With his power threatened by popular unrest and elite infighting in January, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev called in Russian troops in a move that many observers thought would sacrifice Kazakhstan's independence and make Toqaev beholden to Moscow.
But four months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, Toqaev seemingly disproved that notion by defying the Kremlin while on stage with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17.
The Russian leader had earlier advanced the contentious claim on stage that the entire former Soviet Union is part of “historical Russia” and that other countries could face a similar fate to Ukraine if they also openly defied Moscow.
When asked in St. Petersburg about Russia’s war by moderator Margarita Simonyan -- the editor in chief of the Russian news channel RT -- Toqaev stated that Nur-Sultan does not recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region that Russia has declared independent countries.
“It has been calculated that if the right of nations to self-determination were actually implemented across the globe, then instead of the 193 states that now make up the UN there would be more than 500 or 600 states on Earth,” Toqaev said. “Naturally, it would be chaos.”
He added that “for this reason we do not recognize Taiwan, or Kosovo, or [the breakaway Georgian regions of] South Ossetia or Abkhazia. This principle will be applied to quasi-state entities, which, in our opinion, Luhansk and Donetsk are.”
While the statement is not the first time a high-ranking Kazakh official has voiced displeasure about Russia’s invasion and attempts to break apart Ukrainian territory, the bold reiteration made while sitting next to Putin highlights how Russian partners like Kazakhstan are looking to distance themselves from Moscow’s invasion and the growing friction they are experiencing while walking a fraying diplomatic tightrope.
“It was courageous to do that right on the stage with Putin,” William Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at RAND who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL. “Moscow’s posture is becoming more and more aggressive towards its neighbors and it’s possible the frustrations over [the war in] Ukraine will impact its attitude even more. That means Kazakhstan could come under more pressure in the future.”
Walking A New Tightrope
Toqaev’s comments in St. Petersburg came after some hard-line Russian commentators made territorial claims for Russia on parts of northern Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population and has surfaced in Russian nationalist discourse since the collapse of the Soviet Union -- along with eastern Ukraine -- as an area of potential annexation.
But, as the Ukraine war has progressed, Kazakhstan has increasingly shown greater independence from Moscow than many expected.
In addition to not recognizing the Moscow-backed separatist entities in Ukraine, Nur-Sultan canceled a military parade to celebrate Victory Day, a prominent holiday to mark the Soviet Union’s contribution to victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Kazakhstan has also been treading carefully to avoid violating Western sanctions against Russia and tried to balance public opinion at home with growing aversion to Moscow's foreign policy and pro-Ukraine demonstrations across the country.
Nur-Sultan has also looked to expand cooperation in rerouting energy supplies to Europe that bypass Russia and, during a June 15 interview with the state-run Rossia-24 television station, Toqaev said Nur-Sultan would not help Moscow get around the new sanctions regime and also pushed back against assertions that his country was indebted to Russia following the deployment of troops in January by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) -- the military bloc that Russia led during its intervention in Kazakhstan.
“In Russia, some people distort this whole situation, asserting that Russia supposedly ‘saved’ Kazakhstan, and Kazakhstan should now eternally ‘serve and bow down to the feet’ of Russia,” he said during the interview. “I believe that these are totally unjustified arguments that are far from reality.”
Those comments received a swift response in Russia, with nationalist lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin calling Kazakhstan's territorial integrity into question.
“They know too well that a whole range of regions and settlements with a predominantly Russian population have had a weak relationship with what has been called Kazakhstan,” he said in a radio interview.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov also posted a video criticizing Kazakhstan and other members of the CSTO for their lack of support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and said Nur-Sultan’s sovereignty in the northern part of the country was eroding.
Despite Toqaev’s comments about Russia’s designs for Ukraine and the ensuing blowback from nationalist circles, the majority of the Kazakh leader’s appearance alongside Putin focused on ways to keep building ties with Russia amid its economic isolation from the West and even praised the Russian president for fostering strong ties with Kazakhstan over the years.
“Kazakhstan will continue to find ways to cooperate and work with Russia despite all the fallout from Moscow’s invasion,” said Courtney. “But Russian nationalist calls about northern Kazakhstan are a very serious thing for the [Kazakh government]. It’s a raw nerve that is being pressed.”
Navigating these difficult fault lines between Kazakhstan and Russia is not new for Toqaev or Nur-Sultan, but Moscow’s invasion has raised the stakes.
Toqaev is a seasoned diplomat who previously served as prime minister, foreign minister, a UN director in Geneva, and speaker of the Senate. He also played an intimate role in crafting Kazakhstan’s foreign policy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Kazakhstan has long tried to strike a balance between its two powerful neighbors, Russia and China, while also maintaining strong ties with the United States and the European Union. Nur-Sultan has also sought to build up ties with other regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey.
In the aftermath of the Ukraine war, Kazakhstan has doubled down on this strategy, welcoming Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and also deepening outreach to Ankara and Tehran. Toqaev made a state visit to Turkey in May and left with promises of boosting trade and rerouting trade lines along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that passed through Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe to now move through Turkey.
He also received strong pledges of support from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in statements that were meant to be heard by Moscow.
Similarly, Toqaev made a June 19 visit to Iran in an effort to boost relations and increase bilateral trade.
The renewed outreach to other powers is meant to lessen Kazakhstan’s dependence on Russia, experts say, and is part of a wider recalibration under way for Russia’s neighbors since its February invasion of Ukraine.
“Recalibration still means that some things have changed for the long run,” Zachary Witlin, a senior analyst at the consultancy Eurasia Group, told RFE/RL. “It’s difficult for any former Soviet republic neighboring Russia to look at what’s happening in Ukraine and not wonder where else that is possible.”