Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was on the road this week making his first diplomatic trips following his re-election and symbolically chose to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin first, but just as symbolically chose to meet French President Emmanuel Macron the next day.
The signalling here is very clear. I have seen a lot of commentary arguing that Putin has “lost” Kazakhstan, especially following Tokayev’s famous “we don’t recognise Donbas as yours” comment to Putin’s face at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) earlier this year.
Putin hasn’t lost Kazakhstan. Russia is simply too important for the Kazakh economy for Tokayev to break off relations, or even significantly downgrade them. But by bringing down the ire of the G7+ Putin has definitely weakened his position. Tokayev is clearly trying to find a new balance that reflects the changes in the geopolitical status quo since Russia invaded Ukraine.
And this is a continuation of Kazakhstan’s long-standing foreign policy. Former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev was also very good at this, balancing the relations with Russia, China and the US so that he had good relations with all of them. And everyone was happy with that – Russia included.
Two points here are generally missed. Firstly, Russia has (had) a new pragmatic foreign policy where the Kremlin stopped backing individual leaders and started focusing more on its own interest, which had the effect of allowing countries like Kazakhstan to pursue a multilateral foreign policy. It also had the effect where the Kremlin started reducing its energy subsidies for Belarus, much to the annoyance of Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko. (It’s his birthday today BTW.) There was much less bloc building, as for the Kremlin it was “just business”. This is the big change from the Cold War, and the result of the removal of ideologies from the competition between East and West.
The second point is that geography matters. And it matters a lot more than people give it credit for. I talked to the prime minister of Kyrgyzstan once at an EBRD event and he told me: “We feel ourselves more aligned with the EU, but we will join the [Russia-led] Eurasia Economic Union (EUU). What else can we do? Europe is just too far away.”
Tokayev’s Putin/Macron doubleheader should be read as Kazakhstan still embracing Russia, but at the same time, hugging it at arm’s length. It is more of a distancing from Russia but making it clear they are still family, rather than a move towards the West. In practical terms Tokayev needs to maintain close economic relations with Russia, but also needs to avoid having the West put pressure on him to stop doing business with Russia or sanctioning him. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is playing exactly the same game. Europe is cutting off Russia’s gas; Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are in talks to create a gas union.
The same trait is on display in Armenia where Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan should also be in the EU camp, and there was talk about Armenia joining shortly after the change of regime. But that makes no sense either as it is also too far away.
If you pay attention, there was a lot of cheering when Armenia had its Velvet Revolution that put Pashinyan into office, but now there is an embarrassed silence in the press after he moved rapidly and clearly closer to Russia. What else can he do? He understands very clearly that Armenia’s economy and its security depend heavily on Russia and on the EU not at all.
The same is true for Georgia, where there was a lot of pro-Saakashvili coverage as Georgia became the poster boy for change in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) after the Rose Revolution. These days how much do you read about the abject failure of that effort and the fact the country has entirely been captured by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili? When Ukraine and Moldova were invited to join the EU a few months ago there was a deafening silence on Georgia’s candidature.
Of course, if you pay attention, this story has been reported, but it gets buried on the bottom right of the page at the back of the foreign section, which is where you put stories that you have to report, but you don’t really want people to read.
Proximity matters. Moldova is an interesting example, as our reporters say that President Maia Sandu’s government is not the bastion of liberal reform it is sold as, and has its own authoritarian issues as was highlighted recently by a leaked tape scandal. But this is also a story for page 17. And all said and done Moldova really does want to join the EU, and it can as it is close enough, and it really is pretty liberal despite the problems.
In the light of geography, the relations with Russia and Ukraine make no sense. They are right next to each other with a huge border. They are both at the geographical heart of Europe, which, geographically speaking, extends to the Ural mountains about 400km east of Moscow. Judging it purely in terms of geography, Ukraine should never have tried to cut Russia off and turn exclusively to the EU – and the EU should not have encouraged it.
Indeed, as we reported in the period between 2014 and 2022, as part of its new more pragmatic foreign policy, the Kremlin made it clear it had no problem with Kyiv moving closer to the EU and doing trade deals, as that was “just business”. The Kremlin also said it had no problem with Ukraine joining the EU either. It was just Nato that was the problem. Far better would have been if Ukraine had followed the same sort of path as Armenia, but it would have also benefited from its physical proximity to both Russia and the EU, and unlike Armenia would have had the benefit of both worlds.
The reason it didn’t work is Russia was insisting that any trade deals Kyiv cut with the EU had to be three-way talks that included Russia, because Ukraine’s trade with the EU would affect Russia’s trade thanks to the open borders between them – and Brussels refused point blank to include Russia in the talks. The reporting on this story is almost non-existent.
The same logic applies to EU-Russia relations. You can’t take Russia out of Europe. The EU should have embraced Russia and found some sort of compromise. And Russia wanted a deal. Talking about first presidential trips, Putin’s first trip as president was to London to meet Tony Blair, where they created the TNK-BP oil giant, unusually as a completely equitable 50/50 split, not a 49/51 split. That was also a very clear signal.
To her credit this pragmatic relationship with Russia is exactly what Angela Merkel was trying to build but she is now being roasted for her naiveté. But from a geographical perspective, Merkel’s policy was the right one.
I know that many will argue that it is me that is being naïve, and that Russia always wanted to destroy/annex Ukraine, but I don’t think that is true. During his first term in office Putin also travelled to Brussels and asked then European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso if Russia could join the EU. He got a flat “no”.
For the US the issue is even clearer. In geographical terms it is effectively an island, far from everywhere, so it trades with everyone on equal terms – and actually not that equal, as the current row between the Brussels and Washington over the Inflation Reduction Act is showing where the US itself is no longer a “market economy”, a status that it just nixed for Russia. The US has always seen Russia as, at best a rival, and at worst an enemy. That became clear when George W Bush unilaterally pulled out of the ABM treaty in 2002 for no reason, which for me is the origin of the current war as it put Washington and Moscow on a collision course. Indeed, you could argue that part of the reason that the US not only has such bad relations with China and Russia, but is constantly at war with countries around the world, is because it is so far away from everyone else and so doesn’t have the geographical imperative of good relations with its neighbours.
The geography demands that Russia at least has a close relationship with the EU, but you can also see why the EU didn’t want Russia as a member. Russia’s geography is also a problem making membership impossible: it is far too big. Allowing Russia into the EU would swamp the EU institutions. I think Putin understood and accepted this, which is part of the reason he started to build what is now the EEU from the very beginning of his first term in office. It’s a compromise: if he can’t join the EU at least he can build a carbon copy of it and the two blocs can trade. The EEU has been set up by simply copying EU regulations, its architect told me at an EBRD event. That is why Putin kept going on about trade from “Lisbon to Vladivostok” – a constant trope in his foreign policy speeches over the last two decades.
Now we are in a terrible position. As a result of the war there is a real and sustained effort to break Russia off from Europe completely. Obviously, that can’t be done and its proximity to Europe is part of the reason sanctions are not working very well – apart from the technology sanctions that are almost total. As we have reported, it was clear from the start that there will always be significant leakage.
Geography also goes a long way towards explaining Russia’s relationship with China and ensures more leakage. Obviously, Beijing and Moscow are politically aligned as China is as much in the US crosshairs as Russia, but as the vast majority of Russia is actually in Asia, Russia’s cooperation with China was inevitable. The fact that so much of Russia is in Asia (although 80% of the people live in the European bit) also means that sanctions won’t work well as you can’t cut that bit off either.
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