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Kennan Cable No. 51: A Rising Global Player: Kazakhstan’s Foreign Policy in the 2020s

First Page of Kennan Cable No. 51
Wilder Alejandro Sanchez
First Page of Kennan Cable No. 51

Media attention towards Central Asia generally focuses on initiatives announced by the so-called great powers, namely China, the Russian Federation, and the United States. Yet if we are to understand how this great power competition – namely, how the three aforementioned nations are “competing to shape security architectures, as well as norms and practices worldwide” – will unfold in the region, we must also understand the foreign policy objectives and priorities of the Republic of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian governments.[i]

Kazakh foreign policy does not envision itself as a pawn on some Eurasian chessboard, but rather as an independent power with its own objectives and ambitions. Moreover, Kazakhstan is looking to increase its image and influence, in Central Asia and beyond.

Kazakhstan and Great Power Competition

During the presidency of longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbayev (1990–2019), Kazakhstan efficiently balanced its relations with Russia, China, and the U.S. For Kazakhstan to maintain and advance its current status, there are several outstanding issues that Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan’s capital, needs to address.[ii]

Let’s start with China. The two countries share a long border and have long enjoyed close military relations, most recently exemplified by the late 2018 visit by Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Xu Qiliang to Kazakhstan.[iii] China is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (bilateral trade reached $11 billion in 2018), and is a major investor in Kazakhstan through its Belt and Road Initiative. Kazakhstan’s Khorgos Gateway, the biggest dry port in the world, was constructed by Chinese companies.[iv]

Kazakhstan has also maintained cordial bilateral relations with Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russia is Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, with an estimated $18 billion in 2018. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev traveled to Moscow in early April 2019 to meet with President Vladimir Putin to make it clear that relations would remain amicable under his new government.[v] The Kazakh leader has called Russia a “reliable strategic partnerand a good neighbor, which, as one saying goes, is dearer than any relative.”[vi]


Security agreements provide a stable base for the Russian-Kazakh relationship as well as Kazakhstan’s membership to the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. In January 2019, the two governments ratified a deal under which Kazakhstan will assemble Russian military helicopters. That same year, Kazakh troops participated in the Russian-led multinational exercise Centre 2019.

As for the U.S., President Donald Trump and President Nazarbayev met back in January 2018, a high-level meeting which was followed by another in September 2019 in New York between Presidents Trump and Tokayev.[vii] Regular official contacts with senior U.S. officials also occur through the C5+1 group (comprised of the five Central Asian states and the U.S.).[viii] Bilateral trade between Washington and Nur-Sultan reached $2.1 billion in 2018, an important amount (though it pales in comparison with the country’s trade with Beijing and Moscow).[ix] This marked a new milestone in bilateral trade, which has generally increased in recent years; traffic of goods and services reached $1.3 billion in 2017. Major exports from the U.S. to Kazakhstan include machinery, aircraft, and meat, as well as other goods like tobacco, wine, and beer. On the other hand, Kazakhstan’s top products to the U.S. are mineral fuels, iron and steel, and “miscellaneous grain, seeds and fruit (soybeans),” the USTR explains. We can expect that commercial relations between the two countries will decrease in the coming years due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has negatively affected global trade.

President Tokayev, as a two-time minister for foreign affairs, is well positioned to deal with the great powers in the coming years.[x] Nur-Sultan’s approach towards Beijing and Moscow will likely not deviate from that of the Nazarbayev era. Less certain is the future of relations with Washington, and whether the early 2020 trip by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can help create momentum toward deeper cooperation.[xi]

Outstanding issues with the great powers

Despite its preference for stable relations, Kazakhstan faces major challenges in the years ahead in its relationship with the great powers.

One obvious problem is the situation in Xinjiang (also known as East Turkestan), as hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are currently confined to so-called “re-education camps” as part of Beijing’s campaign to eradicate Uyghur culture and identity.[xii] Many ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are also detained in these camps, which has created friction between Nur-Sultan and Beijing. The Kazakh government must walk a fine line, as it wants to help fellow Kazakhs, but cannot afford to confront Beijing directly. Additionally, there are reports that other ethnic Kazakhs are currently forced to work at certain Chinese factories.

Moreover, although Kazakhstan and Russia enjoy close relations, the Kazakh government does not want to return to the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. It has rejected Moscow’s offer to build a nuclear power plant in its territory. President Tokayev’s meetings with President Putin, in which the close relations between the two states are constantly praised, remain vital for efforts to remain in the Kremlin’s good favor.

Kazakhstan also has to be cautious when it comes to both Russia’s and China’s attempts to increase their influence in Central Asia. One tactic used by both governments to cement alliances is by utilizing regional political, economic and security organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States or the Eurasian Economic Union.

The biggest problem Kazakhstan confronts with the U.S. is Washington’s lack of interest in Central Asia in general outside of a greater discussion about Afghanistan. The 2017 National Security Strategy does not mention Kazakhstan by name, but it does say that Washington must work with its Central Asian partners that “are resistant to becoming jihadist safe havens, and prioritize reforms,” and highlights the importance of “the economic integration of Central and South Asia to promote prosperity and economic linkages that will bolster connectivity and trade.”[xiii] Similarly, the recently published U.S. strategy for Central Asia talks about combating terrorism, improving the situation in Afghanistan, and bringing U.S. investment to the region.

Kazakhstan will need to keep these U.S. objectives in mind (as well as active initiatives such as C5+1), while maintaining its status as a beacon for Central Asian investment, in order to strengthen its relations with Washington in the coming years.

Kazakhstan and Central Asian integration

In addition to dealing with the great powers, Kazakhstan has also sought to increase cooperation and improve diplomatic relations with neighboring states. While some tensions and disputes remain, the general outlook for Kazakhstan’s regional relations looks promising.

Relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan continue to improve. There is a plan under negotiation to establish joint visas to allow foreign tourists to visit both nations without requiring two different permits.[xiv] The Joint Uzbek-Kazakh Demarcation Commission is working to agree on a final demarcation of their common border. Furthermore, at a summit meeting in April 2019 between President Tokayev and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the two pledged that bilateral commerce would reach $5 billion by 2020.[xv] Of course, the Covid-19 crisis is an unforeseen event of force majeure that will most certainly affect this objective.

Moreover, in order to improve people-to-people ties, Uzbekistan labeled 2019 the “Year of Kazakhstan in Uzbekistan,” after a parallel announcement the previous year in Kazakhstan.   Both governments organized festivals and ceremonies to celebrate the importance of this initiative.

In pre-COVID-19 times, there were also plans to increase the number of commercial flights between Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in order to ease travel between the two nations.[xvi] Trade between the states reached $900 million in 2018, and the goal was to reach $3–4 billion in the coming years – it is worth stressing that the likely failure to achieve this objective has to do with quarantine measures and not because of a lack of interest by either government to increase trade and integration.

Kazakhstan’s relations with Turkmenistan may improve as well, as the two countries signed an agreement in 2018 that may signal the beginning of a permanent resolution of the Caspian Sea dispute.[xvii] Bilateral trade is limited, but opportunities exist for the two countries to build mutually beneficial infrastructure projects that would boost trade and speed travel.

On the other hand, trade between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is problematic. The two governments originally agreed set a goal of $1 billion in trade this year, but considerable transit delays at the border, particularly the Ak-Tilek checkpoint, now put reaching that goal in doubt. While the health pandemic is also blocking transnational trade, it is important for both governments to reach an agreement for cross-border cargo and roll back other protectionist policies so once the health crisis is under control, trade can flow with greater ease.[xviii]

Kazakhstan and the rest of the world

Kazakhstan is well known for having an ambitious global policy of engagement with extra-regional partners and organizations; the country has joined multinational agencies like the Organization for Security and Co-operation of Europe and the Turkic Council. As of January, Kazakhstan also chairs the Group of Landlocked Developing Countries, a 32-member state initiative under the umbrella of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.[xix]

Furthermore, Kazakhstan remains the only Central Asian nation to have held a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), for 2017–2018. Nur-Sultan took its participation in the UN to a new level when it deployed for the first time a company of 120 peacekeepers to the UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in October 2018.[xx] Prior to 2018, Kazakhstan had contributed only a handful of senior military officers and experts as observers to UN peace missions, about a dozen in total. Thus, the deployment to UNIFIL is the first time that Kazakhstan had sent contingent troops to UN missions, and a new contingent was sent in November 2019. No other Central Asian country has sent this amount of military personnel to UN peace missions.[xxi]

Kazakhstan and the European Union have signed a new trade agreement, the Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA), which entered into force on March 1, 2020. The EU “is Kazakhstan's biggest trade partner [as a bloc], with almost 40% share in its total external trade,” according to the European Commission.[xxii] The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has invested in Kazakhstan’s energy industry by building solar power facilities.[xxiii] The EU and Kazakhstan have also teamed up to provide education to Afghan girls and women living in Kazakhstan.[xxiv] This educational project highlights how Brussels regards Nur-Sultan not solely as a trade partner, but also as a partner for other projects.

The Astana Times reported in April 2018 that, with the establishment of relations with Barbados, Kazakhstan had established diplomatic relations with all Latin American and Caribbean nations.[xxv] At a diplomatic meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in August 2019, Kazakhstan’s Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nurlan Seitimov discussed his interest in emulating Argentina’s model for training its diplomats.[xxvi] While this may sound like a standard goodwill diplomatic statement, it does highlight the diplomatic reach of Kazakhstan, well past the borders of Eurasia, a feat no other Central Asian country has matched.

Priorities for cooperation and integration

There are several areas where Kazakhstan can take a leading role to further cement its status as Central Asia’s powerhouse while helping neighboring states.

One particularly timely issue concerns the repatriation of Kazakh and other Central Asian insurgents who participated in the conflicts in Syria or Libya. Yerlan Karin, advisor to President Tokayev, explained in a lecture on January 28 at George Washington University how Nur-Sultan has facilitated the return and re-integration of some 600 battle-hardened Kazakh nationals and their families in the past couple of years through an initiative called Operation Zhusan.

Kazakhstan’s success with Operation Zhusan could serve as an example for neighboring states like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that also face the issue of returning fighters from the Middle East. Kazakhstan could offer to share its experience and logistical capabilities with these nations, thereby using the repatriation and re-integration into society of these fighters (and their families) as a confidence-building and cooperation mechanism within the region.

The Aral Sea may also emerge as a beneficiary of cordial relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. According to a July 2018 BBC report, Kazakhstan has revived the North Aral Sea and has revived fishing and restored hope to local communities.[xxvii] The Uzbek government needs to do the same, and if Nur-Sultan succeeds in providing help with this process, it could also serve as an effective confidence-building mechanism.

Another goal for the new Kazakh president is to revive the process of Central Asian integration. Former president Nazarbayev first proposed the idea of a regional integration bloc, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan signed an agreement on eternal friendship in 1997. This document gave birth to a short-lived Central Asian Union, which changed names several times until it disbanded in the early 2000s. However, the new president in Uzbekistan seems more interested than his predecessor, the late Islam Karimov, in opening his nation up to its Central Asian neighbors and the rest of the world. This may be the ideal time for President Tokayev to work towards a Central Asian Union 2.0.[xxviii]

The Caspian Sea stands out as difficult challenge for Kazakhstan. In August 2018, the countries that border this body of water (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan) signed an agreement in the Kazakh port city of Aktau pledging to end their border differences over the Caspian Sea.[xxix] Despite this agreement there have been no additional major meetings since then. It may be up to Nur-Sultan to revitalize the process.

Kazakhstan has also gained experience in mediating international disputes. For example, the country hosted a round of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program back in 2013, and has hosted over a dozen rounds of talks intended to find a solution for the conflict in Syria (the “Astana Peace Process”).[xxx] While it is unlikely that the Syrian peace talks will be successful, given the complexity of this conflict, Kazakhstan is building a reputation for hosting negotiations and mediations as alternatives to continued violence.

At the time of this writing, Kazakhstan is dealing with the Coronavirus – there are over three thousand confirmed cases in the country, with over 25 deaths.[xxxi] The government has closed borders, schools, and limited the movement of the citizenry to stop the spread of the virus, and offered welfare payments to compensate for the loss of earnings. The initiatives are similar to those of other regional governments (with the exception of Turkmenistan, which has minimized the size of the epidemic in its territory).[xxxii]

Kazakhstan, a Rising Global Player

Analyses about the developing world and global geopolitics typically focus on the interests and objectives of great powers and major blocs like the European Union. Yet it is vital to keep in mind that all governments have their own set of goals. Central Asia may be a region sandwiched between China and Russia, but it would be wrong to assume that these states, especially Kazakhstan, are prepared to accept the status of vassal or prize to a larger neighbor.

The Kazakh government has worked for decades to build a reputation as a stable and reliable partner—not only in the region but also at the global level. Indeed, Nur-Sultan has sought non-threatening ways to elevate its position as a global player by achieving a greater role in the international community via the United Nations, attempts to mediate disputes, and the establishment of diplomatic and trade relations with geographically distant partners.

This does not mean that geography does not matter. Kazakhstan cannot forget that it has Moscow and Beijing as its neighbors, and its limited options for addressing the suffering of ethnic Kazakhs in the so-called “re-education camps” in China serves as a stark reminder of its position. Nevertheless, the Kazakh government has done a good job at setting ambitious objectives and achieving them.

When we look at the future of global geopolitics in the 2020s, Kazakhstan is a rising global player.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

[i] “Great Power Competition,” Wilson Center,  (website), Available:

[ii] Anna Hayes, “Explainer: Who Are the Uyghurs and Why Is the Chinese Government Detaining Them?” The Conversation,  February 14, 2019, ; and Darkhan Umirkebov, “Kazakhstan: Chinese Kazakhs Arrested, Face Trial in Remote Location,” Eurasianet, October 15, 2019,

[iii] Catherine Putz, “Why Is China's Top Military Official Visiting Central Asia?” The Diplomat, September 7, 2018,

[iv] For more information about Khorgos, see: Beibut Atamkulov, “China and Kazakhstan to Embrace New Stage of Ties,” Global Times, March 28, 2019, Also see “Khorgos: The Biggest Dry Port in the World,” South China Morning Post, No date,

[v] “Putin Hopes Tokayev’s Visit Will Give Fresh Impetus to Russia-Kazakhstan Ties,” TASS, April 3, 2019,

[vi] George Voloshin, “Kazakhstan Reaffirms Ties to Russia as It Enters the Final Stage of Leadership Succession,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 16, no. 50, The Jamestown Foundation (website), April 9, 2019,

[vii] “Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Donald Trump Meet in New York,” Kazinform, September 25, 2019,

[viii] “C5+1 FACT SHEET: Central Asian-U.S. Forum to Enhance Regional Economic, Environmental, and Security Cooperation,” U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan (website), July 24, 2019, Also see “Senior State Department Official Heads to Central Asia Summit of Five Countries,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (website), August 19, 2019,; “U.S. to 'Strengthen' Ties with New Kazakh Government,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (website), July 3, 2019,; and “Secretary Pompeo’s Participation in the Tashkent C5+1 Ministerial,” U.S. Department of State, Office of the Spokesperson (website), February 3, 2020,

[ix] “Kazakhstan: U.S.-Kazakhstan Trade Facts,” Office of the United States Trade Representative (website), September 9, 2019,

[x] An October 2019 presidential decree stated that President Tokayev must obtain approval from former President Nazarbayev before appointing ministers. It is generally assumed that Kazakhstan now has two presidents, given the ongoing influence of Nazarbayev and his family in the country. It is beyond the scope of this analysis to discuss how often Tokayev consults with Nazarbayev when it comes to foreign policy issues. See “Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev to Confirm Ministers, Governors: Decree,” Reuters, October 21, 2019,

[xi]National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, December 2017), 50.

[xii] Anna Hayes, “Explainer: Who Are the Uyghurs and Why Is the Chinese Government Detaining Them?” The Conversation (website), February 14, 2019,

[xiii]  National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, December 2017), 50.

[xiv] Naubet Bisenov, “Joint Visa Plan Opens Doors for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” Nikkei Asian Review, March 16, 2019,

[xv] Malika Orazgalieva, “Kazakh President Visits Uzbekistan, Assures Current Bilateral Policies Will Continue,” The Astana Times, April 22, 2019,

[xvi] Abdul Kerimkhanov, “Kazakhstan, Tajikistan to Increase Number of Flights,” AzerNews, March 5, 2019,

[xvii] Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia and 4 Other Nations Settle Decades-long Dispute Over Caspian Sea,” New York Times, August 12, 2018,

[xviii] “Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan Trade Hiccups Force Questions on EAEU,” Eurasianet (website), July 29, 2019, Also see Assel Satulbadina, “Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Agree to Bring Trade Turnover by $1 billion in 2020,” Astana Times, July 19, 2019,

[xix] Josephine Freund, “Kazakhstan Now Chairs Group of Landlocked Developing Nations,” Caspian Policy Center (website), January 30, 2020,

[xx] Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, “Peacekeeping Contributor Profile: Kazakhstan,” Providing for Peacekeeping (website), March, 2019,

[xxi] Kyrgyzstan has sent five experts and police officers and Tajikistan has sent four police officers to UN missions. There are no contributions from Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan as of January 31, 2020. See “Troop and Police Contributors,” United Nations Peacekeeping (website),

[xxii] European Commission (website), “Countries and Regions: Kazakhstan,” updated March 9, 2020,

[xxiii] Emiliano Bellini, “100 MW Saran Solar Park Commissioned in Kazakhstan,” PV Magazine, January 24, 2019,

[xxiv] Georgi Gotev, “EU Supports Kazakh Programme to Educate Afghan Women,” Euractiv (website), September 7, 2018,

[xxv] “Kazakhstan Completes Establishment of Diplomatic Relations with All Latin American Countries,” Astana Times, April 4, 2019,

[xxvi] “Kazakhstan and Argentine Diplomatic Academies Intend to Collaborate as Part of Diplomats’ Training,” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan, August 6, 2019,

[xxvii] Dene-Hem Chen, “The Country that Brought a Sea Back to Life,” BBC, July 23, 2018,

[xxviii] Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, “Is the Time Ripe for a Central Asian Union 2.0?” Diplomatic Courier (website),  Central Asia, July 8, 2019,

[xxix]  “Convention on Caspian Sea's Legal Status to Be Signed on August 12, Kremlin Says,” Radio Free Liberty/Free Europe (website), August 10, 2018,

[xxx] Togzhan Kassenova, “Iran Nuclear Talks in Kazakhstan: Remember When Diplomacy Worked,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (website), February 25, 2013, Also see W. Alex Sanchez, “The View from Syria’s Peace Talks,” Foreign Policy in Focus, September 13, 2019,

[xxxi][xxxi] “Number of confirmed cases in Kazakhstan exceeds 3,000,” TASS, April 28, 2020,

[xxxii] “Turkmenistan defies pandemic to celebrate national horse day,” AFP, April 27, 2020,

About the Author

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

Independent journalist

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere and post-Soviet regions. He has published in journals like Small Wars and Insurgencies, Defence Studies, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, The Polar Journal, European Security, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, and Perspectivas, among others.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more