Putin’s Unexpected Challenge: Snubs From His Central Asian Allies - Wall Street Journal - 24.07.22

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has Kazakhstan and its neighbors rethinking alliances and reaching out to the U.S. Article by Evan Gershkovich.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan—At the start of the year, Russia dispatched more than 2,000 troops to its longtime ally Kazakhstan to help put down violent antigovernment unrest. Six weeks later, when Russian troops stormed into Ukraine, Kazakhstan had an opportunity to repay the favor by supporting the invasion.

It didn’t.

Instead, Kazakhstan has joined other Central Asian countries along Russia’s southern frontier in staying neutral on the invasion, leaving Belarus as the only ex-Soviet state that has offered full-throated support. Kazakhstan has promised to enforce Western sanctions against Moscow, said it would boost oil exports to Europe via routes that bypass Russia, upped its defense budget and hosted a U.S. delegation meant to coax the Central Asian country closer to Washington’s orbit.

The growing distance between Moscow and its largest ally in Central Asia represents an unexpected challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. For decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow has worked to maintain influence across Central Asia through military and economic alliances with its former sister republics. Chief among them is Kazakhstan, an oil-rich country larger than the size of Western Europe. The two countries share a 4,750-mile border, the world’s second longest frontier after the U.S.-Canada border.

Peacekeepers returning to Russia from Kazakhstan in January. Photo: Vladimir Smirnov/tass/Zuma Press

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a fellow former Soviet republic that shares a lot of similarities with Kazakhstan—is changing that relationship. Now Kazakhstan is rethinking Russia’s privileged position in its foreign policy and reaching out to countries like the U.S., Turkey and China, according to interviews with current and former Kazakh officials, lawmakers and analysts.

A telling moment came in June, when Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev flew to Russia for Mr. Putin’s flagship economic forum in St. Petersburg. Sharing the stage with the Russian president, Mr. Tokayev said Kazakhstan wouldn’t recognize the two Moscow-backed separatist states in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that Mr. Putin says he is liberating. When asked by the panel’s moderator whether the West was pressuring his country, Mr. Tokayev deflected the question.

During his visit, Mr. Tokayev told Russian state television that his country wouldn’t help Russia violate sanctions, but stressed that Russia would remain a key ally. “Kazakhstan is in no way renouncing its allied obligations,” he said.

It’s a delicate balance. Kazakhstan has banned antiwar demonstrations that might anger Moscow, but also outlawed publicly displaying the Z sign that has become a pro-war symbol in Russia.

Sayasat Nurbek, a Kazakh lawmaker, invoked a Siberian fairy tale about how chipmunks got their stripes to explain Kazakhstan’s reasoning. A bear and a chipmunk were friends, the story goes, and the bear in a good mood petted the chipmunk’s back, but scraped it with his claws.

“The moral of this tale is: if you are a friend of the bear—even if you are the best friend, even if he is in a good mood—always watch your back,” Mr. Nurbek said.

One of Kazakhstan’s first signals it wouldn’t be marching in step with Russia came soon after the war began when it abstained from a United Nations vote in early March on a resolution demanding that Russia end the invasion, instead of voting against it. Days later, it dispatched a Boeing 767 carrying 28 tons of medicine to Ukraine, one of several aid flights it has sent.

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Putin’s Unexpected Challenge - Snubs From His Central Asian Allies - article by Evan Gersh
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and ​Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June. Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press

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