In January 2022, at the invitation of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty (CSTO)’s troops intervened on Kazakh soil to help quell widespread deadly clashes, an unprecedented phenomenon in the country's recent history. Having de facto kept Tokayev in power, the Kremlin expected to count on Kazakhstan’s unconditional support towards its offensive in Ukraine. However, that was not the case.
The Kazakh government waited about a week before announcing a neutral position, based on the respect for the rules of international law and asking for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the conflict, as expressed by President Tokayev at the first congress of the newly born party, Amanat, in early March. Kazakhstan also offered to mediate between the parties and abstained from voting on a resolution condemning the Russian aggression at the United Nations General Assembly. Finally, when expressing the abovementioned positions, Kazakhstan also announced it did not recognize the separatist Lugansk and Donetsk Republics — supported by Russia — as stated by Tokayev at the St. Petersburg Forum on June 18th. In addition, there have been numerous protests by Kazakh civil society against the Russian invasion — which have not been sanctioned by the authorities — as well as several discussions to enhance economic and infrastructural ties with Europe and Western partners.
Kazakhstan's cautious and diplomatic approach around the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has thus been analysed as a possible political, economic, and strategic distancing from the Kremlin. Yet, Kazakhstan’s position is perhaps best seen as a pragmatic one that favours the continuity of conservative international law. The Kazakh position is pragmatic to the point that, after refusing to recognize the Lugansk and Donetsk Republics, Tokayev also argued that “The alliance with Russia [sic] is solid and continues to develop according to the bilateral and multilateral guidelines dictated by the respective agreements and governments”. As he reiterated at the Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia and Kazakhstan “Have no problems that can be manipulated in one way or another, sowing discord between our nations and thus causing damage to our people and to the Russian Federation itself”.All this was reiterated at a bilateral meeting with Putin, which took place in Sochi on August 19th, when Tokayev stated that “There are no reasons for pessimism for the future of Russian-Kazakh relations”. Finally, at the last informal summit of Central Asian heads of state in Cholpon-Ata (Kyrgyzstan) in July, Tokayev suggested inviting both Russia and China as invited guests, thus breaking away from the tradition and significance of these meetings, aimed at bringing together the Central Asian Presidents periodically in the absence of the two neighboring great powers.
It is also important to consider the economic and energy aspects of Russian-Kazakh cooperation. In fact, the Kazakh government has recently mulled over the idea of exporting crude oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline — thereby bypassing Russia — which in turn has created numerous obstacles to the export of Kazakh oil through the Caspian Consortium (CPC) pipeline. Yet, Energy Minister, Bolat Akchulakov, has recently denied the idea that Kazakh oil exports could undergo a significant diversion from the CPC, adding that the country’s main objective “Is to guarantee a total functioning of the CPC, which is the main and most profitable route for Kazakh energy exports”. As such, if the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line is to be considered, it will be only for surpluses in production.Nonetheless, frictions pervade the economic sector, too. In July, Kazakhstan’s Minister of Finance threatened to ban the transit of Western goods subject to sanctions through Kazakh territory, had the normal flow of CPC operations not been restored. This threat was made against the backdrop of another disagreement, with Russia pushing for a ban on Eurasian Union’s grain exports towards developing countries, something that Kazakhstan opposes. Despite these spats, there has been an increase in industrial and technological cooperation, with negotiations over $3 billion projects led by Prime Minister, Alikhan Smailov in Yekaterinburg this past July. Moreover, during the first seven months of 2022, the bilateral trade between the two countries grew by 34%, with the prospect of reaching a historic $20 billion record by the end of the year.
In conclusion, it can be said that — at least officially — Russian-Kazakh cooperation, both at the bilateral and multilateral levels, has not been called into question. Yet, there have been more disagreements in their shared agenda. Additionally, Kazakhstan has made no secret of its preference for established international law in territorial and sovereignty matters, its concerns about sanctions’ impact on the Eurasian area, and its fear for the potential isolation it could suffer should the Russian-Ukrainian conflict continue. In sum, any analysis that emphasises dichotomic narratives of ‘pro’ or ‘against’ Russia are doomed to miss the complexity of Russian-Kazakh relations. Nur-Sultan is well-aware of the structural factors that have bound, bind, and will continue binding Kazakhstan to Moscow.However, this does not prevent the Central Asian giant from playing its cards when its autonomy and development are considerably threatened. Balancing these two positions is not unusual for Kazakh multivectoral pragmatism. However, it may grow incrementally more difficult to sustain in the long run, especially if the war leads to a further deterioration of living conditions for the population and a consequent polarisation thereof. This is why Western and European partners should keep stepping up their engagement with Nur-Sultan and seize every chance they have to constructively leverage Kazakhstan’s growing desire for autonomy and diversification.
 A special note deserves the recent news, very popular in the media, of Kazakhstan's withdrawal from the Interstate Currency Council (MVK) of the CIS. While this has been seen as a ‘stab in the back’ of the Kremlin, in fact the decree was nothing but the mere ratification of the cessation of the work of the country within that institution, which was terminated in 2013. This is an important reminder of how sometimes normal procedural facts are spun by commentators to endorse one narrative or the other.