A Troubling Horizon for Kazakhstan’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Max Perin, Jun 21, 2023

In terms of historical and geographic attributes that affect a country’s ability to accrue power and autonomy, Kazakhstan has, in many respects, drawn the short end of the stick. First, it is an exceptionally young state. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became a formally independent state for the first time only in 1991. Second, it is not a populous state. Despite its immense physical size, Kazakhstan possesses one of the lowest population densities on the planet, a fact that places meaningful restrictions on the state’s capacity for rapid economic growth. Third and crucially, Kazakhstan’s location places an immense burden on the country’s foreign policy. In stark contrast to a nation like the U.S., whose isolated geographic position provides a considerable geopolitical advantage, Kazakhstan not only borders five other states but is also nestled directly between two superpowers, Russia and China [1].

Despite these seemingly limiting factors, Kazakhstan has done quite well for itself over the past thirty years. In addition to successfully converting its vast petroleum reserves into a source of economic development, Kazakhstan, despite its proximity to Russia and China, has prevented either state from defining the foreign policy of Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital [2]. In fact, Kazakhstan has maintained a robust set of economic and strategic partnerships not only with Russia and China but also with nearby Turkic states, the European Union, and the U.S. A crucial factor in this success has been Kazakhstan’s multi-vector approach to foreign policy — a brand of foreign relations premised on pragmatic considerations at the expense of ideological concerns [3]. In essence, rather than formally ally with any one state or set of states, Kazakhstan has attempted to establish a broad array of partnerships with a wide variety of nations while avoiding the sort of close strategic relationships with one nation that could potentially alienate several others. While other former Soviet states such as Latvia and Belarus have placed all their strategic eggs in the baskets of the U.S. alliance system and Russia, respectively, Kazakhstan has pursued robust economic integration with China through the Belt and Road initiative, a collective security agreement and a high volume of trade with Russia, joint military exercises with NATO, as well as substantial foreign investment from U.S. oil companies [4].

A Troubling Future for Multi-Vectorism

However, the increasingly zero-sum nature of diplomatic partnerships may force Kazakhstan to firmly align with or against certain great powers in the coming decade. This unraveling of multi-vector foreign relations will occur primarily due to a lack of common economic interest between Kazakhstan and its partners, in conjunction with strategic pressures due to rising great power competition [5].

The economic forces holding together many of Kazakhstan’s diplomatic partnerships will substantially weaken in the coming decades. Despite the past importance of the nation’s petroleum industry, diversification away from oil assets is both an inevitability and a current high priority for the Tokayev administration (Kazakhstan’s current government) for a few reasons. Most obviously, these resources are finite, a fact that has prompted Kazakhstan to take on ambitious decarbonization goals [6]. However, not only does overwhelming economic reliance on oil production and exports hinder these initiatives, it poses a significant risk of severe economic shocks given the heavy volatility that comes with an economy premised on a single exported commodity. For instance, reducing government fossil fuel subsidies caused energy prices to skyrocket past anticipated margins and reverberate throughout Kazakhstan’s economy, prompting mass civil unrest in early 2022 [6]. More recently, the war in Ukraine has brought to light the possibility of severe limitations on Kazakhstan's export capacity. Since the war has inflated the prices of exported commodities and forced various international businesses to relocate from Russia to Kazakhstan, it has had a net positive economic impact on Kazakhstan. However, these gains have been limited by shocks to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, a key route for Kazakhstan’s oil exports running through Russia, due to international sanctions on Russia and Russian antagonism towards Kazakhstan for its support of Ukraine [7]. These factors collectively ensure that despite the critical role of petroleum production in Kazakhstan’s past economic growth, oil cannot function as the foundation of Kazakhstan’s financial future.

A meaningful reduction in Kazakh oil production would deal a severe blow to the country’s current bilateral relationships. Reducing the scale of its petroleum exports would force Kazakhstan to reduce the strength of its most enticing diplomatic carrot. Often, forging close diplomatic ties with a great power while holding existing ties with the adversaries of that great power requires a great deal of leverage. In the past, the allure of a lucrative economic partnership with an oil-rich country has provided Kazakhstan with sufficient leverage [2]. For instance, close relationships between Kazakhstan and American oil companies have historically encouraged Washington to turn a blind eye to some of Kazakhstan’s more unsavory partnerships with U.S. adversaries [8]. But, as Kazakhstan abandons its status as a petrostate, the mutual pragmatic incentives that underpin relationships of this sort would be jeopardized.

Furthermore, as international tensions rise due to escalating great power competition, new wedges are being driven between Kazakhstan and its international partners. U.S. sanction regimes on Russia and Russian allies due to the war in Ukraine have made strategic relationships with the U.S. and Russia functionally zero-sum [9]. The provision of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and other efforts by Kazakhstan to maintain a bare-minimum level of goodwill with the U.S. has alienated Putin and resulted in aggressive rhetoric from prominent officials in the Kremlin [10]. This hostility reflects a sharp deviation from events only a year prior, when the world interpreted Russian military assistance used to repress Kazakh civil unrest as a sign of increasing cooperation between Astana and Moscow [11]. The Biden Administration has further exacerbated these tensions by framing geopolitical competition as a battle between democracy and autocracy, a sentiment widely expressed in the most recent U.S. National Security Strategy [12]. As divisions between the U.S. alliance system and various rising or revisionist powers become more defined and polarized, strategies of mutual alignment, such as Kazakhstan’s multi-vector approach to foreign policy, will likely become increasingly unsustainable.

Kazakhstan’s economic integration with China may also function as a source of divisiveness. Through the Belt and Road initiative, China has dedicated substantial resources to constructing ports, rail lines, and other hubs for economic and cultural connectivity between Kazakhstan and East Asia. Nurly Zhol, Kazakhstan’s ongoing program to revitalize the nation’s trade and transportation infrastructure, has depended heavily on Chinese support [13]. While the crux of cooperation between these two countries has been economic in nature, their close ties have also expanded to the realm of security cooperation, evidenced by Kazakhstan’s increasing participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Eurasian collective defense organization that includes China, Kazakhstan, and several other states [14]. While the world has not yet seen a sharp rise in tensions between the U.S. and China akin to the war in Ukraine’s effect on U.S.-Russia relations, it is plausible that if such an event were to occur, Kazakhstan’s robust relations with China would prove problematic for a multi-vector foreign policy doctrine that attempts to maintain ties with the U.S. alliance system. [5]

Possibilities for alignment

If some form of diplomatic hedging were to occur, there are several possibilities for a more exclusive alliance between Kazakhstan and another great power, each of which would require severely reducing Kazakh ties with at least one of its core diplomatic partners. If Kazakhstan were to pursue closer relations with the U.S. and its allies, the resulting abandonment of Russia could jeopardize Kazakhstan’s economic, cultural, and security interests [15]. After all, over 94% of Kazakhstan’s oil crosses Russia to reach export markets, and nearly 95% of Kazakhstan’s population speaks fluent Russian [16, 1]. Furthermore, the Kazakh Armed Forces rely heavily on both former Soviet technology and military integration with Russia through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) [17]. However, turning towards Russia at the expense of the U.S. risks a similarly damaging set of outcomes. Despite its presence in the CSTO, Kazakhstan is meaningfully involved in Western military partnerships such as the NATO Partnership for Peace program (PfP). While participation in the PfP is not particularly significant in and of itself, membership has enabled Kazakhstan to take on a leading role in relations between NATO and Central Asia by hosting Steppe Eagle (an annual military exercise) and by joining the Partnership Interoperability Initiative (a NATO program designed to integrate the equipment and chains of command of select non-member states into the alliance) [18]. Furthermore, a closer partnership with U.S. adversaries could alienate American oil investors or prompt the placement of a sanctions regime on Kazakhstan, causing a devastating blow to the Kazakh economy.

Finally, pursuing either of these two partnerships in the long term, especially closer relations with the United States, could fuel hostility with what is arguably Kazakhstan’s most important current partner - China [19]. If China felt compelled to impose severe import or export restrictions, perhaps in a bid to coerce Kazakhstan into abandoning its ties with the West, Kazakhstan’s eastern trade hubs and rail lines that connect the country to China and various Central Asian states could potentially grind to a halt [20]. In addition to other economic integration from the Belt and Road Initiative, these trade routes represent the most promising alternative to petroleum exports as a foundational source of Kazakh economic growth in the coming decades, turning away from China could doom long-term economic growth and fuel existing civil unrest over deteriorating economic conditions.

Ultimately, none of these options are especially desirable, and each comes with severe costs for Kazakhstan. Learning to navigate successful multi-vectorism has been a crowning achievement of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, and Kazakhstan should not abandon its multi-vector approach until absolutely necessary. However, evidence suggests that although Kazakhstan’s ideologically neutral approach to foreign relations has been effective, its sustainability will eventually come to an end. When that day arrives, the Kazakh government will be forced to make a decision that may drastically affect Kazakhstan’s economic development, national security, and the balance of power in Central Asia.


[1] Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook. “Kazakhstan.” https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/countries/kazakhstan/

[2] Vanderhill, Rachel Et al. “Between the Bear and the Dragon: Multivectorism in Kazakhstan as a Model Strategy for Secondary Powers.” International Affairs, Vol. 96, Iss. 4, July 2020. https://doi.org/10.1093/ia/iiaa061

[3] Hanks, Reuel R. “‘Multi-Vector Politics’ and Kazakhstan's Emerging Role as a Geo-Strategic Player in Central Asia.” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Vol .11, Iss. 3, September 2009. https://doi.org/10.1080/19448950903152110

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[14] Baldakova, Oyuna. “Kazakhstan’s Three-Way Balancing Act Between Competing Powers is Under Pressure.” Mercator Institute for China Studies, August 18, 2022. https://merics.org/en/kazakhstans-three-way-balancing-act-between-competing-powers-under-pressure

[15] Umarov, Temur. “After Ukraine, is Kazakhstan Next in the Kremlin’s Sights?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 8, 2022. https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/87652

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