The Ukraine crisis has created a host of problems for a number of countries, but one state has managed to use it as a sort of stepping stone to elevate its geopolitical status and its leader’s international profile. I am talking about Kazakhstan and its president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Alexey Malashenko
Malashenko is a former chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program.
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Risking the Kremlin’s ire, the Kazakh leader shrewdly and conveniently pitched himself as a mediator in the Ukraine crisis. Moscow hardly expected Nazarbayev to take such an unequivocally neutral position in the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. He characterized himself as an “objective manager” who supports neither side of the conflict. Such a position was not welcomed by the Russian leadership at the outset, but the Kremlin did not want to escalate tensions with Astana, especially because Nazarbayev had linked the Ukrainian issue to the Eurasian Economic Union. The EEU, in his opinion, is being subjected to “great risks” by the current geopolitical crisis and its implications.

Playing the role of an independent intermediary yields substantial dividends for Nazarbayev. First, it insures him against excessively sharp political moves on Russia’s part, which were plentiful in 2014. For its part, Russia will have to reckon with Nazarbayev’s views, which will remain independent and objective in relation to the opposing sides of the conflict. In other words, Kazakhstan’s behavior confirms its commitment to a multi-vector foreign policy.

Second, Nazarbayev’s freestanding position indicates to Russia’s Western opponents that Astana should not be identified with Moscow’s policies, and thus there is no point to pressuring Kazakhstan in any way. At the same time, the Kazakh president is emphasizing that the sanctions against Russia do not work, adding that that there is nothing good about them because “Russia is our [Kazakhstan’s] partner.”

Third, Nazarbayev demonstrates that no matter how the Ukraine crisis develops, Kazakhstan’s relations with the European Union will remain normal. In fact, the EU leaders, particularly the Western members of the “Normandy Four,” hope that Nazarbayev can be the figure who manages to help the parties achieve at least some progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements.

Apart from mediating between Russia and Ukraine, Nazarbayev’s mission has another, less publicized aspect: the Kazakh leader serves as a bridge between Russia and the European Union, seeking to improve understanding between the sides.

It is commonly believed that both Russia and Ukraine have a positive and even hopeful outlook on Nazarbayev’s mediation. But things are actually not that clear. True, Ukraine is rather well-disposed toward Nazarbayev’s initiatives. Kiev generally interprets any drift away from Russia’s position as a pro-Ukrainian move. But Moscow sees any mediation in a conflict between Russia and another state in the post-Soviet space as testifying to the Kremlin’s weakness and inability to solve foreign policy problems without outside help. Putin only reluctantly accepts Nazarbayev’s mediation, which in a sense humiliates him, since it undermines Russian ambitions.

There is an important personal aspect. Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since 1991 and is one of the most experienced and successful post-Soviet heads of states. He is also respected on the international stage. At 74, he enjoys playing the part of a senior statesman.

We have no way of knowing whether Nazarbayev will be able to help resolve the Ukraine crisis. He is likely to stay on as a mediator even if negotiations stall, since neither party will benefit from an end to his involvement. As for the Eurasian patriarch himself, the end result does not seem to be all that critical. It is far more important for him to remain the authoritative and sought-after wise man which the Ukraine crisis has helped him to become.

  • Alexey Malashenko