Image credit: President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
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.
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.
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.
Alexandra (Sasha) is a Young Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.