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former u.s. ambassador to kazakhstan breaks down recent developments in kazakhstan-russia relations

Former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan Breaks Down Recent Developments in Kazakhstan-Russia Relations

Image source: Ninara/Creative Commons

With recent tension over the Caspian Pipeline Consortium and Kazakhstan’s refusal to recognize the breakaway regions of Ukraine, the Caspian Policy Center asked senior fellow Ambassador (ret.) Richard Hoagland about the current status of Kazakhstan-Russian relations. Ambassador Hoagland previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan from 2008-2011.

1. What is the current state of relations between Kazakhstan and Russia?

 The best adjectives might be correct but sensitive.  From his first term in office, President Putin has made comments that the northern part of Kazakhstan was historically part of the Russian empire and by rights should be rejoined to Russia.  The late Russian Duma member, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, himself born in Almaty, used to agitate for Moscow to take over Kazakhstan.  Not so very long ago, Putin commented that Kazakhstan doesn’t really exist as a country.  Despite these provocations, President Tokayev has calmly made clear that he protects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country.  Putin’s criminal war in Ukraine has raised red flags throughout the former Soviet Union, and certainly in Kazakhstan.  Tokayev’s government has sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and refuses to recognize the so-called independent Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

 2. President Tokayev has ordered a study to be done on a trans-Caspian pipeline that would bypass Russia. Why, and what is the significance of such a project?

 Kazakhstan is a major oil producer and currently exports the great majority of this oil through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) pipeline that passes through Russia.  To “send signals” to Kazakhstan, Moscow has found various reasons to shut down that pipeline from time to time and at other times to limit the amount of Kazakhstan’s oil flowing through it.  A trans-Caspian pipeline from Kazakhstan to Azerbaijan would link Kazakhstan to the Baku-Tbilisi Ceyhan pipeline that delivers Caspian Sea oil to Europe.  Europe, and especially Germany, is under international pressure to stop buying Russian oil.  A new trans-Caspian pipeline would allow Kazakhstan to help make up some of the European deficit.

 3. Kazakhstan has repeatedly refused to recognize the breakaway regions of Ukraine.  How does this decision fit into the country’s foreign policy outlook, and has their refusal to recognize the breakaway regions put them at odds with Russia?

 From the Kremlin’s point of view, Kazakhstan is definitely at odds with Russia.  However, from the viewpoint of the United Nations, international law, and the vast majority of the international community, Kazakhstan has taken the right stance.  That said, Kazakhstan has always naturally been close to Russia, for both historic and economic reasons, and so it is now walking a very fine line.  President Tokayev and his nation deserve strong support from the international community for his principled but risky stand.

 NOTE:  For further detail on Kazakhstan and its current policy, please see “Kazakhstan holds the keys to a new geopolitical balance in Asia” in The Hill.

For current U.S. policy in Central Asia, please see “Top Diplomat Recommits to Pillars of US Policy in Central Asia” in Voice of America.

Ambassador (ret.) Richard E. Hoagland is the Chair of Caspian Policy Center’s Security and Politics Program. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan (2008-2011), Tajikistan (2003-2006) and Charge d’affaires in Turkmenistan (2007-2008). He was also the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia from 2013 to 2015.

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