Kazakhstan asserts its independent foreign policy

  • Dr. Stephen Blank
    Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy Research Institute - United States.
Foreign Policy & International Relations

Kazakhstan asserts its independent foreign policy


Russia’s war in Ukraine has stimulated Kazakhstan to take bold steps towards genuine foreign policy independence. In so doing, it has displayed its skepticism about, if not opposition to, the war and Russia’s efforts to dismember Ukraine. Consequently, it has reached out to other actors for support and cooperation. In response to Kazakhstan’s assertiveness, Russia has taken reprisals, mainly in energy, to strike at both Kazakhstan and Europe, but those efforts have so far failed.  Kazakhstan’s boldness has also extended and simultaneously reflected the fact of Russia’s long-anticipated declining hold over Central Asia and the corresponding growth of the interest and capability of other actors to assert their own interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia, such as Turkey and Iran, both of whom are engaging these entire regions.[i] Furthermore, Kazakhstan’s independent behavior again both reflects and extends the fact that Russia, and also China, possess an instinct for hegemony over smaller and weaker states like Kazakhstan, and that close relations with them must be balanced with friendly relations with everyone else so that no single power can exercise excessive leverage over any aspect of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy or threaten its global status, reputation, and stature.

The doctrine or principles of the multi-vector policy, which have been consistently applied since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, explain President Tokayev’s defiance of Moscow regarding this war. They comprise a balanced orientation towards all the major powers and an equally principled aversion towards excessive dependence in any field upon any one of them, while also opening the country up economically to all who are willing to invest there. Additionally, Kazakhstan has eschewed involvement in international crises and instead has offered itself as a mediator or center for mediation of international conflicts. These principles are simultaneously buttressed by a single-minded focus on defending its economic interests and expanding its economic capabilities so as to avoid excessive dependence on any other power.[ii]

Nevertheless, what is most astonishing about this defiance and its forcefulness is the fact that it comes on the heels of Tokayev’s solicitation of Russian troops to put down a January 2022 coup by his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev’s retinue in the wake of popular discontent. Russian and many other observers clearly anticipated that Kazakhstan, like other Central Asian states, would not express discontent with the war in Ukraine, though they clearly have reservations about it. Moreover, they expected that Kazakhstan would, in this context, feel beholden to Russia.[iii] Consequently, members of the Russian media, no doubt acting on orders, have expressed strong anger at Tokayev’s ingratitude.[iv] However, Tokayev’s motivations both as president and as one of the architects and prime executors of the multi-vector policy are not so simple. To be sure, support for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine contradicts every element of the multi-vector policy. Such support would also place Kazakhstan at grave risk since it is well-known that Russian nationalists not only maintain a hegemonic stance towards Kazakhstan and Central Asia, but also in many cases covet seizing northern Kazakhstan – supposedly “Russian” territory – and annexing it to Russia or even taking over the entire Kazakh territory.[v] Support for Russia is therefore inconceivable. A further point is that because Russia has substantial influence over Kazakhstan’s economy, the sanctions being imposed upon Russia also negatively affect Kazakhstan, even though it has no say in Moscow’s decisions. Kazakhstan, therefore, has to stand up for its own interests. Finally, Tokayev is determined to make clear that Kazakhstan is a sovereign state with a mature society.[vi] Support for Russia goes directly against the grain of that argument.

Kazakhstan’s reservations began to appear very soon after hostilities began on February 24.[vii] It declared itself neutral, refused Russian requests for troops, offered itself as a mediator in line with its long-standing position on global conflicts, and refused to recognize the “independence” of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. It also scrambled to overcome the negative economic aspects of the war, such as the fall in the value of its currency, the tenge, and the possibility of also being involved in foreign sanctions upon Russia.[viii] Thus, it announced that it would neither join foreign governmental sanctions upon Russia nor help Moscow evade sanctions.[ix] To further revive its economy and minimize problems moving Kazakh goods through Russia, it also began to increase cargo traffic through the Caspian Sea to Baku in Azerbaijan, where those cargoes would then be offloaded onto ships in Black Sea ports.[x]

These initial responses to the war paralleled but also went beyond those of other Central Asian states, whose leaders have tried to distance themselves from the war, say little about it, and seek ways to minimize the serious costs they have incurred due to sanctions on Russia.[xi] And some, like Uzbekistan, have stated their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and opposition to the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.[xii] However, by April-May 2022, Kazakhstan was going much further. It allowed pro-Ukrainian demonstrations at home, allowed citizens to organize humanitarian relief for Ukraine but not Russia, and apparently allowed so-called “Russophobes” to enter the government and form political parties.[xiii] Worse yet, Timur Suleymenov, First Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Kazakhstan, made public statements in Brussels that infuriated Moscow and pro-Russian groups in Kazakhstan. He reiterated that “Kazakhstan will not be a tool to circumvent sanctions on Russia,” that it “will label what Russia is doing in Ukraine a war regardless of what Moscow says, that Kazakhstan has not and will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia, and that Kazakhstan is working hard to diversity its export routes so as to bypass Russian territory.”[xiv] He also stated that Kazakhstan refuses to be placed “in the same basket” as Russia and that its status as an independent country and member of the UN outweigh its membership in the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as far as these issues are concerned.[xv]

Thus, Kazakhstan’s posture regarding this war stems from its recognition that Moscow’s arguments for intervening in Ukraine could easily be used to seize the heavily Russian-settled Northern Kazakhstan, that it suffers from Russian economic hegemonism in the EEU and that it is too vulnerable to impose sanctions upon Russia.[xvi] Yet at the same time, the success of its multi-vector policy and of its domestic quest for a stable national Kazakh identity now enables it to confront Moscow and simultaneously find support at home and abroad. And as a result, in response to this Russian criticism, it dared to go further in its defiance of Russia by cancelling the annual Victory Day parade on May 9 – an act sure to anger Russia.[xvii] In a similar vein, President Tokayev publicly denied that Russia’s intervention in January “saved Kazakhstan.”[xviii]  He also further denied that Kazakhstan owes anything to Russia for this intervention.[xix] Meanwhile Kazakhstan intensified its quest to find ways to reduce further its vulnerability to Russian economic developments, which clearly tallies with the overall impact of the sanctions on all of Central Asia. As one commentary noted, “the de facto exclusion of Russia from international business” allows all Central Asian states to leverage their geographical position to create new logistical corridors and business ties.[xx] In this context, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have launched discussions on accelerating a trans-Caspian international transport route. And Kazakhstan has made sure that Europe knows that Kazakh cargoes are being turned over uninterruptedly at Rotterdam.

However, like all Central Asian states, Kazakhstan must tread a fine line with Russia and not appear to break with it decisively, lest it pay a severe price for doing so. Accordingly, at the May summits of the CSTO and EEU, Tokayev told Putin that there was “no reason to worry “ about bilateral relations between their countries and that they had had “great success in developing bilateral cooperation.”[xxi] He further extolled the EEU as a successful project and expressed support for its further development.[xxii] Yet he balanced such statements with an invitation to the EU to buy Kazakh instead of Russian oil.[xxiii] And at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, he further publicly told Putin that Kazakhstan would not recognize Donetsk and Luhansk provinces as independent because if Kazakhstan recognized such statelets (implying that they were merely Russian fabrications) on the grounds of self-determination, there would be 500-600 member countries of the UN, rather than 193, and global chaos.[xxiv] Undoubtedly, lurking behind this argument is Tokayev’s defense of Kazakhstan’s integrity and  sovereignty that, as he well knows, are potentially under threat from Russia.[xxv] However, this balancing act is clearly not enough for the Russian media or the government that stands behind it.

Tokayev’s remarks in St. Petersburg provoked a firestorm of anger from Russian media and led Moscow to impose restrictions on Kazakhstan’s oil exports, directly striking both Kazakhstan and Europe.[xxvi] However, at this junction, where rhetoric became actual policy, Kazakhstan, rather than retreating, struck back and resisted, taking this issue into a whole different sphere. And in doing so, it reached out, as a multi-vector foreign policy would, for support from other actors. Thus, by July 2022, Kazakhstan’s assertion of its independence comprised initiatives in foreign economic, trade, energy, and defense policy.

Recent initiatives

Kazakhstan’s navy, and presumably the government, have now shifted their primary mission in the Caspian from search and rescue operations, or fighting poaching, to defense.[xxvii]  This may reflect a new understanding of the myriad Russian threats available to Moscow and/or a realization that what has occurred in Ukraine, where Russia has seized control of many Ukrainian ports and the Sea of Azov while blockading the Red Sea, could easily be duplicated in the Caspian at great expense to Kazakhstan. Simultaneously, experts and elites have also been jolted into understanding the need for a modernized, battle-ready, and non-Soviet army to defend against real Russian, if not other, threats.[xxviii] Consequently Tokayev has now ordered the restructuring of Kazakhstan’s military to improve its combat readiness and re-equip its army with modern weapons and military hardware, while ensuring they do not fall into the wrong hands.[xxix]

Russia’s rhetoric and threats have also galvanized the state’s civilian leadership. Tokayev’s May visit to Turkey apparently ‘surpassed all expectations’, leading both sides to forge a strategic partnership.[xxx] This also clealy reflects Turkey’s heightened interest in playing a major role in Central Asia, just as it does now in the Caucasus. During Tokayev’s visit, the two sides sealed a deal to produce Turkish drones under license in Kazakhstan, signifying the community of interest that has now encompassed Turkey and Kazakhstan, Ankara’s interest in projecting power into Central Asia, and Nursultan’s resistance to Moscow.[xxxi]

Complementing the turn toward enhancing military power and foreign ties is Kazakhstan’s increasingly independent foreign economic policies. Here again, the trigger is the constant Russian pressure on Kazakhstan’s trade and investments, not least in energy. In March, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) claimed, rather dubiously, that bad weather had rendered two of the three tanker loading facilities at Novorossiysk inoperable, thus striking at both Kazakh and Europe’s energy trade.[xxxii] Then, on July 5, a district court in Novorossiysk ordered that the pipeline be shut down for 30 days, ostensibly on orders from the CPC, for violating oil spill rules – a classic Russian ploy.[xxxiii] A day later, on July 6, an explosion occurred at the giant Tengiz oil field, though there is no proof of it being deliberate.[xxxiv] Nevertheless, it added to Kazakh anger at Russia’s coercive tactics and it fought back immediately. By then, Kazakhstan had apparently already concluded agreements with Georgia and Azerbaijan to ship oil to Europe through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and, on July 7, one day after the explosion, Tokayev reiterated that Kazakhstan needed to diversify its oil and gas export routes, and that a study had been ordered to examine the possibility of building of a pipeline under the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan, a project that would bypass Russia.[xxxv] After having reaffirmed on July 4 Kazakhstan’s pledge to bring hydrocarbons to the EU, Tokayev also reaffirmed his earlier commitment to increase export routes to China as well as Europe, including the use of Turkish transport corridors.[xxxvi] Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Finance further announced that “the Tokayev administration was considering banning shipments of EU and US-sanctioned goods to Russia and Belarus through its territory.”[xxxvii]

Given this resistance and the threat to Moscow of a trans-Caspian pipeline that it has sought to block for a generation, Moscow evidently yielded, for only a few days later, on July 11, a regional court reversed the district court decision of July 5, merely imposing a fine of $3300 on the CPC pipeline.[xxxviii] Despite nothing being resolved and the likelihood of tensions with Moscow persisting throughout the duration of the war, these events are instructive.

Lessons learned

This entire sequence of events shows that Kazakhstan, by building upon its multi-vector foreign policy, has forged sufficiently strong links with other partners like Turkey, Azerbaijan, China, and the EU – to name a few – and can defend its interests against Russia and resist Moscow successfully. To be sure, we should not expect a collapse of Russian influence or leverage upon Kazakhstan, or in Central Asia more generally. This outcome would certainly not redound to Kazakhstan’s interests. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan can now defend itself regarding key foreign policy interests and assert its interests with success. The fact that parallel to all these developments Tokayev has also orchestrated a constitutional referendum process that virtually eliminates all traces of the Nazarbayev family’s power further strengthens his and the state’s power to carry out an independent multi-vector policy, which is what we will likely see for the foreseeable future.[xxxix]

In this respect, Kazakhstan has successfully taken advantage of the fact that Central Asia and the broader Caspian Basin have long since become an arena for sustained multi-state rivalry for influence.  Its multi-vector policy, which has clearly gone into higher gear now, welcomes multi-lateral involvement by myriad foreign actors in Central Asia. We have long known of Russo-Chinese presence and deep involvement in Central Asia, as well as the long-standing EU and American presence there. But now we see, and this is particularly relevant in this case, not just signs of substantial Turkish presence but an organized Turkish campaign to gain enduring influence there.[xl] Although Iran does not figure in this case, it too has visibly upgraded its profile in Central Asia since 2020.[xli] Even Israel is visibly expanding its regional presence.[xlii] This enhanced appreciation of Turkish and/or Iranian interests stems from both states’ self-identification as major powers with interests that transcend their immediate neighborhood. But it also reflects the declining ability of the superpowers to manage this region, as well as other regions such as the Middle East. Indeed, this sequence of events confirms the decline in Russia’s ability to influence, let alone coerce, Kazakhstan.

Until quite recently, for example, it was virtually inconceivable that any Central Asian president would seriously discuss defense projects with a private Turkish businessman. But Tokayev did exactly that in March, meeting with a member of Turkey’s Koc Holding Company, Ali Koc, to discuss defense industry and agriculture projects that Koc holding will implement in Kazakhstan.[xliii]  This process by which Central Asian states are now increasingly able to assert their own interests and/or forge new vistas of cooperation goes beyond Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan, like Kazakhstan, has also embarked upon serious cooperation with Turkey, who is clearly anxious to reciprocate.[xliv]


Naturally, the impact of its declining role vis-à-vis other actors has visibly rankled Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov now accuses the West of trying to spoil Central Asian ties with Russia.[xlv]  This accusation masks the fact that neither he nor Putin can attack Turkey or Iran – whose help Moscow now desperately needs – for encroaching on what it believes to be its sphere of influence.  But since stating a year ago that an American presence was not needed in Central Asia, his new charges sound more like whining or sour grapes, not sound policy. Thus, this war reflects and may even presage the ultimate end of Russia’s ability to assume the kingmaker’s role in Central Asia. To be sure, that end is a good distance off and Russia’s power here will vary with the individual countries that comprise Central Asia.  But the example of Kazakhstan’s so far successful resistance to Russian hegemonial tactics, based on the preceding foundation of its multi-vector foreign policy, will not be lost on its neighbors, or for that matter on Russia’s rivals here.


[i] James Nixey, “The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in the South Caucasus and Central Asia,” Chatham House, June 1, 2012,

[ii] Kuralay Baizakova and Fatima Kukeyevna, “The Evolving Conceptual Foundations of Kazakhstan’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy,” in On the Asian and European Origins of Legal and Political Systems: Views from Korea, Kazakhstan and France, ed. Tai-uk Chung, Zhuldyz Sairambaeva and Pierre Chabal (P.I.E-Peter Lang S.A, 2018); Aiman Zhussupova, “Peace Through Engagement: The Multi-Vector Direction of Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy,” The Astana Times, March 9, 2021,

[iii] Paul Stronski, “The Common Theme in Central Asia’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 30, 2022,

[iv] Joanna Lillis, “Kazakhstan-Russia Frictions over Ukraine War Go Public,” Eurasianet, June 20, 2022,

[v] Almaz Kumenov, “Russian Nationalists Again Rile Kazakhstan by Questioning Its Nationhood,” Eurasianet, December 15, 2020,

[vi] “Tokayev Said That Kazakhstan Should Say Goodbye to the Oligarchs,” RBC, June 15, 2022,

[vii] Stronski, “The Common Theme in Central Asia’s Response.”

[viii] Aliya Askar, “Kazakh-Russian Relations in the Context of the War in Ukraine,” The Diplomat, March 7, 2022,

[ix] “Kazakhstan Will Not Join Sanctions Against Russia, Foreign Minister Says,” CMIO International, April 7, 2022,; “Top Official Says Kazakhstan Won’t Help Russia Evade Western Sanctions,” Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty, April 1, 2022,

[x] Almaz Kumenov, “Russia Sanctions Prompt Kazakhstan to Increase Exports via Caspian,” Eurasianet, March 8, 2022,

[xi] Jeffrey Mankoff, “Central Asia Is Keeping a Nervous Eye on Russia’s War in Ukraine,” World Politics Review, April 26, 2022,

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Paul Goble, “Moscow Outraged That Kazakhstan Becoming ‘a Second Ukraine’,” The Jamestown Foundation - Eurasia Daily Monitor 19, no. 47, April 5, 2022,

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] “Kazakhstan Cancels Victory Day Military Parade Again,” Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty, April 13, 2022,

[xviii] Catherine Putz, “Tokayev Downplays January CSTO Deployment to Kazakhstan,” The Diplomat, June 15, 2022,

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Olga Gulina, “How the Ukraine War Could Disrupt Eurasia’s Power Balance,” Riddle, March 25, 2022,

[xxi] The Kremlin – President of Russia, “Meeting with President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev,” June 17, 2022,

[xxii] “Tokayev: Combining Eurasian Integration with China's Belt and Road Initiative,” Seetao, June 19, 2022,

[xxiii] “Tokayev Offers EU to Buy Kazakh Oil Instead of Russian,”, May 7, 2022,

[xxiv] Margarita Assenova, “How Kazakhstan's Economy Is Navigating the Russo-Ukrainian War,” The National Interest, June 29, 2022,; Aliya Askar, “The Complexity of Kazakhstan-Russia Relations on Display,” The Diplomat, June 30, 2022,

[xxv] “Tokayev: ‘We Must Be Ready to Protect Our Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity’," Daily News, May 6, 2022,

[xxvi] Askar, “The Complexity of Kazakhstan-Russia Relations”; Aditya Tarar, “Russia Suspends Shipments of Kazakh Oil after Tokayev’s Statements at SPIEF – The Moscow Times,” Hindustan News Hub, June 19, 2022,

[xxvii] Paul Goble, “Kazakhstan Increasingly Preparing Its Navy to Defend the Country Against Aggression,” Window on Eurasia [blog], May 2, 2022,

[xxviii] Paul Goble, “Kazakhstan Must Modernize Its Military Quickly Given Russian Threat – OpEd,” Eurasia Review, May 27, 2022,

[xxix] “Tokayev Orders Modernization of Kazakh Army due to Current Military Security Threats,” Interfax, March 2, 2022,

[xxx] Assel Satubaldina, “Kazakhstan and Turkey Determined to Advance Strategic Partnership through Investment and Business Cooperation,” The Astana Times, May 11, 2022,

[xxxi] Almaz Kumenov, “Kazakhstan Seals Deal to Produce Turkish Drones under License,” Eurasianet, May 13, 2022,

[xxxii] Almaz Kumenov, “Kazakhstan: CPC Pipeline Shutdown Poses Serious Economic Threat,” Eurasianet, March 23, 2022,

[xxxiii] Mikhail Bushuev and Andrey Gurkov, “Russia Targets Western Sanctions with Kazakh Oil,” MSN, July 8, 2022,

[xxxiv] “Russian Court Orders Halt to Caspian Oil Pipeline but Exports Still Flow,” Alarabiya News, July 6, 2022,

[xxxv] “Kazakh President Calls for New Oil Export Routes after Russia Suspends Key Pipeline,” Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty, July 7, 2022,; Assem Assaniyaz, “Kazakh President Calls for Enhancing Transport Potential, Diversifying Oil Export Routes,” The Astana Times, July 7, 2022,

[xxxvi] “Kazakhstan President Seeks to Diversify Oil Export Routes Away from Russia,” Eurasianet, July 7, 2022,; Nigar Bayramli, “Azerbaijan, Türkiye, Kazakhstan Sign Declaration on New Transport Corridors,” Caspian News, June 28, 2022,

[xxxvii] “Russian Court Reverses Ruling Impeding Kazakh Oil Exports but Situation Remains Tense,” Bne Intellinews, July 7, 2022,

[xxxviii] Ibid.

[xxxix] “Kazakhstan Holds Referendum to Amend Constitution,” Al Jazeera, June 5, 2022,

[xl] Reid Standish, “Turkey, China See Opportunity in Central Asia after Moscow's Ukraine Invasion,” Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty, June 12, 2022,

[xli] Paul Goble, “Iran Rapidly Expanding Rail Links with Central Asia and Caucasus,” The Jamestown Foundation – Eurasia Daily Monitor 17, no. 178, December 15, 2020,

[xlii] James M. Dorsey, “Ukrainian Ripples: Turkey and Israel Eye Extended Cooperation in Central Asia – Analysis,” Eurasia Review, February 16, 2022,

[xliii] “Turkish Koç Holding to Implement Projects in Defense Industry in Kazakhstan,”

Kazinform, June 27, 2022,

[xliv] Standish, “Turkey, China See Opportunity in Central Asia.”

[xlv] Embassy of the Russian Federation in Germany, “Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s Interview with RT Television, Sputnik Agency and Rossiya Segodnya International Information Agency, Moscow, July 20, 2022,” July 21, 2022,


: 26-August-2022

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