uranium in Russia’s Backyard’, ‘Macron pursues nuclear deals in Russia’s back yard’, ‘Macron Lands in Putin’s Backyard Seeking New Friends and Uranium’, ‘Why France’s enhanced engagement with Central Asia is imperative for Europe’, ‘Kazakhstan welcomes France’s Macron under Moscow’s disapproving gaze’.
Those headlines in themselves say a lot. Here is what Le Figaro’s Régis Genté sees as the main aim of this visit: “It is about sovereignty that Emmanuel Macron comes to speak in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan behind the screen of the intergovernmental contracts and agreements, with a strong economic tone. The objective is to encourage these countries to diversify their partnerships and to contain the influence of Russia and China, in a context where Western domination is increasingly challenged in all four corners of the planet. In this regard, Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan, are among the nations to which the members of the G7 are paying particular attention, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. This Wednesday, Emmanuel Macron arrives in the heart of the steppe in Astana”.
All of this is quite understandable. The only question is, isn’t it a little late for Western Europe to start taking on this challenge with the seriousness it deserves? Now, the conditions, in which the Central Asian region finds itself are very different from those in 2020, or even 2022. In just a few years, the geopolitical environment in which Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, is located has dramatically changed. This is due to the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus and their implications, the 2021 NATO and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and Western sanctions on Russia over it.
What is said above by Le Figaro’s Régis Genté shows how much importance the West attaches to the issue of withdrawing Central Asia’s largest country, sandwiched between Russia and China, from the influence of those two powers. Yes, the Western community of nations indeed has the potential to have a massive impact on the course of political processes in Astana, and on the way the lives and social and economic conditions of people in Kazakhstan take shape. It is what it is. But one must point out that: the West’s ability to impact the situation in Kazakhstan is primarily economical.
So the question is, is this advantage of the West capable of outweighing in the Kazakh elites’ minds the significance of Russia’s growing military and political influence and the Kremlin’s ‘king-making role’ in Kazakhstan?
There’s a Kazakh saying: “A neighbor, beside whom one resides, is better than a relative who is far away”. The Kazakh behavioral stereotypes are based in many respects on the customs and folk wisdom of old Kazakhstan.
The Kazakhs do not know what the Western countries are capable of in the event of conflict between the two sides. Because never before has there been that sort of thing in their own and their immediate ancestors’ lives. But at the same time, they know very well from their own experience what Moscow could do to them in case of a similar conflict. The fact is that among the post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan is long known to be the least disposed to stand up to Moscow. This seems to be even more the case now, i.e. after what happened in Kazakhstan in January 2022. Therefore, statements like “Kazakhstan represents a potential EU toehold in one of those regions where Western allies are vying for influence (and resources) with Russia and China” unwittingly bring thoughts about how well the Western world is informed about the state of affairs in that Central Asian State.
Western political experts, engaged in assessing the decisions and actions by the Kazakhstan leadership, as well as the outlook for the situation in the Central Asian country and the political prospects for its ruling regime, usually base their judgments, as far as one can tell, on what has been said and written about it in the Russian and Kazakhstani Russian-language media.
While doing so, they are probably losing sight of the fact that the Kremlin is used to extending its control to Kazakhstan’s inner life by means of media pressure, taking advantage of the Russian television’s and the internet resources’ actually unchallenged dominance on the Kazakhstani information field. And the latter is no exaggeration. Here is what the influential Russian internet edition Lenta.ru told its readers in this regard:“Kazakhstan absolutely does not control more than half of the television network and almost the entire book market, not to mention the Internet. The information environment [in the Central Asian country] now is quite friendly to the authorities of Kazakhstan solely thanks to the support of Moscow, which protects the republican elites”.
Here, the expression ‘the information environment [in the Central Asian country] now is quite friendly to the authorities of Kazakhstan solely thanks to the support of Moscow’, in essence, means recognizing that the sphere of activity related to developing the media assessment of the decisions and actions by official Astana, as well as to forming its image and elaborating the notion about its prospects, is being controlled by Russians. In doing this business, they [Russians] are, as we can see from the above passage, displaying [greater] concern for protecting ‘the republican elites’. But there’s no mistaking that they are primarily driven by the interests of Moscow in this case.
Ensuring that Kazakhstan’s oil and uranium are readily available for French economy is pretty important to Paris. But time is now working against France’s interests in Kazakhstan. And this is pretty obvious. Judge youself.
Let’s have a look at the matter of uranium first. Sergey Mardan, a Kremlin propagandist, recently stated:“The Kazakh uranium deposits must be taken under reliable control by the Russian Army to keep Kazakhstan”. He himself is hardly likely to have conceived of such an idea.
Everything points to Moscow’s preparation for a new aggression – this time, against Kazakhstan, Alexander Nevzorov, a Russian television journalist and a former member of the Russian State Duma, warned earlier.
“They [Putin’s propagandists] live in ignorance of the reality, it is hostile to them. They have their own world, where the ‘invasion of Kazakhstan’ and ‘taking Astana in three days’ is ripening. Let me remind you that not a single [Kremlin] propagandist ever speaks out without clear instructions from the presidential administration and without approval by it. So, this is not a fantasy of a single idiot, but quite specific plans”, he said.
The theme of the supply of Kazakhstani uranium and Russian uranium fuel has been and still is very topical for the US and the EU. Here is what Ashutosh Pandey of Deutsche Welle said on the subject: “Almost 20% of raw uranium imported by the EU comes from Russia, Euratom Supply Agency data shows, with another 23% coming from Kazakhstan, where Rosatom is a major player. Russia also supplies a large proportion of the fuel rods for European nuclear power plants.
“Rosatom is one of the few companies in the world that has mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle, i.e. enrichment, fuel production and also reprocessing”, said Sonja Schmid, professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech and the author of “Producing Power: The Pre-Chernobyl History of the Soviet Nuclear Industry”.
“Experts say while uranium from Russia could be relatively easily replaced by supplies from elsewhere, finding alternatives to Russian fuel enrichment capacity could take years.
“There’s simply not enough capacity in other parts of the world to cut those ties and cut them quickly”, Schmid said. “It’s not a secretive technology, but it’s a technology that involves a lot of capital investment. With the uncertainties surrounding the future of the nuclear industry, that’s a hard sell to private industry to put up”.
The notion that ‘uranium from Russia could be relatively easily replaced by supplies from elsewhere’, is based upon overlooking what must also be considered in the present case.
According to data as of the end of 2022, the Russian Rosatomprom provided 21 percent of Kazakhstan’s raw uranium production, and the Kazakh Kazatomprom, 55 percent. According to industry experts, the production market share of the former can increase to at least 31 percent this year. Moreover, the Russian side has started to talk about taking control of the Kazakh uranium deposits with the use of the Russian Army.
Here is one more point. As a result of the recent developments in Niger, this African country’s uranium deposits could fall into Russian hands, too.
As of now, almost 68% of raw uranium imported by the EU comes from those three countries — Niger (almost 25%), Kazakhstan (23%), and Russia (almost 20%).
This factor is threatening to become a very serious economic lever of influence on the Western economy in the hands of Moscow.
Europe and the USA also seem to be hugely dependent on Russia as a source of nuclear fuel.
Igor Ostretsov, a well-known Russian atomic scientist, states the following: “If we stop supplying uranium to the United States and Ukraine, the [war] conflict [in Ukraine] will end in a few days”.
If that’s so, then the question is whether Russia will go for it.
Now, let’s turn to the matter of oil.
Russians are making little use of Sevastopol’s bays for their military ships, Ukrainian Channel 5 recently reported.
Natalia Humeniuk, head of the coordination press center of the Southern Defense Forces of Ukraine, said this during the telethon ‘Integrated News’ on Oct. 22.
“Sevastopol’s bays are rarely used”, she said. “However, they still have elements of important logistics there, the loading of Kalibr (cruise missiles) takes place there. And it is very difficult to move these logistics, this complex, so they will still be obviously dependent on these bays. Russians are staying in the area they consider safer for themselves”.
“But the ghost of the (landing ship) Olenegorsky Gornyak is always lurking there”, Natalia Humeniuk added, referring to a Black Sea Fleet ship damaged by a Ukrainian sea attack drone on Aug. 4.
Earlier, she said that the Russian forces could now be striking Ukraine from Novorossiysk Bay. Meanwhile, recently Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated: “We are capable of overtaking them [Russian warships] wherever they are”.
All this means that the Russian-Ukrainian war has already come to the place from where the bulk of the oil produced in Kazakhstan is being exported abroad, mainly to Western Europe.
The bulk of oil production in the Republic of Kazakhstan has been and is being made by TCO (700,000 b/d), NKOK (400,000 b/d) and KPO (226,000 b/d), which are controlled by Western corporations. In March last year, Kazakhstan was producing 1.7 billion barrels per day. It turns out that three main oil fields, Tengiz, Karachaganak, and Kashagan in the Caspian Sea, which are being operated by the American and West European oil and gas giants, account for almost 80% of Kazakhstan’s total crude production. It is therefore hardly surprising that over 70% of Kazakhstan’s oil exports go to the European Union. In other words, Kazakhstan’s oil and gas industry, as a whole, is mainly working for the EU economy.
Over 90% of the Kazakh energy exports went through Russia via the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (53.1 Mt out of 67.6 Mt) and the Atyrau – Samara pipeline (11 Mt) in 2021. The CPC is a consortium and an oil pipeline to transport Caspian oil from the Tengiz field to the Novorossiysk-2 Marine Terminal, an export terminal at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.