Kazakhstan a Reluctant Ally in Russia’s Ukraine Gambit
Strains threaten further supply of oil on world markets
Russia’s war on Ukraine is causing significant strains with its large but thinly populated neighbor Kazakhstan. The strains are beginning to receive foreign attention as they threaten further interruptions in the supply of oil to world markets.
A Russian court has just overturned an earlier order to shut for 30 days a crucial oil pipeline which takes Kazakh oil to the Black Sea via Russia. But such threats to Kazakh oil will not go away as Russia tries to apply pressure on that country, which has been singularly unwilling to show any support for the Ukraine invasion. Indeed, it has specifically declined to recognize the two puppet “republics” that Moscow has established in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow has already been creating problems for other transit traffic with Kazakhstan but any prolonged closure of the 1,100-kilometer pipeline would have devastating results for Kazakhstan, which uses it for about two thirds of its oil exports which themselves account for about 1 percent of the global supply. The Russians have a ready supply of contrived environment and other issues to interrupt Kazakh trade.
Kazakhs have been alarmed and distressed by some of the attitudes expressed by ultra-patriotic voices in Russia which infer that not only is all or most of Ukraine rightly part of Russia but the same could apply to Kazakhstan, where about 20 percent of the population are ethnic Russians, who form a majority in a couple of cities in northeast Kazakhstan.
The nation is more Russianized in the sense of language and cultural legacy than the other ex-Soviet Stans and thus more easily fits the dreams of those looking to restore some at least of the vast Imperial and Soviet-era lands to Moscow rule.
The Kazakhs have gone out of their way in the past to avoid upsetting either Moscow or their Russian minority. President Kassym Tokaev, who took power in mid-2019, has been viewed as more likely to be accommodating. He was educated at the then-Soviet Moscow State Institute of International Relations and in January this year he had to call on troops from Russia and other members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization to stabilize the country after a brief but bloody uprising reflecting an internal power struggle.
But given its own geography and demographics, Kazakhstan cannot afford to be seen as accommodating Russian revanchism in any way. It could be next on the list as its borders are vulnerable and it lacks strong NATO-type friends. At least for now, China is of limited use as it first needs to extricate itself from the diplomatic blunder of appearing to support the Ukraine invasion by blaming the war on the West.
Kazakhs can expect Russia to continue to apply economic pressures, and threats thereof, unless it can prevail upon Beijing to lean on Moscow, perhaps by reminding Mr. Putin that China has vast outstanding claims on Russia from the 19th century “unequal treaties” signed between the Romanov and the Qing dynasties.