Can Kazakhstan Broker A U.S.-Russian Rapprochement? Photo of Adam Ereli ADAM ERELI
In the next few days, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev is scheduled to meet one-on-one with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, followed by high-level consultations between U.S. and Kazakh officials.
This visit is noteworthy for several reasons. Kazakhstan is the largest and most important country of Central Eurasia, which is itself a strategically vital region that borders Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia and China. Kazakhstan’s landmass and economy are larger than the rest of the Central Asian states combined. The bilateral talks are the first that President Trump’s and his administration have held with a Central Asian government, which is an indicator of the significance that the United States attaches to this relationship.
Beyond the talking points on trade, counterterrorism, and nuclear non-proliferation, however, this summit has the potential to change the dynamic on one of the world’s most problematic relationships: the United States and Russia. Kazakhstan is uniquely positioned to help ameliorate an increasingly dangerous superpower rivalry.
Despite Donald Trump’s stated desire — both as candidate and as president — to improve relations with Russia, bilateral tensions have only increased since he took office. Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy puts Russia front and center as a threat that “aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners.”
Before its Christmas recess, Congress authorized lethal assistance to Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nemesis next door, and sanctioned additional Russian officials for human rights abuses pursuant to the Magnitsky Act of 2012. Among those targeted are Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen strongman close to Vladimir Putin, and the son of the Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.
However, Russian diplomacy has consistently outmaneuvered the United States in the Middle East: in Syria, where Putin’s intervention has preserved Bashar al Assad’s savage rule, Russia effectively projected power and won the war for the Alawi regime. NATO ally Turkey is purchasing the S-400, the world’s most sophisticated air defense system, from Russia. In the West, according to the National Security Strategy, Russia is “using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies.”
More than anything, Donald Trump wants to be seen as a winner who can negotiate deals and deliver results. And this is where President Nazarbayev can bring a welcome and much-needed helping hand. He can leverage Kazakhstan’s unique status as a bridge between East and West to reconcile U.S. and Russian equities in Syria and to explore avenues for cooperation in other areas, such as the Korean Peninsula and the broader Middle East.
Since December 2016, Nazarbayev has skillfully based his diplomacy on Kazakhstan’s status as a neutral party trusted by all sides to host the Astana Process, which brings together Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Syrian government, and the Syrian armed opposition in an effort to help end the violence in the civil war in Syria. Until now, the United States has participated periodically as an observer only, preferring to support the Geneva Process, which is being led by the United Nations Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura.
Unfortunately for the United States, all the momentum lies with the powers that control Syrian territory: Russia, Iran, Assad and Turkey. Peace will require the United States to cut a deal with our rivals, and Kazakhstan is well positioned to serve as an effective broker.
Since becoming president upon independence in 1991, Nazarbayev has positioned Kazakhstan as a state that combines a European and an Asian identity. With a higher percentage of its territory in Europe than Turkey, Nazarbayev has forged strong political and trade relations with the United States, Europe, Russia and the post-Soviet states of Central Asia.
Kazakhstan was the first post-Soviet state to renounce the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the Soviet Union, preferring the Western investment and technical assistance that followed to holding on to a Cold War legacy. Today, Kazakhstan’s GDP is the highest in the region.
Diplomatically, Kazakhstan has emerged as an increasingly influential player on the world stage. The Astana Process is but the most recent example of what Kazakh officials refer to as a “multi-vector foreign policy approach.” In 2010, it became the first Central Asian, post-Soviet and predominantly Muslim country to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In 2017, it assumed a two-year seat on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member and is currently chairing the Council.
President Trump desperately needs a diplomatic win. With his international stature based on a successful track record of promoting regional cooperation, Nazarbayev will be bringing with him a lifeline for the U.S. president. Coming out of this summit, look for a renewed push to delineate U.S.-Russian understandings in Syria as a prelude to a broader bilateral cooperation on other vexing issues such as including North Korea, non-proliferation, Afghanistan and maybe, eventually, even Ukraine.
Adam Ereli is a former U.S. ambassador. He served in Bahrain under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.