Kazakhstan: moving on?

There are interesting things happening in Kazakhstan, just as an important summit being attended by President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping, along with the leaders of India and Iran, takes place in Central Asia this week.

According to several unconfirmed reports, Kazakhstan is planning to withdraw from its membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in early 2023. Government officials in Kazakhstan have now apparently denied those claims.

The reports were issued by various media organisations in Ukraine; in turn, Russian officials dismissed the speculation, and a Kazakh news site quoted the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, as saying: “All the talk that Kazakhstan has allegedly cooled off and, moreover, is going to withdraw from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), from the CSTO is absolutely untrue.” At the same time he admitted that that the relationship between his country and Moscow was no longer as strong as has been taken for granted, both in the West and in the ex-Soviet space.

Kazakhstan gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Central Asian nation is the location of hugely valuable mineral resources and there has been a great deal of investment in the oil and gas sector in particular over the last three decades.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a Russia-led military alliance similar to that of NATO. Formed in 1992, it currently comprises six post-Soviet states: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan. These countries are not permitted to join any other military alliances. According to Article 4 of its Collective Security Treaty (CST), an attack against one participating state is seen as an attack against all; this closely reflects Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Most recently, in January 2022, the CSTO deployed 2,000 of its peacekeeping forces to Kazakhstan, in response to massive demonstrations taking place in the capital, Astana, and other cities, as thousands of citizens gathered to protest against rising energy prices, the poor overall economic situation in the country, political corruption, and the lack of democratic reform.

The CSTO forces were reportedly largely confined to maintaining security at strategic critical locations. Tokayev claimed that they had not been involved in any fighting: rather he preferred to admit that he had personally given the order for his country’s own forces to “open fire with lethal force” against people he described as “bandits and terrorists”, resulting in the reported deaths of dozens of protesters and arrests of thousands more.

The news that Kazakhstan might withdraw from the CSTO followed on closely from recent new skirmishes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, countries which have been engaged in hostilities for many years. A six-week war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020 led to more than 6,000 people being killed, and last week renewed fighting broke out, with soldiers on both sides losing their lives. While the 2020 hostilities ended with a peace deal brokered by Moscow, Russia, which traditionally supports Armenia, is reported this time to have declined to send in troops to help its ally. This in turn has led to some speculation that Armenia may too withdraw from the military alliance, as the country’s officials had asked for military help from the CSTO, but this had not been provided. This failure to support an ally has led to calls within Armenia itself for a withdrawal from the alliance, such as from former Prime Minister and leader of the “Republic” party, Aram Sargsyan.

Tom de Waal, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, commented that Russia is “massively overstretched in Ukraine” and “doesn’t want to pick a fight with Azerbaijan at this point”. In other words, the Kremlin has neither the resources nor the political will to divert its forces elsewhere at this critical moment.

These developments, in both Kazakhstan and Armenia, all point to a perception that Russia’s influence in Central Asia is waning – due in large part to Putin’s offensive actions in Ukraine. Despite this, the Russian government continues to paint itself as a force of good, issuing thinly-veiled threats against a range of former Soviet states. Kazakhstan, perhaps the most important of its neighbouring states from both an economic and political standpoint, appears to be of particular interest.

Last month it was reported that former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev had made a post on VK, the Russian social media site, claiming that Kazakhstan was “an artificial state” and accusing the country of committing “genocide on its Russian population”, as well as “relocating” various ethnic minorities. A spokesman for Medvedev immediately claimed that the account had been hacked and the post was taken offline within minutes, though not before many screenshots of it had been saved. However, what was written undoubtedly reflected the views frequently advanced by Putin’s stand-in for the presidency from 2008-2012, and those comments mirror almost exactly those voiced by the Kremlin in the Russian regime’s attempts to justify its invasion of Ukraine.

All of this is taking place just as China’s influence in Kazakhstan continues to evolve. The two countries have developed their political and economic relationship at an increasing pace since 1992. Importantly, Kazakhstan recognises and supports Beijing’s One China policy regarding Taiwan. In addition, it is a vital partner in China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Putin and Xi are meeting for their summit in Central Asia this week, and according to reports, Xi has warned that Russia must respect the territorial integrity of Kazakhstan. He was quoted as saying: “I would like to assure you that the government of China pays huge attention to relations with Kazakhstan. However the international situation changes, going forward we will also resolutely support Kazakhstan in the defense of its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; firmly support the reforms conducted by you to assure stability and development; [and] categorically come out against interference by any forces in the internal affairs of your country.”

While this blog has sought to provide a brief overview of the current developments regarding Kazakhstan’s relationship with its two hugely powerful neighbouring states, the issue of cyber attacks and threats should not be forgotten or even sidelined. We have followed the activities of various hacktivist collectives – both Russian and Ukraine-backed – currently actively participating in attacks against a wide variety of organisations on both sides of the war and enjoying some notable successes; campaigns launched by state-sponsored APTs are also closely monitored. If the current cooling of the relationship between Russia and Kazakhstan continues, we would expect to see similar cyber operations being conducted, whether focusing on cyber-espionage, disruptive DDoS attacks or data leaks, or even disinformation campaigns. Organisations currently engaged in business or other activities in Kazakhstan are therefore advised to ensure that all cyber-security practices and defences are properly maintained and kept fully up-to-date.

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