Moscow Announces End-Run Around Increasingly Hostile Kazakhstan – Analysis

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Since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power, Moscow has routinely sought to redirect trade through countries in the post-Soviet space to help its allies and weaken its opponents with the goal of preventing any of the former union republics from becoming regional competitors to Russia.

Now, the Kremlin has adopted a similar plan regarding Kazakhstan, a country that has shown itself increasingly independent-minded and even hostile toward the Russian Federation. This plan would redirect trade flows now passing through Kazakhstan’s southern regions between China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, on the one hand, and the Caspian Sea, on the other.

The new route would undercut Astana’s plans to become the central transportation hub in Central Asia and the Caspian region, according to Alexander Knyazev of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s MGIMO Institute for International Relations. But in his view, such a plan would do nothing to lessen Kazakhstan’s interest in Moscow’s efforts to promote north-south trade between Russia and the Indian Ocean littoral states (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 2).

Perhaps an equally important consideration for this route is the involvement of intermodal shipping on the Caspian Sea through the development of port facilities in Russia and Turkmenistan with the expansion of merchant marine shipping. This will allow the Central Asian countries south of Kazakhstan to trade with Russia directly rather than relying on routes passing through Kazakhstani territory—a move that will help Moscow retain its influence in Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan while cutting transit fees to Kazakhstan and reducing Astana’s influence in the region. Officials in these countries welcome this possibility, and Moscow outlets are highlighting how the new arrangement will contribute to Putin’s plans to retain and restore Russian influence across as much of the post-Soviet space as possible (, July 2;, July 3; Rossiyskaya gazeta, July 5)

The proximate cause of Moscow’s latest move, as the Russian expert Knyazev points out, is Kazakhstan’s decision not to violate the West’s sanctions regime against Russia; however, far more is involved here. The latter includes, most importantly, the unresolved problems on Kazakhstan’s borders, which have resulted in delays and are seen as political rather than technical issues given that they appear to violate commitments with the bordering members of the Eurasian Economic Community.

Moscow’s interest in gaining influence in Turkmenistan, which has begun to open itself to the outside world after nearly 30 years of isolation, and Russian concerns about managing China’s expanding influence in Central Asia seek to ensure that the Kremlin rather than some other actor is Beijing’s dominant partner in Central Asia, a status Kazakhstan aspires to achieve. Such a development would seriously reduce Russian influence there and might lead to the formation of a regional grouping that would be less capable of resisting Russian power (see EDM, July 29, 2021April 10May 18).

Among the Russian backers of this plan, approved in January 2023 at a quadripartite meeting of government officials from Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, is Igor Babushkin, the governor of Astrakhan Oblast, which would become the Russian entry point once the proposed route becomes operational. “The Southern Transportation Corridor,” he says, “will pass from the south of Kyrgyzstan into Uzbekistan and then into Turkmenistan to the Port of Turkmenbashi on the Caspian Sea and turn to the north, to Astrakhan. This will be the shortest route for the carrying of cargo that can avoid the obstacles at the border with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.”

Babushkin says that shipyards in his oblast stand ready to build the necessary vessels and that all this will not only lead to an expansion of east-west trade but also “make possible the development of regional integration,” a euphemism for the growth of Russian influence across Central Asia (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 2).

So far, all these bold declarations allude to a future that may never happen. For this route to work, the countries involved would have to expand their shipping capacity on the Caspian, something they have had great difficulty doing quickly up to now, as well as upgrade rail and road links in Central Asia. Meeting any of these requirements is going to be difficult and undoubtedly will not take place as rapidly as the words of Knyazev and Babushkin might suggest. And that means Moscow’s plan to end-run Kazakhstan in the short term may be more about signaling Russian displeasure at Astana’s policies and causing it to change direction.

In his comment to Nezavisimaya gazeta, Knyazev admits as much when he stresses that the new route “bypassing Kazakhstan would strike at the plans of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to convert his country into a transportation hub for the countries of Central Asia and the Caspian region.” Yet, he continues, if Kazakhstan managed to end the delays at its borders, “then no one would be against using the territory of Kazakhstan” in that way. If Astana does not take those steps, however, then the creation of this new southern route from China to Russia using the Caspian Sea and bypassing Kazakhstan “will become a very serious competitor to Kazakhstan’s railroads” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 2). In saying this, the Moscow commentator appears to be making an appeal to China to put money into the southern route rather than into Kazakhstan, a shift that would help Russia put pressure on Kazakhstan without costing Beijing any of the westward routes it desires.

Another reason for seeing the southern east-west route as a negotiating ploy rather than an actual plan is that, as Knyazev says, Moscow very much wants Kazakhstan to remain part of the multimodal north-south route between Russia and India, which is slated to pass through Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. If the Kremlin presses too hard to end-run Kazakhstan on the east-west route by developing the southern transportation corridor, it may find Astana less interested in remaining part of this north-south project. That in turn would threaten Moscow’s broader interests and thus is something Russian officials are likely to work especially hard to avoid.

This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 107

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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