How Is The West Going To Protect Its Huge Oil Investments In Western Kazakhstan Against Russia? – Analysis


This is not an idle question, especially when the US-led NATO Western military alliance is, according to the Russian top diplomat Lavrov, already at war with Russia in Ukraine. Now the Russian leaders are in such a difficult situation that in order to avoid disastrous consequences, they are seemingly forced to look for some extraordinary ways to get out of it. Their options appear quite limited. 

Apart from threatening to use nuclear weapons, there appear to be very few, if any options available them. In that sense they may have no other option than to try to jab the US and its major European partners in their sorest spot located outside of direct western control and within reach of Russia. This refers to colossal gas and oil investment projects by the US and European companies in Western Kazakhstan.

It doesn’t, however, mean that one should not be afraid of the risk of nuclear weapon use. Earlier the Kremlin had committed to refrain from using force against Ukraine and threat of use of nuclear weapons. Last year, the Russian leadership breached the first part of their commitment and invaded the territory of Ukraine. As to the second part of that commitment, it has already lost its relevance, too. Speaking on February 21, with the annual message to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin used language which indicated a defeat in Ukraine would justify the use of nuclear weapons. It wasn’t the first time that this kind of frightening words came from the mouths of Russia’s representatives. But Putin’s threats to use nuclear weapons were more subtle than the previous similar statements by the other Russian hardliners. And yet they were still there. Putin said that ‘the U.S. and NATO openly say that their goal is to inflict a strategic defeat on Russia’. And that, according to him, means they want to turn a local conflict into a global conflict which in turn means Russia ‘will respond accordingly because then we are talking about the existence of our country’.

The Military Doctrine of Russia states that the Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other mass destruction weapons – weapons [used] against Russia and its allies – as well as in response to a large-scale conventional aggression in critical situations for Russia and its allies. So, for Vladimir Putin to say now that Russia ‘will respond accordingly because then we are talking about the existence of our country’, this is like warning about possible use of nuclear weapons. For the Ukrainian press, in desperation Vladimir Putin plays his last card. 

However, whether the master of the Kremlin is ready to pursue such an extreme measure is still a big question. Since for President Putin and his entourage, the use of nuclear weapons is like driving themselves into a dead-end situation from where there is no way out. The problem here lies not only in danger of lapsing into fatal despair. Having unlimited possibilities for making frequent trips to the West and enjoying the benefits of western civilization is strongly associated with the notion of success and prosperity among the Russian elites, as well as in Russian public opinion. As Konstantin Sonin, the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, said citing the investigations by Alexei Navalny, ‘a huge number of so-called patriotic [Russian] officials have real estate abroad [in the US and the EU countries], their families live there’.

Speaking on Tonight with Andrew Marr on LBC (Leading Britain’s Conversation), Russian Ambassador to the UK Andrei Kelin made clear what had already been understandable: Russia does not intend to use nuclear weapons during the conflict in Ukraine. But this does not negate the urgency for the Kremlin to achieve real success in confronting those it calls the ‘collective West’. What’s more, this now became a matter of even more importance and urgency. The Russian war in Ukraine is stalemated. That the 2024 presidential election looms a bit more than a year away creates a situation when there is the need for really new, breakthrough solutions to that stalemate. Mr. Putin had been expected to announce such solutions in his message to the Federal Assembly on February 21. But that did not happen. And consequently, many Russians are now feeling disappointed. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s critics are arguing that he ‘doesn’t have a plan B’, while his plan A in Ukraine has already failed. At first sight, it all seems to be just like this. But on the other hand, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the Kremlin not to have an alternate option of attempting to force the other side [i.e. the ‘collective West’] to become more compliant after a year into the costly and unsuccessful war. Shifting the momentum of the Ukraine war into Russia’s favor, as well as some kind of truce, now do not seem to be realistic. This leaves Russia with one, and only one option: to try to change the ‘collective West’s’ attitude to the war in Ukraine through creating a true major challenge to the very serious economic interests of the US and Western Europe in another post-Soviet region, or in a different post-Soviet country, easily accessible for the Russian side and rather inaccessible for the Western one. And there is only one such country, Kazakhstan, and only one such region there, Western Kazakhstan.

The bulk of oil production in the Kazakh nation 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 Western Kazakhstan, that 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. And consequently, Western Kazakhstan is one of the most economically important regions, if not the most important one, in the post-Soviet space from the standpoint of the West’s long-term interests.

Back in 2022, Russia began destabilizing the situation in that region through proxy actions and continues to do so today. The consequences could be very serious. Especially considering the fact that Kazakhstan’s information space is largely controlled by the Russian media. 

Russian politicians and news outlets incite ethnically Russian citizens of Kazakhstan, living, say, in Uralsk, to speak out against Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and their co-citizens of Kazakh origin. And they are achieving the desired effect. There are already many examples of it. If those reports are true, what are the local authorities doing to put an end to such acts? Here is one of the answers from the local press to such a question: “The Kazakh police do not consider the offer to give Russia the city of Uralsk a crime”, the Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper reports”. But this seems to be only the beginning. Russian media seemingly have already begun to consolidate in the minds of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan an expectation that Russia would soon hold yet another special military operation – this time with the goal of invading the neighboring Central Asian country, – and to plant the separatist idea on their minds and to let their imagination do the rest. Here is an extremely eloquent dialogue on the subject from an article published just following President Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly and entitled ‘If there is a special operation, will you be for the Kazakhs or for the Russians? [I mean] if Russia comes here’: “If there is a special operation, will you be for the Kazakhs or for the Russians? [I mean] if Russia comes here. – For the Russians – And you? – Of course, for the Russians”. Thus, Russians and Kazakhs are being incited against each other.

Next, there is a campaign to discredit the Kazakh ruling regime and Western oil majors operating in Western Kazakhstan before the local Kazakh population. And there are many examples of it, too.

Answers to the questions of where all this is coming from and where it is leading to are obvious.

The foremost thing is that the United States and its allies are unlikely to be in a position to provide reliable protection for their companies operating in Western Kazakhstan in the event of any kind of internal problems there. Central Asia including Kazakhstan is inaccessible for the West, except through Azerbajan and the Caspian Sea. Its other surrounding countries – Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran – can hardly be called western-friendly. 

In principle, reliable protection for the western companies operating in Western Kazakhstan must be provided by the Kazakh regime. But the Kazakh leadership itself had requested help from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) during the unrest in January of last year. Moscow, having come to  Mr. Tokayev’s aid, not only helped him retain and consolidate his power, but also reinforced its own ‘king-making’ role in Kazakhstan so much that there now are persistent talks that the Kazakh regime ‘actually rests on the Kremlin bayonets’. So the West will probably have to look to Moscow for help with regard to its companies’ oil and gas projects, if something like that happens in Western Kazakhstan. There are seemingly no other options.

Akhas Tazhutov, a political analyst

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analysts from Kazakhstan.

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