Kazakhstan’s Geopolitics: Heartland
The Battle of the Talas River, fought in Kazakhstan in 751 AD, shows the crucial space Kazakhstan occupies. The battle was fought between the Abbasid Caliphate, whose capital lay in Damascus (and then Baghdad), and an army of the Tang Dynasty of China, whose capital lay in modern Xi’an. Baghdad and Xi’an are 6,000 kilometres apart.
The Abbasids were the heirs of Mohammed, first and foremost connected to the Middle Eastern and European cultural and political milieu. The Tang were the latest dynasty to rule China, literally half a world away.
So why, of all places, did they meet in Kazakhstan?
For the Abbasids, expanding west out of their territory on the Iranian plateau, they had a choice: east, into the mountains of Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, or north, up the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea. They followed the same route Cyrus the Great did a thousand years earlier, in his doomed campaign against the Central Asian Scythians. The Abbasids followed the flatter terrain into modern Kazakhstan.
The Tang were also avoiding mountains. China is walled off from the rest of Eurasia by great mountain ranges (with the exception of travelling north into Mongolia and Siberia, and south, into South East Asia) There are only a few natural gates large enough to serve Tang ambitions. From Manchuria, mountains hem the Middle Kingdom in. Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent are almost inaccessible. For this reason, Kazakhstan would be the logical place for a Tang army to emerge. Marching north, around the Tian Shan mountains and through the Dzungarian Gate where Herodotus wrote griffins guarded hoards of gold, Chinese soldiers and Chinese influence entered Kazakhstan.
The battle itself was not decisive; it was instead the An Lushan revolt drew the Tang away from Central Asia long enough for Islam to cement itself as the religion of the region. However, the Battle of the Talas River shows why Kazakhstan occupies a vital geopolitical position: for some it is the path of least resistance, for others it is the only route.
North: Steppe Off
A relief map shows the Eurasian steppe, a flat sea of grass running east to west, but there is a spike southward, of steppe and desert and tundra, nestled between the Altai and Pamir mountains, bumping up against the Hindu Kush and the Iranian Plateau, and running into the Caspian Sea. This is Kazakhstan. It is this flatness which defines its geopolitics with its northern neighbour Russia.
Kazakhstan is larger than all but eight other countries, but Russia is the largest of them all. It is wealthier, more populous and militarily powerful, and has a history of colonialism in Kazakhstan which only (formally) ended with the collapse of the USSR.
This interest in Central Asia, looking southwards, continues today, with Russia maintaining military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (south of Kazakhstan), ostensibly to handle Islamist fallout from the war in Afghanistan. In short, Kazakhstan is surrounded by Russia.
During the collapse of the USSR a deal was struck in which Kazakhstan returned Soviet weapons of mass destruction in exchange for the promise of peace. Ukraine agreed to a similar deal, and Kazakhstanis watched the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with increasing concern. Both countries abut Russia with no natural barriers, and both are vulnerable to the deliberate inflammation of ethnic tensions. Kazakhstan has a large Russian ethnic minority, as did Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, Kazakhstan has over 130 different ethnic groups. The opportunities for division are ever-present.
All this is not to say Kazakhstan and Russia do not cooperate. They do, frequently. There are plenty of ethnic Russians living in Kazakhstan (which gives Russia a great degree of indirect influence, as it did in Ukraine). Kazakhstan is a member of the Central Asian, Russian-aligned version of NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. It is also part of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States trade bloc. There are several Russian military bases in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan is not an enemy of Russia, but Russia’s size, proximity, and the lack of natural barriers between the two means Russia Kazakhstan’s future is tied to Russia’s (for a concrete example, sanctions on Russia had a dramatic and deleterious impact on Kazakhstan’s economy as well).
An awareness of this dependence has driven Kazakhstan to diversify economically, having western companies develop its mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, and politically, notably allowing American planes to use its airspace to support operations in Afghanistan.
There has recently been a train line built between Iran and Kazakhstan, and an increase in outreach to Turkey. Europe represents Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner. The country is branching out, and history suggests this is a wise decision.
In the future, Kazakhstanis would do well to be vigilant against increasing Russian soft and sharp power, backed with the threat of military force. If the country’s new president turns too far towards the West or China, and Putin or his successors think Russia risks losing influence, they might react negatively. Russian leaders have historically been concerned to the point of paranoia about foreign invasion, and has taken proactive steps to mitigate this.
A western-oriented Kazakhstan would invert the usual relationship between the two in the minds of some Russians: the lack of barrier would become a security issue for Russia, not Kazakhstan, and a Russia that feels threatened is dangerous.
China’s great geopolitical weakness is its dependence on foreign import and export, and therefore its dependence on the US Navy not closing the Straits of Malacca and economically strangling the country. While it is rapidly modernising its navy, it cannot defend its vital Sea Lanes of Communication outside the East and South China Seas. One sensible precaution is to develop overland communication with the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. Kazakhstan is vital to this.
As discussed above, China is relatively cut off from Eurasia by mountains, with only a few ways out suitable for military and commercial purposes. Two of these are in Kazakhstan. For the same geographic reasons as the Tang Dynasty 1300 years earlier, the Chinese are back in the Central Asia.
The Khorgos Gateway is a perfect illustration of China’s cross-Eurasian project. It is a transhipping station just inside Kazakhstan, across the border from Xinjiang, China. It is used for moving shipping containers between Russian- and Chinese-gauged trains. Optimism about the opportunities afforded by overland travel has led several firms previously based on China’s densely populated east coast to relocate to western China, such as HP.
A ship too large for the Suez Canal must travel 24,000km to reach Europe. Overland, the journey is 11,000km. Trains take about 15 days, twice as fast as by sea. And goods travelling to and from China travel through non-NATO nations until they reach Central Europe, reducing dependence on American goodwill. While overland train freight will reduce China’s vulnerability, it is not a panacea. China’s energy will still have to come largely by sea. But China is betting big on new Eurasian land-based economies.
For its part, Kazakhstan has benefited from China’s desire to increase its overland trade, accepting funding as part of China’s Belt-And-Road initiative. However, there is also caution. Thanks to the mountains which separate Kazakhstan and China Kazakhstan is militarily more secure from its eastern neighbour than its northern one. But China is capable of exerting pressure economically and politically.
Kazakhstan contains Uighurs and other Muslims. China is keenly concerned about monitoring and controlling its Muslim populations, and the risks posed by these populations in neighbouring countries. Ethnic Kazakhs have been caught up in China’s oppressive policies within China, and a Kazakh critic of Chinese policies has been arrested in Kazakhstan and charged with ‘interethnic conflict’.
Heavy Chinese investment in Kazakhstan gives it a huge amount of influence over the county’s policy. Kazakhstan’s entire population is less than Beijing’s. It will be a struggle to resist its vast neighbour’s gravitational pull. In the future, Kazakhstan must be wary of Chinese bearing gifts; they often come with serious terms and conditions attached, either in the form of debt traps or domestic political demands.
South: Stans Together
Kazakhstan is the largest country of the five in Central Asia, five countries which have become shorthand for venal rule by kleptocratic dictators. The leadership of the five countries fear popular revolution, though Kazakhstan has managed a successfully peaceful transfer of power from Nursultan Nazarbeyev, ruler since the end of the Cold War, to an heir. They all also fear Islamism, given their largely Muslim populations (and use it as an excuse to justify oppression). Each country has lost citizens to ISIS or the Taliban, and the foreign-fighter phenomenon will affect them just as it has affected the UK and France.
The other four Central Asian states are navigating similar geopolitical currents as Kazakhstan, managing relations between the present and heavily armed Russia, the only slightly more distant and rising China, and the market opportunities represented by Europe and the USA, and they are all attempting to play off various countries to maximum benefit, joining constellations of trade and military agreements suggested by one another, Moscow or Beijing.
Central Asia was once key to the Silk Road, until the circumnavigation of Africa allowed Europe and the Far East to communicate more efficiently. With a renewed effort to construct overland routes, these Central Asian nations will need to resurrect the skills their ancestors had in managing different powers interested in the region.
West: Grasping at the Caspian
Kazakhstan, Russia and several of its Central Asian neighbours have coastlines on the Caspian Sea, which holds huge reserves of gas and oil. Managing access to these resources will be one of the dominant geopolitical issues in the region, even affecting what the Caspian Sea is (a recent discussion between Caspian Sea nations tried to settle this – countries have different rights over seas versus lakes).
Kazakhstan has the longest Caspian Coastline, and given 60% of its wealth comes from the sale of hydrocarbons, we should expect it to continue to compete for its share, which could well cause tension with its Central Asian neighbours, Russia, Iran and even Azerbaijan.
Kazakhstands to Benefit
China will continue to invest in the region, given the commercial and transportation opportunities, as well as the security risks it sees in the Muslim populations and spillover from the war in Afghanistan. Russia, continuing to cling onto Great Power status and perhaps bolstered by its dubious successes in Ukraine and Syria, will maintain its presence in Central Asia as it has done for the past 400 years, in order to keep China at a distance and to ensure access to resources.
Europe, Kazakhstan’s major trading partner, will continue to do deals even as it tries to ameliorate the country’s rougher political edges. The USA, aware of Kazakhstan’s strategic location, its mineral wealth, and armed with an understanding that it is the Rimland power to a potential Russian or Chinese Heartland power, will continue to maintain an interest in the region even if or when the war in Afghanistan ends.
Kazakhstan will profit by this new interest. However, along with its Central Asian neighbours, corruption and a democratic deficit means the profits will not be distributed as effectively as they might be. This stores up trouble for the future.
The most effective way for the leaders of Kazakhstan to ensure their country flourishes in the future is to ensure Kazakhstanis of all ethnicities benefit, and develops a broad network of partners in the West to counterbalance Chinese money and Russian sharp and hard power.
The Sogdians, a mercantile people who were to the Silk Road what the Venetians were to Renaissance Europe, lived in Kazakhstan. They were involved in connecting China to the Indus Valley, moving trade through Central Asia, and generally were vital to encouraging a trans-Eurasian trading community.
It seems in the 21st century something similar may happen to Kazakhstan, though unlike the Sogdians, who roamed far and wide, the Kazakhstanis might not need to travel far. The world is coming to Central Asia.
Geopolitics of Kazakhstan: Theory and Practice by Ivanov and Volovoj
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
Report written by Brendan Clifford