‘If Kazakhstan and Russia suddenly ceased to be allies…’

Vladimir Putin of Russia and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan

Vladimir Putin meeting with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan 

International, More

Very public differences between Moscow and Astana and Kazakhstan’s increasingly close relations with the United States have prompted some Kazakhs to ask what their fate might be if their country and the Russian Federation “suddenly ceased to be allies.”

Sometimes the asking of a question like this is more important than the answers because it suggests that this is something the elite in Kazakhstan is actually thinking about. Central Asian Monitor’s Kenzhe Tatilya asked two Kazakh analysts and an ethnic Russian political one for their views about the situation.

Their answers range from a more or less balanced consideration of what might happen in the event of a break to alarmist warnings that such a development would constitute a catastrophe for Kazakhstan and must be avoided at almost all costs.

Political scientist Marat Shibutov said that those who talk about things need always to remember that “no one has repealed geography.” Kazakhstan is fated to be an ally of the Russian Federation because of economic, cultural and national security needs. Were it to break with Moscow, Astana would suffer with regard to all three.

Kazakhstan would no longer be able to purchase Russian goods or sell its products in the Russian marketplace. It would lose access to higher educational opportunities in Russia for its young people. And it would no longer have the security that Russia provides both directly and through the training of Kazakh officers.

Were Kazakhstan to break with Russia, someone else would certainly enter the scene given that geopolitics doesn’t really allow for complete isolation especially for a second-tier power. Some suggest that the US could play that role, but Shibutov argues that would lead to a serious deterioration in ties not only with Russia but with China as well.

“Considering the growing tensions in Xinjiang, Beijing would view our move as the creation of place des armes against it. Consequently, we could anticipate that there would be economic sanctions in response from China.”

No one should doubt that this would hurt especially as it would come on top of losses in the Russian direction.

Moreover, breaking with Moscow would not make Kazakhstan’s domestic situation “more stable and predictable.” The Russian government would ramp up its program for the return of compatriots, not just Russians but Russian-speaking Kazakhs who would view having a Russian passport as a real advantage in the future.

Given all these probabilities, Shibutov says, it would be best if this notion remained beyond discussion.

Sultanbek Sultangaliyev, a political analyst, says that a split with Moscow would be “possible only in one case” – the coming to power in Astana of a Kazakh nationalist movement more interested in seeing an ethnically homogeneous Kazakhstan than anything else. Russians would then leave, but so too would many Russian-speaking Kazakhs.

Some in Kazakhstan argue that their departure would be a good thing because it would supposedly solve the country’s high unemployment. But in fact, it would hurt the economy and not lead to the hiring of those now unemployed because few of them have the skills to fill the jobs of those who would leave.

Unlike Shibutov, Sultangaliyev says that if Kazakhstan broke with Russia, China would become the hegemon in Kazakhstan.

“We gradually would become a sphere of the vital interests of the Chinese nation,” and without the Russian counterweight, we would “be forced to turn our face to Beijing.” Those who talk about Turkey or the West are simply naïve.


Turkey doesn’t have the strength to play that role, he says; and “Western governments see in our country only a source of cheap natural resources and a market for the sale of their goods. They are always ready to close their eyes to any event in Kazakhstan in order to advance their own interests.”

Russia is not interfering in Kazakhstan at present, but if Astana changes course, it certainly would. “In the ‘besieged fortress’ situation in which Russia is now and will apparently be for a long time to come, a revision of our foreign policy course would be viewed in the Kremlin as betrayal and corresponding conclusions would certainly be drawn.”

A break with Moscow would make Kazakhstan mono-ethnic, Sultangaliyev says. But Kazakhstan would lose so much that its own remaining resource would be “its own unique culture” without the economic or political clout to defend it.

And Nikolay Kuzmin, an ethnic Russian analyst, adds that any break would be disastrous. “If our countries cease to be allies, then one is compelled to predict that relations between them will be hostile. And the consequences of such a scenario cannot be called anything but catastrophic.”

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Edited by: A. N.

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  1. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

    At some point ruSSia is just gonna have to fade out of the picture…

  2. Avatar Murf says:

    If they need a counter balance to China then they will to start looking further a field than Russia.
    Putin’s Russia is a fading power and will sell them out to China with a smile.

  3. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

    And what about a Donbas type of scenario? If Kazakhstan tried to leave Russia’s sphere of influence, what would prevent Moscow from seizing Northern Kazakhstan under the pretext of “protecting” the significant ethnic Russian population from Kazakh “nationalists”? After all, who would interfere with this potential Russian invasion as it would not pose an immediate threat either to China or the Western powers?

    1. Avatar Alex George says:

      It would be a major threat to China’s silk road initiative.

      I think it is more likely China would intervene diplomatically before that point was reached, and encourage both Russia and Kazakhstan to calm down. The Chinese hold a great deal of leverage over both countries, and they are spending billions to build their land trade route to Europe and the Middle East.

      1. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

        True enough. At this juncture in time it would not be in the Kremlin’s interests to seize Northern Kazakhstan as such an invasion would be ill timed for primarily three reasons, including; 1) It would have a very negative affect on Sino-Russian relations at a time when Moscow has been actively pursuing Chinese support in propping up a Russian economy that keeps hitting new lows. 2) Any immediate invasion would be counter-productive to the current propaganda initiatives that Moscow has launched against the West and would only increase the possibility of even more sanctions when the Kremlin could least afford it. 3) The cost of such an adventure would be difficult to justify to a population that has already been suffering from severe economic shortages. However, Putin’s imperialistic and chauvinistic yearnings should never be underestimated. For individuals of his ilk, it’s all in the timing and waiting for the ideal spark to ignite the flame.