Analysis | Washington needs a more defined Kazakhstan policy

Mikael Pir-Budagyan

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many countries whose previous behavior was constrained by Moscow’s tight political and economic grip have started diverging from the Kremlin’s perceived sphere of influence. One such country is Kazakhstan. Seen by Russia as yet another post-Soviet republic, Kazakhstan has arguably been the most vocal and direct in its opposition to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. President Tokayev repeatedly rejected recognizing the breakaway regions and called them “quasi-states.” At the same time, the Kazakh government remains a consolidated authoritarian regime, which brings a question of how to approach the increasingly influential central Asian country that differs from Russia but is consistently undemocratic.

Despite Kazakhstan’s strategic importance, U.S. policy toward it remains undefined. In the midst of regional rivalry with Russia and China, the United States cannot afford to maintain the existing policy gap toward a strategically important counterpart. Washington should therefore increase its diplomatic, energy, economic, and developmental cooperation with Kazakhstan.

Kazakh relations with Russia

Compared to other post-Soviet countries, Kazakhstan enjoys greater autonomy in its political, economic, and cultural relations with Russia. All three exhibit clear neocolonial patterns. However, the degree of dependency on the Kremlin differs profoundly from the rest of the states in the region.

Kazakhstan is an official member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), an organization created by Russia in an attempt to provide an integrated alternative to the European Union. Russia dominates the EAEU in advancing its national interests, defying those of the other members. Nevertheless, Astana has always been an integral part of the concept behind the union and therefore enjoys a significant degree of autonomy in its policy options.

Economically, Kazakhstan is a rare regional actor with a long-standing preference for a free market economy (not without corruption, of course, but the general market principles are applied). Despite his rejection of democratic values, former president Nazarbayev emphasized the interconnectedness of Kazakhstan with the global market, decreased state involvement in the economy, and promoted projects sponsored by international financial institutions. Russia’s liberal market days, on the other hand, were short-lived. They culminated in a radical return of state management of the economy with a de facto nationalization of its main sectors.

Politically, it is true that both Russia and Kazakhstan are authoritarian states. Nevertheless, with the accession of Tokayev, there has been a noticeable change in the nature of governance. This reform cannot be called democratization, but it clearly resembles signs of a higher respect for the rule of law than under Nazarbayev. To add, Tokayev does not position himself in the same camp as Russia-supporting authoritarians, which are common in the region and beyond.

Having long served as an interpreter in China, Tokayev seeks to expand Kazakhstan’s long-pursued policy of “multi-vector diplomacy” and cooperation with Beijing, which, if anything, diversifies the playing field and puts Kazakhstan in between the two powerful autocratic neighbors. China is one of the largest investors in Kazakhstan’s transport infrastructure. At the same time, its investment efforts encompass at least 55 major projects related to petrochemicals, energy, and mining industries through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On the other hand, Russia acts as a military ally under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and an important trade partner.

Unlike the other two dimensions, the cultural one is rapidly evolving, especially after the invasion of Ukraine. During the Cold War, the Soviets mistreated Kazakhstan by subjecting it to regular ethnically motivated restrictive policies that led to artificial famines and systemic alienation from the positions of power. Despite these injustices, Kazakhstan has arguably not developed a strong cultural memory of resentment. Unlike Ukraine, Kazakhstan has not established the consciousness of Holodomor, despite the occurrence of such famines under Stalin and the widespread evidence thereof. Similarly, Astana, for diverse reasons, has not actively resisted the Kremlin’s bid to rewrite history and glorify Stalin’s legacy. For this reason, the expressions of national and ethnic consciousness after the February invasion are distinctly more autonomous. Perhaps, the war in Ukraine is the trigger many countries need to reassess their past relations with Russia and definitively determine whether they have been on equal footing.

The need for a better defined U.S. policy toward Kazakhstan

What is there for the United States? Washington’s policy toward Kazakhstan in the past years has been relatively undefined. It is now time to seize the opportunity to return to the region and foster relations with states that before were, if not reluctant, then less capable of close cooperation with the United States. Kazakhstan’s geographic position is strategically important to the United States in the context of its rivalry with China. Washington therefore should keep Kazakhstan available for cooperation with the West by building lasting ties during the regional power grab that occurred after Moscow’s fundamental weakening. Given Kazakhstan’s commitment to diversified foreign policy, close ties with several of the great powers, and growing public discontent with China’s influence in the country, the question of its interest in increased Western involvement is straightforward. As long as the West is willing, Astana will follow suit.

For the United States, relations with Kazakhstan also matter in light of the destabilized situation in Afghanistan. Since the withdrawal, the U.S. capacity to operate in the region has decreased. Washington should focus on maintaining Kazakhstan’s agency and openness to the West in the face of other regional powers, especially when it comes to the protection of regional security. With Russia’s relative retreat, the United States may find itself more capable of building stronger ties with Astana that would complement its multi-vector foreign policy instead of forcing it to join a particular geopolitical camp. U.S. efforts to build stronger ties with Kazakhstan may also allow for a deeper cooperation with other Central Asian states, further amplifying Washington’s regional presence.

Washington should expand its diplomatic cooperation with Astana to help Kazakhstan maintain the balancing position and act as a bridge between Russia, China, and the United States. One important area of cooperation is in development. U.S. aid to Kazakhstan has been declining for the past decade. To reverse this trend, Washington should increase its developmental and investment aid to the country by working on connectivity, infrastructure, and high tech projects alternative to one of Beijing’s BRI.

Ultimately, it is important to distinguish the principle of autocracy vs. democracy and the situation on the ground where one does not always have the leisure to have democracies as partners. The main question is, what kind of an autocratic regime does the U.S. prefer? One that actively supports Russia’s efforts to evade sanctions and fuels the war in Ukraine? Or one that, despite the absence of domestic political freedoms, considers itself culturally distinct from the Kremlin’s project of “Russkyi mir” and actively seeks cooperation with the West?

It is in Washington’s interest to opt for the latter alternative. But to maintain Kazakhstan’s relative autonomy from Moscow, the United States needs to strengthen its diplomatic relations and increase development aid to the country. It should begin now.



The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit for more.

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