Kyiv, Ukraine – Last Friday, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was cornered as he sat next to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and Margarita Simonyan, head of the Kremlin-funded RT television network, which is sanctioned in the West.
The three took the main stage at the International Economic Forum in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s former imperial capital and Putin’s birthplace.
Simonyan asked the Kazakh leader about the “inevitability” and “legality” of what the Kremlin called a “special operation” in Ukraine – the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II.
“There are differing opinions on this,” Tokayev, the former foreign minister of Kazakhstan and the former deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, began diplomatically.
For about two minutes he brooded over international law, the UN charter and the ‘incompatibility’ of the right to territorial integrity and self-determination.
“If the right to self-determination is introduced worldwide, there will be more than 600 countries instead of the 193 states that are currently UN members. That would of course be chaos,” Tokayev said.
And then he said something that seemed to have destroyed Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet “strategic partnership” with its former imperial master.
“That’s why we recognize Taiwan, Kosovo, [the breakaway Georgian regions of] South Ossetia and Abkhazia,’ said Tokaev with a faint smile.
“Apparently, the same principle will be applied to the quasi-state areas which, in our view, are Luhansk and Donetsk,” he said, the two breakaway regions in southeastern Ukraine.
Both regions seceded in 2014 with Moscow’s military and financial support in a war that killed more than 13,000 people and uprooted millions.
But the Kremlin did not recognize their “independence” until almost eight years later, on February 22, two days before it invaded Ukraine.
Tokayev’s words last week enraged many in the Kremlin.
A Russian lawmaker said Tokayev “challenged” Putin — hinting that Moscow could invade the northern regions of Kazakhstan, which have a large ethnic Russian population.
“There are many cities with a predominantly Russian population that have little to do with what was called Kazakhstan,” Konstantin Zatulin told Radio Moskva.
“I want Astana [the old name of the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan] not to mention that we don’t bring up territorial issues or argue with friends and partners. With the rest – as with Ukraine for example – anything is possible,” he said.
And many in Ukraine saw Tokayev’s story as a bold statement signifying the “sunset” of Moscow-led political, economic and military blocs in the former USSR, including Kazakhstan.
“Kiev noted the courage of Tokayev, who could say such words to Putin’s face,” Kiev analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
He said the war between Russia and Ukraine – and the crimes committed by Russian military personnel in Ukraine – will cause Moscow to lose influence in Kazakhstan and the four remaining “stans” of ex-Soviet Central Asia.
“The animal cruelty of the [Russian] empire at the bottom of Ukraine has horrified even Russia’s traditional allies,” he said.
The largely Muslim, resource-rich region of more than 65 million people is strategically located between Russia, China and Afghanistan.
China and Turkey will fill the void, as “Russia’s soft underbelly from the Urals to the Altai [Mountains] will no longer be the backyard of the aging empire,” Kushch said.
Chop Kazakhstan into pieces
Zatulin’s comment wasn’t the first time a Russian political figure questioned the existence of Kazakhstan.
Shortly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin claimed that Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, “established a state in an area that never had a state”.
“The Kazakhs never had their own state, he created it,” Putin told a pro-Kremlin youth group.
Six years later, another Russian legislator raised the stakes by claiming that Kazakhstan’s existence was nothing but the “gift” of Moscow.
“Kazakhstan simply did not exist, the north of Kazakhstan was uninhabited,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of parliament from United Russia.
“And actually, the territory of Kazakhstan is a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union.”
Nikonov’s lineage made his words sound particularly ominous.
His grandfather, Vyacheslav Molotov, known for the bottle bomb cocktail, was the USSR’s foreign minister who made a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 to divide Poland – and pave the way for World War II.
“No one from outside has gifted this area to Kazakhs,” Tokayev replied in an op-ed published in Kazakh newspapers in January 2021.
He named Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan as the founders of what would become Kazakhstan.
At the time, Tokayev was widely seen as a figurehead handpicked by his predecessor Nazarbayev, who stepped down in 2019 but whose clan maintained its influence in the oil-rich country.
A year later, Tokayev asked Moscow for help during the biggest protests in Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet history.
Thousands of young Kazakhs gathered in various cities to topple statues of Nazarbayev, clash with police and storm government buildings.
Tokayev asked the troops of the Russian-led military alliance of the former Soviet states to restore order. The bloc is known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and includes Russia and five ex-Soviet countries.
The CSTO troops flew in and helped restore order – and the move was widely seen as a symbol of Moscow’s restored power in the former USSR.
As a result, Tokayev dramatically undermined the influence of the Nazarbayev clan and became a full-fledged, independent leader – all thanks to Putin.
And some in Kazakhstan see his comments about the Ukrainian separatists as part of a well-staged political spectacle to divert attention from the West.
“This is nothing but a game played to evade sanctions against Kazakhstan,” a businessman well-connected in Almaty, the financial capital of Kazakhstan, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
“There are enough Russians who have opened offices and managed their money” through Kazakhstan to evade the sanctions, he said.
A Kazakh analyst claimed the spectacle wore off during Tokaev’s visit to Moscow in early February.
“The task was to show Tokayev as an independent and daring politician, a diplomat, who courageously answers questions while taking independent political steps,” Dimash Alzhanov told Radio Azattyk.
However, a Russian observer sees no sign of malicious intent in Tokayev’s words in St. Petersburg.
“I think this is a clear statement of Kazakhstan’s position, hardly a deal, what’s the point of such a deal?” said Pavel Luzin, a Russia-based analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“This is hardly a demarche, rather a public response to non-public efforts by so-called Russian diplomacy,” he told Al Jazeera.