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Kazakhstan-EU Relations in a Shifting International System

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This commentary is published as part of IPD’s project, Europe’s Security Order After the Ukraine War.

In the wake of the energy crisis resulting from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has offered to assist the EU – a move met with opposition by the Kremlin. When Kazakhstan suggested it was prepared to provide oil to the EU in July 2022, Russia appeared to respond by temporarily closing the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), which makes up 80% of Kazakhstan’s total oil exports. The pipeline runs from Kazakhstan through Russia to its Black Sea port, where the oil is exported to Europe. This was just one instance of a larger trend that finds Kazakhstan increasingly looking toward the EU for partnership as it questions its relationship with an ever more aggressive Russia. A joint agreement on green hydrogen, raw minerals and batteries signed by the EU and Kazakhstan in November 2022, as well as plans to further develop the Middle Corridor, show that ties between the two continue to strengthen. The fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine could gradually encourage the biggest economy in Central Asia to deepen relations with the EU.

While Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s key partners, cooperating through initiatives such as the Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it refrained from supporting Russia during the 2008 war with Georgia or Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014. This trend has continued during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, as Astana has refused to recognize Russia’s referendums in Ukraine’s Eastern regions and declined to expel a Ukrainian ambassador upon the request of Moscow. In July 2022, Kazakhstan’s President, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, stated that he was “ready to use [Kazakhstan’s] hydrocarbon potential for the sake of stabilization of the global and European markets.” Soon after this statement was made, Russia interrupted the flow of Kazakh oil through its CPC pipeline. In addition to tensions over the CPC, a since-deleted statement made by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, further strained Kazakh-Russian relations. The statement suggested that a region in northern Kazakhstan, which borders Russia and has a significant population of ethnic Russians, could be next after the war in Ukraine.

While Kazakhstan is one of Russia's key partners, cooperating through initiatives such as the Eurasian Economic Union, Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, it refrained from supporting Russia during the 2008 war with Georgia or Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Some in the EU have seen this apparent rift as an opportunity that could lead to further bilateral engagement. Latvian Member of European Parliament (MEP) Andris Ameriks explained that, “Kazakhstan is a very close and important partner for the European Union, especially in today’s reality, when aggressor Russia has shown its ambitions and criminal way on how to reach them. Today we share the same understanding of values with Kazakhstan and we see that it is a hard time for Kazakhstan too.” Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock explained that the EU wants to demonstrate that Central Asia is not left with the choice of either “being straitjacketed in Russia’s front yard or being dependent on China,” but rather, that it has a partner in the EU. However, it is important to acknowledge that this may be difficult in practice, since Kazakhstan is situated in Russia and China’s geopolitical backyard. Further, following his meeting with President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, EU Council President Charles Michel said that, “recent global events have brought the EU and Central Asia closer to each other. Our close cooperation is even more important now than ever.” 

The EU and Kazakhstan have no shortage of projects that have been strengthening their relationship. In November 2022, they signed a “strategic partnership” on green hydrogen, batteries and raw materials as part of the EU’s REPowerEU plan, which aims to reduce the bloc’s reliance on Russian fossil fuels in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Kazakhstan plans to become a major producer of green hydrogen as it has signed an investment agreement to build a production and distribution hub, which would make it one of the world’s largest green hydrogen producers. Kazakhstan is also rich in lithium, which is necessary in the production of batteries that are used not only for electronics such as smartphones and laptops, but also for electric vehicles which are a central feature of the EU’s transition away from fossil fuels.

While the construction of a Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) has long been discussed as a key area for EU – Kazakh engagement, and most recently resurrected as an alternative to Russian natural gas in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, prospects for its development remain slim. Turkmenistan, which would be key in the functioning of the TCP, maintains lukewarm relations with the EU, preferring not to anger Russia and currently exporting the majority of its natural gas to China. Compared with the TCP, the Middle Corridor, also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, is considered to be a more practical approach for facilitating trade between Europe and Central Asia via the Caspian Sea. This corridor could serve as an alternative route for Kazakhstan’s oil shipments, which are currently largely exported through Russian-owned pipelines. Employing oil tankers for shipping Kazakh oil to Europe across the Caspian could circumvent Russia’s pipeline networks, as oil would be shipped to Azerbaijan, across the South Caucasus toward the Georgian coast, from which point it would continue onward to the European market.

Kazakhstan is far from a total reorientation toward the West – last year, Astana had to rely on a Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization intervention to stabilize the country following widespread and deadly unrest, and just last month, Astana signed an agreement with Moscow on cooperation in the gas sector.

As relations between Russia and the EU have deteriorated over the invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan has found itself reassessing its role in an increasingly multipolar world system. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked fear in Kazakhstan about the Kremlin’s intentions toward Kazakhstan’s North, where a relatively large ethnic Russian population resides. It also faces the reality of a Russia that is growing increasingly economically isolated from the West, meanwhile the EU, as well as China, remain stable and globally connected partners. For the moment, Kazakhstan is far from a total reorientation toward the West – last year, Astana had to rely on a Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization intervention to stabilize the country following widespread and deadly unrest, and just last month, Astana signed an agreement with Moscow on cooperation in the gas sector.

Given the increasing number of projects with the EU, such as the agreement on green hydrogen and the Middle Corridor, Kazakhstan appears to be increasingly open to closer cooperation with Europe. However, it does not look like Kazakhstan is abandoning its commitment to a multi-vector foreign policy, defined by balancing diplomatic relations with Russia, China, and the West. Increasingly finding itself in the middle of this complex triangle, Kazakhstan is becoming forced to reassess its strategic and foreign policy objectives, raising important questions about the geopolitics of Eurasia more broadly.

Written By:
Alexandra (Sasha) Slobodov
Alexandra (Sasha) Slobodov is a Young Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

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In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

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Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

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Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

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The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

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Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor