The annual meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) – that was held in Moscow on May 15 – had a great geopolitical relevance this year, considering the current conflict opposing Russia and Ukraine. In this scenario, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – the three Central Asian members of the regional security bloc – are engaged to search for a fleeting strategic balance aimed to preserve economic and security relations with Russia but defending at the same time national sovereignty and territorial integrity as fundamental principles of these independent states.
At present Kazakhstan’s position is particularly delicate, considering that in January 2022 Kazakh President Tokayev asked CSTO peacekeeping forces to intervene in the country in order to restore stability and to support him to stop revolts. After that Putin announced the so-called “special operation” in Ukraine, he reminded Kazakhstan of the assistance that Russia provided to preserve stability (Johan Engvall, Russia’s War in Ukraine: Implications for Central Asia, Central Asian Caucasus Analyst Institute, March 14, 2022). Even if in his speech Tokayev recognized the success of CSTO peacekeeping forces, also proposing to involve CSTO in the peacekeeping activities of the United Nations, Kazakh president would like to play the role of mediator in the current conflict, maintaining a neutral stance: indeed, in March Kazakhstan decided to abstain from voting on two UN resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
However Kazakhstan’s approach is irritating Moscow: in February, Kazakh Foreign Minister Tleuberdi declared that Kazakhstan’s recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics is not on the agenda, while during an interview Timur Suleymenov (the first deputy head of the Presidential Administration in Kazakhstan) said that “Kazakhstan will not be a tool to circumvent sanctions on Russia”, and Kazakhstan will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia, because Kazakhstan does not want to be put “in the same basket” with Russia (Georgi Gotev, Kazakh official: We will not risk being placed in the same basket as Russia, Euractiv, March 29, 2022).
The presence of 3,5 million of Russian ethnic population in the north of Kazakhstan (nearly 20% of the whole population), along the border with Russia, and national policies to promote Kazakh language in spite of Russian – which could be perceived as attempt of de-Russification – represent dangerous similarities with Ukraine’s situation and especially with the reasons which have “legitimized” Russian military intervention (CABAR Asia, How Does the War in Ukraine Affect Central Asia? An Interview with Raffaello Pantucci, April 15, 2022).
On the one hand, Russia appears not interested on a military action in Central Asia, while Tokayev had phone conversations with Putin to discuss on the current situation, as reliable partners in the CSTO and in the Eurasian Economic Union. On the other hand, the persistent conditions of instability along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region could represent a kind of pretext for a potential future deployment of CSTO peacekeeping forces in the region: in his speech at the meeting, Putin shared plans to hold joint military drills in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by the end of the year.
PhD in Geopolitics. He is non-resident researcher at the Center for Energy Governance and Security (EGS South Korea) and analyst at the Observatory for Central Asia and Caspian.