Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev has strongly endorsed Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, despite the uncomfortable precedent Russia’s military adventure has set for other post-Soviet republics with large ethnic Russian populations. Like Kazakhstan.
Nazarbayev told the isolated Russian president during a telephone conversation on March 10 that “Kazakhstan, as a strategic partner, treats Russia’s position, protecting the rights of national minorities in Ukraine, and also the interests of its security, with understanding,” his office said in a statement released after the call.
Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies, but the endorsement still raised eyebrows given that Nazarbayev’s remarks could be taken as carte blanche for Russia to intervene on behalf of Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union—including in Kazakhstan, where the ethnic Russian minority constitutes 22 percent of the population.
Crimea is set to hold a Russian-backed snap referendum on March 16 that will determine whether it stays part of Ukraine.
While backing Russian intervention abroad to protect minority rights, Nazarbayev also called for a “peaceful settlement of the crisis in Ukraine on the basis of the preservation of sovereignty in line with the norms of international law,” and hoped all sides would show “restraint” and resolve the crisis through negotiations.
Nazarbayev offered stronger backing for Ukraine’s territorial integrity in a separate call with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, also on March 10, in which he “confirmed the importance of a diplomatic settlement to the Ukrainian crisis through dialogue between all interested sides, the use of possible mechanisms of international mediation to assure the territorial integrity of this country, and also the rejection of mutual threats and ultimatums.”
Nazarbayev has now gone further than ever before in sticking his neck out in support of Russian policy in Ukraine. He and his Foreign Ministry had previously stuck to calls for a peaceful settlement, and last week his office made no mention of Ukraine in its summary of Nazarbayev’s attendance of a snap Customs Union summit in Moscow with Putin and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus.
The mixed messages illustrate the diplomatic tightrope that Nazarbayev is walking as he seeks to maintain Kazakhstan’s close relationship with Russia while keeping a wary eye on the implications of Russian encroachment into former Soviet states.