As events in Kazakhstan seem to be stabilizing, a new era in the life of the Central Asian country is about to begin. Nur-Sultan – or rather Astana – is likely to become an even closer partner of Russia, ending the era of multi-vector foreign policy. But Kazakhstan is not only strategically important. What is at stake for Moscow and the international community with this player, hitherto largely marginalized on the global chessboard?
First of all, it is worth taking a look at the geopolitical and strategic location of Kazakhstan. As the largest landlocked country in the world – since the Caspian Sea offers no access to the world ocean – one might think that the country’s opportunities are limited. But we couldn’t be more wrong! Kazakhstan effectively acts as both a gateway to Central Asia and a bridge between Europe and Asia. It is no accident that it became a founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union. In fact, the One Belt, One Road initiative – referred by China as the New Silk Road – was first unveiled during Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan at the Nazarbayev University, in 2013. As a result of its multi-vector foreign policy and increasing Chinese investment in the country, alongside Russia, Nur-Sultan’s most important foreign trade partner is China. Like Russia, China has a vital political and economic interest in the stability of Kazakhstan.
“Kazakhstan plays a crucial role in land cargo transport, with 70% of goods from China to Western Europe passing through the country”
With the second longest border in the world, it is crucial for Russia to secure its southern neighbor. In a case of instability, not only is it impossible to close the 7,600-kilometre border, but it also provides Moscow with vital connections to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Without Kazakhstan, it is practically impossible for any external power to reach the countries of Central Asia. But the latter has also been recognized more and more by Turkey, which in recent years has been active in the field of foreign policy.
Ankara is attempting to consolidate its influence within Kazakhstan and the Central Asian region in the framework of the so-called Great Turan project, which embraces pan-Turkic ideology. Although Turkey’s presence in Kazakhstan has so far been mainly cultural, scientific and religious – aka by the means of soft power – it has nevertheless begun to create a considerable pro-Turkish group in the Kazakh society. In total, 26 Turkish-affiliated educational institutions operate in Kazakhstan, and there is also considerable other educational cooperation between Turkish and Kazakh universities.
“So it is no coincidence that the Turkish and Azeri press – or, in fact, Turkish political actors – have expressed their loud dissatisfaction with the events in Kazakhstan”
Because with the presumed further shift towards Russia, Ankara’s plans have been shaken. The pan-Turkic idea, known as the Great Turan, would have seen Kazakhstan as the second step after Azerbaijan towards the Turkic ethnic and language areas of Central Asia – and even Russia. But Turkey was too late, and the Kazakh leadership, overcoming instability with Russia’s help, would definitely move towards Moscow. Although the Organization of Turkic States – also known as Turkic Council – held an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday on Kazakhstan and Turkish political actors are now calling for the creation of a ‘Turkic NATO’, the Turkish ambitions in Central Asia have been bogged down in the sand.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan receives a map of the ‘Turkish world’ as a gift.
In addition to geopolitics, Kazakhstan is also a key military and security priority for Russia, with a number of Russian military installations in the country. The most important of these are the space port of Baikonur, the Sary Shagan anti-ballistic missile testing range, and also parts of the Russian Kapustin Yar rocket launch and development site extending into Kazakhstan. Other noteworthy facilities in Sary Shagan include the air base ‘Kambala’ used to serve the site and the Dnieper early warning radar. The latter, connected to the Russian early-warning radar network, is used to detect potential targets from the south for missile defense systems, although its importance is now secondary following the construction of the Voronezh radar network in Russia.
“From the launch of Sputnik in 1957, through Yuri Gagarin’s space flight, to the present day, Baikonur has been a prominent site in the Russian space program”
Although with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the spaceport was transferred to Kazakhstan, according to the bilateral treaty in force, Russia is guaranteed the use of the facility until 2050 for an annual rent of $115 million. Among others, 25,000 of the 76,000 inhabitants of the city are Russian citizens, who are almost exclusively employed by Roscosmos.
Although the importance of Baikonur will gradually decrease in the future with the development of the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Far East, Moscow will still need the facility for the foreseeable future. Although the number of launches fluctuates from year to year – 7 out of 17 in 2020 and 14 out of 25 in 2021 – the Kazakh space center in Kazakhstan remains the most important for the Russian space program. Just look at the construction of Vostochny, which has been riddled with corruption, scandals and quality assurance problems, to see that it will take many years before it can become a real competitor to Baikonur.
The same is true for the Angara program, designed to replace the Proton launch vehicles based in Baikonur. Russia intends to phase out the Proton launches in 2024 and replace them with the Angara family from 2025. However, the slow pace of the latter program – also largely related to Vostochny – raises questions about whether the planned deadline can be met. Otherwise, the Proton missiles from Baikonur could still be with us in 2025 or beyond.
“Unlike Baikonur, the Sary Shagan testing range has no alternative in Russia”
Designed to test ballistic missiles and interceptor systems, the proving ground itself covers an area of 81,200 square kilometers – 2,300 square kilometers larger than the Czech Republic. In operation since the late 1950s, this test range is the most important facility for Soviet and Russian ballistic missile development. The purpose of Sary Shagan is to study the flight parameters of ballistic missiles and warheads in the final stage of their trajectory, which are launched from the aforementioned Kapustin Yar experimental facility. In addition, practically all air defense systems, laser and hypersonic weapons in service in the Soviet Union or Russia have been tested on this range. In 1961, for the first time in the world, the V-1000 interceptor missile of the A-35 anti-ballistic missile system succeeded in destroying the warhead of an incoming ballistic missile in the Sary Shagan area.
Testing of an interceptor missile probably belonging to the S-550 air defense system – formerly known as Nudol – in the Sary Shagan area in 2020.
In relation to hypersonic weapons, the 13th “Dombarovsky” Rocket Division deserves a special note. This military formation is based in the Orenburg region of Russia, with its headquarters in Yasny, and is subordinate to the 31st Rocket Army. This base has been one of, if not the most important facility of the Strategic Rocket Forces – RVSN – since the Soviet period. Located in the hinterland of the Eurasian continent, far from the range of most possible enemy missile strikes, Dombarovsky is home to the most important intercontinental ballistic missiles – ICBMs – of the Russian arsenal, the R-36M2 Voevoda and the UR-100N. While the former is the largest and heaviest missile currently in service in the world, known to NATO as the SS-18 ‘Satan’, the latter serves as the launch vehicle for the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. And once the rearmament of the first missile regiment to Avangard is completed in 2021, Dombarovsky’s importance will only increase in the context of the hypersonic competition worldwide.
“Given that the silos of the 13th Rocket Division are located less than 20 kilometers from the Kazakh border, Moscow’s concern to secure the region is understandable. With a potentially unstable or, God forbid, hostile Kazakhstan, the most important facility of the Russian nuclear and hypersonic deterrent force would be at serious risk”
As a member of the ODKB, Kazakhstan is also an important Russian military partner. Nur-Sultan, like Belarus and Armenia, has access to military equipment at a more favorable price than the export market, i.e. at Russian domestic prices. Considering that 90 percent of the entire Kazakh Air Force and ground forces use Russian or Soviet-origin equipment, Moscow’s assistance is essential for the operation and modernization of the armed forces. Among other things, in recent years Kazakhstan has modernized its air force with Su-30SM fighters and Mi-35M attack helicopters, while the ground forces have been reinforced with BTR-82A troop carriers and Buk-M2E air defense systems. In the future, it is expected that a unified Russian-Kazakh air defense structure could be established, following the Armenian and Belarusian models.
As in the field of security policy, Kazakhstan and Russia are very closely intertwined in the economic sphere. In the pre-pandemic period, the volume of Kazakh-Russian trade reached $20 billion a year, one of the largest in the post-Soviet space. Over the last 20 years, Russia has invested a total of $50 billion in Central Asia, of which $40 billion has been directed to Kazakhstan. As in the case of hydrocarbon exploration – such as the Gazprom-affiliated Karachaganak and Lukoil’s Kashagan projects – Russian companies are major players in other mining activities.
“While Rosatom is understandably interested in uranium extraction, Rusal, as the majority owner of the largest Kazakh coal mine supplying Kazakh thermal power plants, wants to increase Bogatyr Komir’s annual output from 42 to 50 million tons”
Moreover, according to Andrei Grozin, head of the Department of Central Asia and Kazakhstan at the Institute of CIS Countries, a significant proportion of Russian machinery production capacity is focused on Kazakh orders, from manufacturing to automotive. For example, the Kamaz truck manufacturer operates a separate assembly plant on Kazakh territory. The economies of the 12 Russian regions bordering Kazakhstan are inextricably linked to the neighboring country, from Saratov to Novosibirsk. Moreover, according to Grozin, the number of Russian-Kazakh joint ventures far exceeds the number of Russian-Chinese ones.
“Finally, it is also important to briefly mention the significant ethnic Russian population in Kazakhstan”
According to the latest 2021 census, there are 3.5 million people who identify themselves as ethnic Russians in the country, most of them living in a roughly contiguous block in the northern regions, centered around Pavlodar and Kostanay. Although following the collapse of the Soviet Union, emigration has almost halved the number of Russians in Kazakhstan, they still represent 18.4 percent of the total population. The reasons for emigration include not only inferior living conditions but also a lack of opportunities. In fact, the Russian population is not linked to the clan – zhuz – structure, which is a major determinant of the labor market. Among Kazakhstani Russians, the older age group is in a significant majority, with only 15 per cent of the minority made up of young people. Most of them move to Russia in search of better alternatives.
Although the Kazakh constitution, unlike Kyrgyz, recognizes Russian as a regional rather than a state language, it is still a commonly used intermediary language in the country. Though Kazakh currently also uses the Cyrillic alphabet, according to Nazarbayev’s decision in 2017, it must switch to Latin script by 2025.
“The main threat to the Russian minority in Kazakhstan is emigration and slow assimilation, with a dangerous phenomenon similar to that in Ukraine also being observed in 2021”
Self-proclaimed nationalist language guards have appeared in public institutions across the country, forcing people to use Kazakh. Self-proclaimed nationalist language guards have appeared in public institutions across the country, forcing people to use Kazakh. Although Ivan Safranchuk, Director of the Centre for Eurasian Studies at MGIMO, says it was not a centrally organized action by the authorities, the increasing dynamics of such incidents are a cause for concern. The deployment of peacekeeping forces in Kazakhstan was probably an important measure to ensure the safety of the large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population, in addition to strategic interests.
“It is difficult to predict what the future holds. It is likely that a change in the multi-vector foreign policy will bring the government led by Tokayev even closer to Russia, which will definitely ask for certain concessions in return for assistance”
In this regard, it is worth quoting a tweet by RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. According to the points she raises, the Kazakh leadership should recognize Crimea as Russian territory, restore the Cyrillic alphabet and recognize Russian as a state language. It should also allow Russian-language educational institutions to operate peacefully, remove anti-Russian NGOs and conduct a “transparent fraternal internal policy” to the exclusion of nationalist forces. What will ultimately be achieved is a question for the future.