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Kazakhstan-Russia Relations After the Invasion of Ukraine: Reaching a Turning Point ?

Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Union state, but now an independent state and a key ally of Russia has rejected the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Kazakhstan despite its ties with Russia in all domains has equivocally announced its support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states. While Kazakhstan like Ukraine also has a Russian-speaking population in its northern areas. The Russian invasion has revamped Kazakhstan’s multi-vector foreign policy to engage with multiple actors. While the invasion is still going on, the article explores how Kazakhstan would maintain its position over the matter and how it is pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy to safeguard its political and economic interests.

Photo credits: Lara Jameson


Kazakhstan is considered one of the main Central Asian allies of Russia. Gaining independence in the year of 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan's links to Russia are spread through economic, cultural, geographical, and political ties. It, therefore, came as a surprise when the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, changed his tone towards Russia. Kazakhstan refuses to accept Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory as a government spokesperson summarised “Kazakhstan proceeds from the principles of territorial integrity of states, their sovereign equivalence and peaceful coexistence," (Auyezov, 2022).

This revelation could be understood as part of Kazakhstan's commitment to maintaining territorial integrity and defending its independence via a multi-vector foreign policy. The invasion of Ukraine has reignited fears over territorial sovereignty in Kazakhstan's mostly Russian-speaking North. This re-evaluation of the threat outgoing from Russia engenders a move to closer cooperation with other regional powers such as China. While Kazakhstan will not be able to or want to sever ties with Russia, the war in Ukraine is seen as an opportunity to assert Kazakhstan's sovereignty and deepen its ties to other regional powers.

Kazakhstan’s Multi-vector Foreign Policy and Relations with Russia

Kazakhstan's foreign policy since independence has been categorised as a multi-vector foreign policy, by which it restraints from entering an exclusive alliance system but rather engage with multiple regional powers (Idan & Shaffer, 2011, p. 250) to hold a "neutral position to preserve the freedom to maneuverer about all actors," (Meister, 2018, p. 309). This approach was taken to flee the dependence structures Kazakhstan has inherited through its historical alignment with the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan's multi-vector foreign policy strategy ensured that the state has gone beyond Russia-led organisations to embrace other regional organisations, such as the Shanghai Security Organisation as well as signing on to China's Belt and Road Initiative.

As part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was embedded in a net of infrastructure and economic ties, which continued to be an "impediment to greater independence from Russia" (Meister, 2018, p. 308). Kazakhstan's economy is strongly tilted towards oil and gas, which make up "over 40% of Kazakhstan's state revenues" (Umarov, 2022a). As a landlocked state, pipelines running through neighbouring countries symbolise the state's economic lifeline. One of its most important pipelines is the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), with around 80% of Kazakhstan's oil being exported via that route (Umarov, 2022a). In addition to this, Kazakhstan uses "the Russian port (as well as pipelines) to China and Iran and transports smaller amounts of oil by tanker across the Caspian Sea via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to Europe" (Meister, 2018, p. 315)[FU1] . Despite being dependent on Russian infrastructure, Kazakhstan is seeking new ways to decrease this economic reliance.

While Kazakhstan is a part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Kazakhstan has "accentuated the principle of non-interference into matters of political sovereignty as an essential precondition for economic cooperation" during the drafting process of the EAEU Treaty (Ohle et al., 2020, p. 91). The Treaty also mentions the principles of sovereignty, equality, and territorial integrity. This points to Kazakhstan’s commitment to secure its rights through multi-lateral agreements with its neighbours and rely on a diversified set of cooperation partners.

The Ukraine War, Ethnic Russians and Kazakhstan’s Nationhood

Kazakhstan is a part of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation. The military alliance was established in 2002 (Ohle et al., 2020, p. 90) and has supported Kazakhstan's president Tokayev’s stabilisation during the January 2022 riots in the country. It, therefore, came as a surprise to see Kazakhstan refuse to acknowledge Russia's claims of Ukrainian territory and allow public anti-war protests to take place in Kazakh cities. Indeed, analysts have pointed to the role of nation-building and Kazakhstan’s relation to its Russian-dominated regions as a factor in this change in tone.

On the day of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Putin justified the incursion as a measure to "protect people who, […] have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime" (Putin, 2022). Putin (2022) further argued that he will "demilitarise and 'denazify’[FU2] Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.” In September, Russia annexed four mostly Russian-speaking regions east of Ukraine (Mirovalev, 2022). The justification for Russia's invasion strongly borrows from ideas of responsibility for ethnic Russians in other territories. Some political analysts believe that other factors for Russia’s invasion are fears of Ukraine’s changing its relationship with Europe (Balan, 2022; Kirby, 2021) and false projections of an easy win (Cancian, 2022), which presents a different context to Kazakhstan’s case. The reality of Russia applying the logic of supporting ethnic Russians in other territories shows that this type of argument is a potent one with the initial ability to garner popular support.

In the past, prominent public figures in Russia have openly questioned the historical claim to Kazakhstan's territory. Putin, in 2014, argued that "The Kazakhs never had any statehood "(Najibullah, 2014) and that "President Nazarbayev created [the Kazakh state] after the fall of the Soviet Union" (Najibullah, 2014). Similarly, the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn called for the formation of a 'Greater Russia' through the union of Russia and Russian-dominated peripheries of its neighbouring states. He especially mentions eastern and northern Kazakhstan (Dave, 2007, p. 123).

Kazakhstan's approach to nation-building in its northern and more Russian-dominated regions involved increasing the number of ethnic Kazakh and closely monitoring Russian opposition groups in the region (Bremmer, 1994, p. 620; Zardykhan, 2004, p. 75). On the eve of independence in 1991, Russians made up the majority ethnic group in the country. Following several national policies aiming to build a Kazakh nation and highlight the Kazakh language, the share of Kazakh people within Kazakhstan grew. Simultaneously, the independence in Kazakhstan also drove migration to Russia by mostly Ethnic Russians. Regional analysts argue that ethnic Russian-led political movements to integrate into Russia were localised and did not manage to draw on a big base of supporters (Dave, 2007; Laruelle, 2018), but authorities were also fast to crack down on group leaders (Pannier, 2022). While there appears to be little possibility for separatist movements, the theme of North separatism is still compelling. During the 2014 Crimean Annexation, the potential of a Russian uprising in Kazakhstan was “widely discussed on Kazakh nationalist websites, and social media, [but] appears mostly to be a media creation (Laruelle, 2018, p. 10).

The invasion of Ukraine, along with the official justification by Russia, holds parallels to past rhetoric regarding Kazakhstan. During the nation-building process, Kazakhstan has worked to control the Russian opposition movement through focused policies. While the possibility of separatism seems unlikely due to historical challenges of nation-building, they are deep-seated fears.

Turning away or finding new allies?

With the start of the war, Kazakhstan has been more vocal and critical of Russia's actions. While Kazakhstan is linked to Russia in the realms of security and economy, its multi-vector policy has allowed the state to pursue other avenues of cooperation. As the war in Ukraine has heightened Kazakhstan's threat perception of Russia, the government has been looking to continue its multi-vector foreign policy to ensure its sovereignty and independence. Prior to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting in Uzbekistan in September 2022, Tokayev and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, met. With this meeting, Xi has vowed to support Kazakhstan in "safeguarding national independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity" (Umarov, 2022b). New players will also get involved, such as Turkey, and closer cooperation with other Central Asian states. It remains to be seen how the influx of Russian draught dodgers in Kazakhstan and the continued stress on Russia's economy due to the ongoing war will change Kazakhstan's perception of its big neighbour.

This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.



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