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Why Central Asian Jihadists are Inspired by the US-Taliban Agreement?

Abu Yusuf Muhajir, the leader of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari group (second left)

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Central Asian Jihadists Congratulate Taliban and Threaten Five ‘Stans’

Al-Qaeda-backed Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups were highly encouraged by the US-Taliban agreement which was signed in February 2020, aiming to bring peace to Afghanistan. Some Uzbek groups such asKatibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and Tajik militants of Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), and Uighur fighters of Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) from China’s Xinjiang region, have already expressed their clear opinion about this particular deal through their respective Telegram accounts. Some of the groups congratulated the agreement, while others dedicated emotional eulogies to the Taliban.

The KIB which is formed primarily from Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants from Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, was one of the first organizations to congratulate the Taliban, denominating as a “the great victory of the Islamic Ummah”. On February 29, 2020, Abu Yusuf Muhajir, the leader of KIB’s Syrian wing, in his congratulatory letter said: “The US and NATO forces, who imagine themselves to be the rulers of the entire world and the divine judges of human destinies, and claim divinity on earth have stunned the world with their humiliation, disgrace, and failure of the crusade.”

The KIB leader proceeds by saying that “the Americans were forced to sign an agreement with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which they considered a helpless crowd and below their dignity, but they [the Taliban] survived all difficulties with the support of Allah and gained strength.”

Then Abu Yusuf praises the Taliban’s former Amir, Mullah Mohammed Omar, “who did not flinch at all when America, intending to extinguish the beam of Allah, had attacked Afghanistan.” The Uzbek jihadist leader quotes Mullah Omar’s words: “Allah has promised us victory, and Bush [US President George W. Bush] has promised to defeat us, so we, slaves of Allah, shall see which of the two promises will be fulfilled.”

“Despite the fact that the whole world helped Kafirs-invaders, today they experience the bitterness of defeat, because Allah was against them” he continues. Further Abu Yusuf Muhajir continues to extol the Taliban: “Neither the attacks of the infidels nor the arrests of the Mujahideen [holy warriors] could force the Taliban to abandon the path of Sharia.[UB1]  If the Taliban complied with the slightest condition of infidels [he means US condition for the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden], they could remain in power. But the Taliban’s leaders and glorious Mujahideen did not bow their heads to the Kafirs.”

At the end, he congratulated the Islamic Ummah for the Taliban’s ‘victory’ and attached to his letter a congratulatory poem, “My Dear Taliban.” The author glorifies the Taliban with such phrases:

“You became a hospitable Ansar [local fighters] for Muhajireen[foreign fighters];

You broke the Russians yesterday, and  defeated NATO and the US today;

Your song “La illahaillallah” as spiritual wealth;

May Allah give You a blessed Nusrat [victory].”

 It should be noted that KIB’s chief terrorist Abu Yusuf Muhajir is distinguished by his relentless oratory, reciting eloquently Surah and Ayahs of the Quran during Juma Khutbah [preaching].

Also, the ideologists and militants of KTJ in Syria, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2015, enthusiastically praised the Taliban’s “successes”. Today, KTJ’s Uzbek jihadists are fighting alongside the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the largest Sunni jihadist group in Idlib, against the Bashar al-Assad’s forces. One of KTJ’s propagandists on Telegram posted a short message that “today is a great day for entire Ummah because, after the 18-year war in Afghanistan, America humiliatingly acknowledged its defeat from the Lions of Islam. This victory came at the behest of Allah, who subordinated the chief Shaitan to Mujahideen.”

Jihadists of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari before the attack, Idlib, Syria.

On March 15, 2020, KTJ’s jihadists, appreciating the Taliban’s “successes”, threatened the Central Asian states through their account on Telegram channel named “Mujahideen of Sham”. Uzbek militants furiously reacted to the words of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov, who during the signing ceremony of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha stated that Uzbekistan would not interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. KTJ mocks Uzbek’s top diplomat by calling him Tahgut [Quranic term: who rebels against Allah and transgresses his will] and threatens by stating “soon the Shaitan regimes of Central Asia will burn in the flames of Jihad ignited in Afghanistan and defeated America considering itself omnipotent.” KTJ jihadists lionize the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed a peace treaty with the US. “In 2010, Baradar was in Karachi prison as a terrorist, and in 2020 he is already sitting in Doha, signing an agreement on the surrender of America, that is an amazing victory given by Almighty Allah”, says the end of the message.

The Uighur TIP on its radio Voice of Islam, published on its Muhsinlar.net website on March 7, 2020, praised the Taliban’s victory and described the Afghan government as traitor.

Taliban is Perceived as ‘Godfather’ of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi Groups

Thus, the US-Taliban “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”, designed to put an end to the 18-year war, sharply raised the morale of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. They did not hide their cheery emotions on social media,  and even further posted gushing praises to the Taliban and widely expressed ‘Takbir’ [“Allah is greater”, used in prayer, as well as to express victory, celebration or distress].

The reason for the delight of Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups is apparent as many of them, such as the KIB, TIP, IJU, KTJ and IMU, have long-drawn and tight ties with both the Taliban and al Qaeda. They have a common goal in aiming to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan, Central Asia and Chinese region Xinjian, which would be governed by Sharia law, under the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. 

Many Uzbek, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uighur extremists,persecuted by government forces in their homeland, were forced to flee and found refuge in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 until 2001. The ideological views of the Central Asian Muhajireen were formed and crystallized under the influence of al Qaeda and the Taliban, which portrayed itself as an exemplary Ansar [local fighters]. It was this that predetermined the further fate of the Taliban when a U.S.-led invasion toppled its regime for providing refuge to al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden. Then the Central Asian jihadists so deeply integrated into the ranks of al Qaeda, which today has become the Taliban’s Achilles’ heel in its relations with Washington.

The main point of the Doha agreement is the Taliban’s obligation to sever ties with al Qaeda and other Central Asian terrorist groups and disallow them to threaten the security of the US and its allies using Afghan soil. However, the agreement lacks specific mechanisms, timelines and evidence of breaking the Taliban’s ties with al Qaeda.

Judging by their reactions, the Central Asian jihadists are not at all concerned about the Taliban’s commitment to break ties with al Qaeda. For them, the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s return to power and the establishment of Islamic Emirate based on Sharia law were a long-awaited treasured dream that could come true anytime from now. They are sure that after 18 years of joint jihad against “the Western crusaders” and when the sacred goal is just around the corner, the Taliban will not leave them.

Since July 2018, the UN Security Council has published several reports by monitoring teams responsible for assessing the status of al Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist organizations. These reports document the ongoing and close relationship of Central Asian terrorist groups with both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. For instance, according to a new report released by the UN Security Council in 2020, “in Afghanistan continuing activity by the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement [former name of TIP], Jamaat Ansarullah, KTJ, IJU, KIB and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Approximately 400 foreign terrorist fighters from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan now plan to continue hostilities in conflict zones, transfer trained fighters to various countries to carry out terrorist acts and disseminate propaganda via the Internet.”

Regarding the ideological views on jihad and Sharia policy, the KIB is the closest group to the Taliban among the Salafi-Jihadi movements of the post-Soviet area. The Uzbek KIB, which publicly swore allegiance [Bayat] to the Taliban in 2014, has openly identified itself as an integral part of the Taliban. The group officially refers itself “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — Katibat Imam al Bukhari” and has the same emblem as the Taliban. KIB operates in both Afghanistan and Syria. The leader of the KIB’s Syrian wing is the aforementioned Abu Yusuf Muhajir, who congratulated the Taliban in poetic form. 

 KIB was sent to Syria from Afghanistan by the Taliban and Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the Taliban’s top deputies and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. According to the UN Security Council, “the leader of the Afghan wing of KIB, which mainly operates in the northern Afghan province of Faryab, is Jumaboi Aka, a former member of IMU.” The US State Department designated KIB to the list of global terrorist organizations affiliated with al Qaeda on March 22, 2018. The UN Security Council particularly concerned that “KIB leaders view Afghanistan as a new staging ground to project attacks against neighboring Central Asia countries.”

It is a well-known that the al Qaeda-affiliated TIP and the Taliban have a long and trusted relationship based on the general principles of Jihad. The UN Security Council confirms that “the ETIM/TIP’s leadership and Uighur militants remain present in Afghanistan.” The TIP’s emir, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, who is a steadfast brother in arms of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Haibatullah Akhunzada, periodically claims his unfailing allegiance to both al Qaeda and the Taliban. The TIP’s top leader, who was even appointed a member of al Qaeda’s elite Shura Council in 2005, has ardently criticized ISIS as an ‘illegitimate’ Caliphate and tried to maintain the unity of Sunni Salafi-Jihadi groups under the leadership of the Taliban. Abdul Haqlater followed the example of his ideological patron, Osama bin Laden, who had personally sworn bayat to Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader.

Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups IJU, KTJ and IMU, which are mainly comprised of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz, also fight under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The UN Security Councilstated that “IMU is now integrated into Taliban forces operating in the Provinces of Faryab and Zabul”, while “IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, is operating primarily in the Afghan Provinces of Badakhshan, Sari Pul and Takhar.” Almost all of the Central Asian terrorist groups in Afghanistan via Telegram channel reported that they had participated in Taliban’s “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations” last year.

The statement of Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhunzada after the Doha agreement, posted on the Taliban’s website, saying “the termination of occupation of Afghanistan…is the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation”, became a compass for Uzbek and Uighur militants. Thus, the UN reports show clearly the ongoing and close relationship between the Taliban and Central Asian terrorist groups. Therefore, it is clearly seen why there is a common thrill of the US-Taliban peace agreement which they labelled as “Victory”.

What the US-Taliban deal means for Central Asia?

Now that the US has legitimized the Taliban by concluding a “peace” deal with them, five Central Asian governments will be forced to build bridges with the Taliban. Prior to this, only Uzbekistan had informal contacts with the Taliban, organizing an Afghanistan peace conference in March 2018 in Tashkent.

Post-Soviet nations know that the Taliban will control Afghanistan in the future. For them, the main security challenge remains al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups and the remnants of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) operating in Afghanistan, who dream of building an Islamic Emirate in the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia.

The US-Taliban deal has already inspired Uzbek and Uighur militant groups fighting in Afghanistan and Syria. Their propaganda, as we witnessed above, claims that the Taliban vanquished the Americans and already forces them out of Afghanistan. KIB and IJU used the US-Taliban deal to recruit new militants from Central Asia. On April 2, 2020, Uzbek Jihadists media center Khorasan Ovozi (Voice of Khorasan) on the Telegram channel posted that “the Mujahideen managed to break the invincible US army, tomorrow we will come to you, but today you can make hijra [migration] to Khorasan and join our ranks.”

The Taliban factor also could provide inspiration and a morale boost to underground radical Islamists inside Central Asia and encourage them to raise arms against secular regimes. If in the future the Taliban comes to power and establishes Sharia rule in Afghanistan, this could increase the activity of the Islamic opposition in the Five “Stans”.

There are no illusions that the Taliban will so easily and quickly abandoned al Qaeda and Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups, who are closely aligned with the Bayat, which means the sacred Quranic Oath for all of them. Moreover, the Taliban’s structure is rather fragmented and networked, among which there are many local armed leaders who respect the relationship with Muhajireen. Therefore, it should be expected that their relationship will develop in an secretive manner until the US leaves the country.

Therefore, Central Asian pro-Moscow authoritarian regimes must seriously prepare for a new redistribution of power and resources in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops, which could be accompanied by hostilities and felt far beyond Afghanistan’s borders and for several years to come. The “peace” agreement strengthened the Taliban’s already strong position, who demonstrates its clear desire by forcing to seize power and not to share with anyone. After the deal, they intensified the attack on government forces.

If the US will not retain control to keep the Taliban on a shorter leash, then soon the main actors in the conflict may return to the battlefield and Afghanistan may again relive its four decades of civil war story. As the bitter experience of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq has shown, al Qaeda, ISIS and other Central Asian terrorist groups take root only in war-torn soil.   

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Central Asia

Russia’s Waning Influence in Central Asia is Inviting Regional Actors to Fill the Vacuum

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As the Kremlin seems preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and as the region’s leaders re-evaluate their relationship with Moscow, other regional powers sense the opportunity to exploit it.

The geographical ‘underbelly’, as it is called, Central Asia is a region where Moscow enjoys sizeable economic, political, and soft power influence. However, the war in Ukraine has created understandable consternation in the region.

The CARs have neither condemned nor condoned the Russian action. They have been hesitant and apprehensive about supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. In fact, certain actions indicate resistance to Moscow. While all of them are authoritarian states, they have neither outlawed any anti-war demonstrations in prominent locations nor clamped down on gatherings of solidarity with Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan rebutted Kremlin readouts that professed tacit support from their leaders. Uzbekistan warned its migrants in Russia of punitive measures, if they subject themselves to recruitment in the Russian army. As Russia’s military assault faltered and the magnitude of human misery in Ukraine became clearer, countries have moved from reticent statements of concern to more explicit criticism.

As the region’s leaders re-evaluate their relationship with Moscow, this has opened the door to new chances for China and Turkey, two states with historically significant ties to Central Asia.

China

For China, the Eurasian landmass constitutes the heart of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative. In other words, Beijing’s path to dominance goes through Central Asia. Shipping containers from China traditionally traversed through Russia to Europe (Northern route). But following the war, the western sanctions and the trade disruptions that ensued have forced a rethink in Beijing’s strategic calculus.

As a result, Chinese carriers are increasingly choosing the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route to bypass the Russian route to reach Europe. This route is also dubbed as the ‘Middle Corridor of the BRI.’ According to the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route Association, cargo traffic across Central Asia and the Caucasus is predicted to have a significant increase in comparison to the previous year. Discerning the geopolitical churn and change in the Eurasian political climate, logistical companies such as Denmark’s Maersk and Finland’s Nurminen kicked off new train services along the middle corridor. Several Chinese logistics companies, that had initially dismissed the Middle Corridor as unviable, also adapted to the changing circumstances.

Apart from this, to reassure Beijing’s economic interests, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kazakhstan to meet his counterparts in the third annual China-Central Asia foreign ministers meeting (C+C5).

China is also concerned about security issues and has advocated stability in the region, primarily to secure its economic interests and to prevent any spillover effects that could foment unrest in the Xinjiang province. For years, Russia and China have had an unofficial division of labor, where Moscow would take the driver’s seat in security issues and Beijing would do the same in economic concerns. However, Russia’s preoccupation in a protracted war juxtaposed with Beijing’s growing ties with the region could translate and give China the necessary incentive to supplant Russia as a security guarantor.

Analysts have described the Russia-China partnership in Central Asia as one of ‘Cooperation and Competition,’ but the war has pushed Russia to a precarious position where it will find it increasingly difficult to compete, leaving it with no option but to show indisposed cooperation with China in the future.

Turkey

Turkey is another power in the region that is striving to increase its presence against the backdrop of Moscow’s waning influence. In recent times, Ankara’s push for more influence is evident after being on the margins for decades.

Two weeks following ex-Foreign Minister Komilov’s public support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Erdogan paid a visit to Uzbekistan. During his two-day visit, he concluded ten agreements and pledged to increase bilateral trade. Subsequently, similar agreements were concluded with Kazakhstan when Tokayev paid a state visit to Turkey. Both the leaders signed a joint statement that had reference to raising the relationship to the level of ‘enhanced strategic partnership’

Turkey’s hard power more than its soft power, especially its Bayraktar drones, has attracted the attention of the CARs. The use of Turkish drones by Azerbaijan to tip the scales in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has improved Ankara’s long-dormant reputation. Turkmenistan has long been a purchaser of Turkish weapons, particularly drones. In 2021, Kyrgyzstan also purchased its own drones in response to a border dispute with Tajikistan. While Kazakhstan and Turkey have opted to jointly produce drones in Kazakhstan.

The potential for trade, though, is possibly the biggest that Turkey and Central Asia can offer one another. The scope of Ankara’s economy and the resources it has access to are indeed circumscribed. Even so, a more significant Turkish engagement is currently supported in the region and is well-positioned to substantially fill the vacuum made possible by Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey specifically seeks to establish itself as a credible and feasible alternative to Russia’s position along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the light of shifting geopolitical equations and trade route disruptions, the Central Asian States are also looking for greater participation from Ankara for purposes of connectivity and balancing the power competition in the region.

Declining Russian hegemony along with assertive responses of the CARs is giving impetus to powers like China and Turkey to play a greater role in the region. More importantly, the sanctions imposed on Russia are having reverberations throughout the region because of its ties with Moscow. Hence, for the CARs to strategically re-evaluate by inviting more regional actors is an opportunity to extricate themselves gradually from Moscow.

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Tashkent‘s Historic Opportunity to Emerge as a Regional Leader

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Image source: kremlin.ru

The people of Uzbekistan look to President Shavkat Mirziyoyev with hope that would have seemed impossible under the 27 year despotic regime of Islam Karimov. Since taking office in 2016, President Mirziyoyev has “astonished and delighted his citizens with his enthusiasm for reform.” In 2019, Mirziyoyev decisive efforts to end forced labour in cotton fields earned Uzbekistan the honor of being named ‘Country of the Year’ by The Economist magazine. The U.S. State Department recently recognized Uzbekistan’s efforts to “prosecute, convict, and sentence more traffickers; prosecute officials allegedly complicit in forced labor in the cotton harvest; and identify more victims;” in the 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report.

President Mirziyoyev reforms have unlocked potential for Uzbekistan to assert its status as a regional power. With a largely ethnically homogenous population of close to 35 million in 2021, Uzbekistan stands out as a natural leader in Central Asia. Against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, President Mirziyoyev benefits from not being part of the Moscow-led organizations of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Earlier in July 2022, President Mirziyoyev demonstrated his ability to respond to mass protests in Karakalpakstan with adequate action: personally traveling to Karakalpakstan, cancelling the objectionable constitutional reform, calling for the de-escalation of violence perpetrated by security forces against civilians, and dismissing unresponsive government officials. These steps represent a significant departure from the actions of his predecessor and his neighbors in the region, who met protests with excessive violence and turned to Moscow for support.

President Mirziyoyev’s work, though admirable, is far from complete. Uzbekistan still must guard against pervasive efforts of Russian influence in order to effectively exercise its regional power and stake its claim as a nation on the rise in both liberty and prosperity.

Alisher Usmanov, an infamous Russian-Uzbek billionaire metal magnate and early Facebook investor, is known by many as a tool that President Putin uses for his influence in Uzbekistan. Usmanov is “entrusted with servicing financial flows” for Putin. Many recall Usmanov’s emotional plea directed at Putin’s nemesis, Alexei Navalny, in a cringe-worthy attempt to demonstrate his loyalty. In addition to Usmanov’s ties to Putin, he is also known to be a close ally of Kazakh President Tokayev, an old classmate at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations in the 1970s.

Usmanov is one of Putin’s favorite oligarchs, and was heavily sanctioned by the United States, European Union, and United Kingdom following Putin’s irredentism in Ukraine. The most heartbreaking loss for Usmanov is surely his Dilbar: a $600 million yacht named after his mother which was seized by German authorities. The largest yacht in the world by gross tonnage, the Dilbar is complete with two helipads and one of the biggest indoor pools ever installed on a yacht. Usmanov, as well as his two sisters who face related sanctions, each filed legal appeals in April in attempts to overturn the EU sanctions. These appeals were denied.

Usmanov, more so than most oligarchs, inspired the establishment of a special sanctions enforcement task force in the UK, and a special “KleptoCapture” unit in the US: groups comprised of interagency experts dedicated to building cases, tracking assets, and enforcing sanctions against oligarchs. This effort was characterized by UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss: “Our message to Putin and his allies has been clear from day one – invading Ukraine would have serious and crippling economic consequences. Sanctioning Usmanov and Shuvalov sends a clear message that we will hit oligarchs and individuals closely associated with the Putin regime and his barbarous war. We won’t stop here. Our aim is to cripple the Russian economy and starve Putin’s war machine.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is set for an official visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan on July 28 and 29 in conjunction with a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Lavrov’s visit comes at a pivotal time for President Mirziyoyev to assert Uzbekistan as a leader in Central Asia amidst war in Ukraine and instability amongst its neighbors.

President Mirziyoyev should be wise in his dealings with both Lavrov and Usmanov, as onlookers will perceive an embrace as a sign of Russia’s growing influence in the country. Usmanov’s participation and investment in Uzbek national projects will deter multi-lateral development bank financing and other Western capital inflow. A continued relationship with Usmanov is not the key to Mirziyoyev’s prosperity. Uzbekistan has a historic opportunity to strengthen its role on the global stage under President Mirziyoyev’s leadership. Lavrov’s visit comes at a crucial time to show that Tashkent is not under Moscow’s thumb. President Mirziyoyev has begun his term by galvanizing the Uzbek people in hopes of reform. As is made crystal clear in Ukraine, embrace of Russian influence, whether diplomatic or oligarchic, dims this light of hope.

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Escaping a bear hug: Kazakhstan seeks closer ties to US and Europe

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Eight years ago, Kazakh shrugged off Russian President Vladimir Putin’s remarks suggesting he could pull a Ukraine on Kazakhstan. They did so again in January when Mr. Putin reiterated his denial of Kazakh nation and statehood while Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border. Today, Kazakhs no longer discount Mr. Putin’s words.

As a result, the days are likely gone when Kazakhstan would invite Russian troops to squash a popular revolt and rioting fuelled by infighting among the country’s elite. But, to be fair, Russian troops withdrew within days early this year after helping to restore law and order, despite Mr. Putin’s rhetoric.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 puts Mr. Putin’s assertion that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word” in a different light, even if few, if any, believe that the Russian leader is about to take action.

Nevertheless, today, Kazakhs pay attention to accusations by Russian commentators and officials that Kazakhstan has become an enemy by failing to support Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev made his opposition to the invasion clear when he attended in June the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. Sitting next to Mr. Putin, Mr. Tokayev insisted that Kazakhstan did not recognize breakaway Russian-supported “quasi-state formations” such as Ukraine’s regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Tokayev further appeared to confirm Russian assessments of Kazakh hostility when he declared that Kazakhstan hoped to offer an alternative to Western businesses leaving Russia because of US and European sanctions imposed in response to the invasion.

Earlier, Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations General Assembly vote that condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Since then, Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund announced that it would no longer do business in Russian rubles. Kazakhstan also stopped producing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.

More hard-hitting, Kazakhstan reversed its long-standing monetary policy, allowing the Kazakh tenge to track the ruble. In doing so, it effectively decoupled its currency from its Russian counterpart.

Russia saw the move as a step towards a Kazakh withdrawal from the monetary committee of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the regional organization of former Soviet republics established after the demise of the Soviet Union.

The lessons of the January revolt and the Russian invasion have also prompted Kazakhstan to focus on strengthening its armed forces, building a local defense industry, and reducing its reliance on Russia for arms purchases.

Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian country to border Russia, is vulnerable because its 7,644-kilometre Kazakh-Russian border is the world’s longest continuous international frontier and its second-longest by total length, after the Canada–United States border.

In retaliation for Kazakh support of efforts to reduce European Union dependence on Russian energy, Russia this month halted the flow of oil through a pipeline that pumps oil from Kazakhstan’s Tengiz oil field to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

The closure, ordered by a Russian court initially for one month, followed on the heels of a telephone call between Mr. Tokayev and European Union Council President Charles Michel.

Mr. Tokayev hopes that the EU will help Kazakhstan develop “alternative transcontinental corridors,” including “an international trans-Caspian traffic route” that would bypass Russia and link it to a pipeline that connects the Azerbaijan capital of Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Focused on connectivity, the Kazakh, Azerbaijani, and Turkish ministers of foreign affairs and transport met in late June to discuss the accelerated development of the route or Middle Corridor that would link Europe and China, bypassing Russia.

The EU-Kazakh discussion reflects heightened European interest in Central Asia. In an earlier indication, European Union officials said that the EU would become the top investor in the world’s tallest dam in Tajikistan. The move was aimed at helping Central Asia reduce its reliance on Russia and constituted part of the EU’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

It’s an approach that is gaining traction in Washington.

“As Washington policymakers look for ways to counter Russian influence and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, helping Kazakhstan reduce its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its economy, and coordinate with neighbouring Central Asian states to limit the influence of both China and Russia might be a good place to start,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead.

Even so, the increasingly tense Russian-Kazakh relationship has not prevented Kazakhstan from planning to participate, alongside, among others, China, Iran, India,  Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, in  Russia’s International Army Games next month, the first time the event is being held since Russia invaded Ukraine.

The games are likely to be a mere blip on a downward trend.

Mr. Putin signalled that he had not lost sight of Central Asia because of Ukraine by last month visiting Takijistan, home to Russia’s largest foreign base, and Turkmenistan for a Caspian summit that Mr. Tokayev also attended. It was Mr. Putin’s first trip abroad since his troops invaded Ukraine.

The war of words is likely to escalate in the coming days and weeks. Moscow is certainly likely to use its control of pipelines, its propaganda apparatus, and its ties with China to try to rein in Kazakhstan. Nur-Sultan, in response, will likely pursue a more nationalistic policy at home and seek closer relations with the West,” said Russia and Central Asia analyst Paul Goble, referring to the Kazakh capital that was renamed Nur-Sultan in 2019.

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