Kazakhstan’s ‘Multi-Vector’ Foreign Policy Amidst The Ukraine War – Analysis
By Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)
By Jason Wahlang
Kazakhstan has maintained a distinctive stance regarding Russia’s military action in Ukraine. It has repeatedly emphasised the need for diplomacy to resolve the conflict. Kazakh authorities have also decried the results of referendums held in four Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia , which overwhelmingly voted to join the Russia Federation. At the same time, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, after his re-election on 22 November 2022, chose Russia for his first foreign visit. These developments have put a spotlight on Kazakhstan’s three-decades-old multi-vectored foreign policy.
After the Soviet disintegration, most Central Asian nations, including Kazakhstan, adopted a multi-vector foreign policy, characterised by a pragmatic non-ideological approach.1 This accorded Kazakh leaders flexibility in dealing with global and regional powers to further the country’s political, security and economic interests.
Kazakhstan’s landlocked geographical location coupled with abundant resources have played a vital role in this calculus of adopting a multi-vector foreign policy. The country was overtly reliant on Russia for connectivity with the rest of the world. It, therefore, sought to leverage its rich repository of natural resources to diversify its inbound investments to develop this critical sector. This is evident in Kazakhstan establishing robust partnerships with regional and extra-regional powers apart from Russia, including China, Turkey, Iran, India and the West.
Kazakhstan is a member of Russia-dominated organisations such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) while also acquiescing to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and USAID projects which focus on health, human rights, democracy, governance and economic development. The multi-vector policy was further reiterated in Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy Document (2020–2030), released in March 2020,2 and the latest military doctrine released on 24 October 2022.3 The Foreign Policy Document affirms that the country would follow an independent, pragmatic, and proactive policy for the development of friendly, equal and mutually beneficial relations with all states, interstate associations and international organisations. The 2022 military doctrine flags internal, external, traditional and non-traditional threats and focuses on diversifying military cooperation to maintain the nation’s multi-vector policy amidst growing regional and global turmoil.
Multi-Vector Policy Since War in Ukraine
In the early days of the Ukrainian crisis, Kazakhstan offered to act as a negotiator, stressing the need for dialogue.4 It also extended humanitarian aid to Ukraine,5 thereby highlighting its neutral position. On the other hand, President Tokayev refused to recognise Luhansk and Donetsk’s independence from Ukraine. While making it clear that he would not expose his country to secondary Western sanctions, he announced that he would work with Russia within the framework of the Western sanctions regime.6 These developments thereby indicated Kazakhstan’s calculus of sticking to its principle of an independent foreign policy.
Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy is evident in its approach involving other nations. The country shares a long border of approximately 1,800 kms with China. Over the years, China has emerged as a key economic partner of Astana, and the BRI provides a robust foundation for their economic engagement.7 The strategic value attached by both sides to their bilateral ties was evident in President Xi Jinping visiting Kazakhstan for his first foreign trip since the outbreak of the pandemic, with the Chinese President emphasising the need to uphold Astana’s sovereignty. This was seen as a message of support to Kazakhstan amidst lingering fear in Central Asia over Russia’s irredentism.8 Meanwhile, Kazakhstan has also expressed its support for China’s peace plan for the Russia–Ukraine conflict9 amidst reports of a Kazakh Presidential to visit China later in the year.
Nevertheless, there remain apprehensions about China’s growing footprints in Kazakhstan. This is evident in protests in Kazakhstan against Chinese migrants, China’s land purchases, and China’s policies towards Uyghurs.10
Beyond Russia and China, Kazakhstan has also sought to engage the US as part of its multi-vector approach. Kazakhstan already houses a USAID project centre in Astana amidst an upswing in bilateral economic linkages. Kazakhstan would perhaps even benefit from the promised new investments from the US amidst the crisis of the Russian rouble. During the visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kazakhstan on 28 February 2023, the US promised economic assistance apart from expressing support for Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty11 .
There have also been a flurry of visits by European Union (EU) officials to Kazakhstan, including the October 2022 visit of the European Council President Charles Michel and the November 2022 visit of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borell, with discussions revolving around the Trans-Caspian International Transport route.12 The EU is Kazakhstan’s largest foreign investor representing 60 per cent of foreign direct investment.13 The EU’s renewed focus on Kazakhstan coincides with the EU’s ongoing energy crisis and attempts at diversifying its energy suppliers. In addition, a more robust partnership with Kazakhstan could provide Europe with access to its vital non-energy natural resources as Europe seeks to overcome its dependence on Russia.
Among other regional powers, Kazakhstan has sought to strengthen its engagement with Turkiye, with both countries signing a joint declaration to strengthen military and geopolitical partnerships in June 2022.14 Aside from establishing a joint intelligence-sharing cooperation mechanism, Kazakhstan is cooperating with Turkiye on drone procurement and co-production.15 This is remarkable given the fact that Kazakhstan is part of the Russia led-Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) military alliance. Moreover, Kazakhstan’s membership of the Turkic Council and the Organisation of Turkic States, as both share a Turkic ethnic composition, enables both countries to expand regional connections.
A key attribute to President Tokayev’s recent assertiveness on Russia amidst the Ukrainian conflict is likely aimed at bolstering his public image among the Kazak electorate. This was particularly relevant amidst the large influx of Russians into Kazakhstan, which has the potential to disturb the existing social cohesion. However, the Kazakh assertiveness is unlikely to signify a break from Russia which remains a prominent regional actor. The fact remains that Astana is part of a Russia-led security and economic alliance.
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan has strengthened its partnerships with other regional and extra-regional actors amidst the ongoing regional turmoil. To a certain extent, this multi-vector foreign policy in the current geopolitical climate is to signal metaphorically that not all of Astana’s roads lead to and from Moscow.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
*About the author: Dr Jason Wahlang is a Research Analyst in the Europe and Eurasia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA
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- 2.“On the Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2020-2030”, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 9 March 2020.
- 3.“Military Doctrine of the Republic of Kazakhstan”,Security Council, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 2022.
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- 6.Denis Karlovsky, “Tokayev Assured that He Would not Violate Sanctions in the Course of Cooperation with Russia”, Ukrainska Pravda, 15 June 2022.
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- 8.Temur Umarov, “After Ukraine, Is Kazakhstan Next in the Kremlin’s Sights?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,10 August 2022.
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- 12.“Trans-Caspian International Transport Route”, Middle Corridor, 2022.
- 13.Aibarshyn Akhmetkali, “Kazakhstan and EU Agree to Strengthen Cooperation in Trade, Energy, Digital, and Logistics During EU Top Official Josep Borrell’s Visit”, Astana Times, 17 November 2022.
- 14.Dmitry V. Shlapentokh, “Turkiye and Kazakhstan: Partners in a Multipolar World”, Anadolu Agency, 18 May 2022.
- 15.Aysu Biçer, “Turkiye to Produce Drone in Kazakhstan”, Anadolu Agency, 11 May 2022.