Kazakh official: Not the time to resolve differences through war

Kazakh Yurt in Ukraine

Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, calls for diplomacy to end the Russia-Ukraine war.

Throughout the Ukraine war, Kazakhstan has walked a delicate line.

The ex-Soviet Central Asian nation has stopped short of outrightly criticising Russia, its traditional ally, and regularly called for peace.

It has largely opted to abstain, rather than side with Russia, in United Nations votes on the war.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has maintained contact with not only Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also his Ukrainian and Western counterparts. He has provided shelter for Russians fleeing mobilisation and refused to recognise occupied Ukrainian lands as Russian territory.

And in several Ukrainian cities, “invincibility” yurts set up by Kazakh businesspeople are powerful symbols of humanitarian support. The tents offer free Kazakh food, tea, and hubs to charge electronic devices.

As the war grinds on, officials say they are open to taking on a mediating role, and will host the Astana International Forum in June, when global security will be on the agenda.

But at the same time, Russia is still Kazakhstan’s biggest trading partner and the two countries share one of the world’s longest borders. It has also been accused of helping Russia circumvent punishing Western sanctions, allegations that have prompted new measures aimed at transparency.

Map of Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine and surrounding countries.

Al Jazeera speaks with Kazakhstan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko on Russia, Ukraine, and the possibilities for peace.

Al Jazeera: Russia’s war in Ukraine has dragged on for more than a year. Thousands of people have been killed. This week, Save the Children announced another grim milestone – that the children’s death toll has passed 500. At this stage, how do you characterise the Russian invasion?

Roman Vassilenko: We are very concerned with this war. It is a conflict between two countries that are close to Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan maintains relations with both Russia and Ukraine, and shares the world’s longest continuous border with Russia of 7,500km (4,660 miles). But also, Kazakhstan maintains very close economic ties with Ukraine.

And there are millions of personal ties, because in Kazakhstan, out of 20 million people, we have 3.5 million ethnic Russians who are Kazakhstan citizens. And there are 250,000 Ukrainians in Kazakhstan, also Kazakhstan citizens.

Roman Vassilenko

Kazakh deputy foreign minister
Roman Vassilenko, Kazakhstan’s deputy foreign minister, says it is ‘not the time to resolve differences through war] [Courtesy: Kazakhstan foreign ministry]

There are up to one million ethnic Kazakh who are Russian citizens.

For us, it’s not a faraway war. It’s very, very tragic and troubling. And so that’s why Kazakhstan, from the very first days, made itself available as a mediator.

We stand for the territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine, based on the UN Charter. We have not recognised the [September 2022 Russia-led annexation] votes in [four] southeastern regions of Ukraine, nor have we recognised their addition to the Russian Federation. We recognise them as Ukrainian.

Al Jazeera: You have a deep history, long border, and strong economic and cultural ties with Russia. Can you exert more influence to stop the war?

Vassilenko: We can only use diplomatic methods and we can only use the power of persuasion. As a neighbour of Russia and as a country that continues to maintain ties with Russia, we continuously, of course, repeat this position and we hope that this position will be heard.

Al Jazeera: Do you think the invasion was at all justified?

Vassilenko: We have not publicly stated our position on the justification of the war or not. What we have publicly stated is that we want this conflict to end as soon as possible.

Kazakhstan has provided humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Our people have provided humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people. Invincibility yurts have been set up in various cities in Ukraine by Kazakh businesspeople.

That tells you about society’s attitude to this conflict. We want to do our part. We want it to end as soon as possible. It is very, very, very painful to watch.

Al Jazeera: Does Kazakhstan’s diversity pose any domestic challenges, in terms of how the war is viewed?

Vassilenko: We have more than 120 ethnic groups. Many people in Kazakhstan have realised what a precious peace and harmony we have here in our society – and how much more effort we need to maintain this, and prevent potential conflicts based on ethnicity or religion.

Al Jazeera: But some Kazakh nationals have reportedly gone to fight for Ukraine…

Vassilenko: I’ve heard of some specific stories … What I would say is that under our law, fighting in foreign wars is illegal.

These people, if they decide to do that, they are subject to criminal prosecution and the punishment is rather severe – so we do not encourage mercenaries.

Al Jazeera: Since the war began, observers have said that Kazakhstan is trying to move out of Russia’s sphere of influence, perhaps fearful that one day, it could be in Ukraine’s position…

Vassilenko: Kazakhstan is located in the heart of Eurasia. And being the largest landlocked country, [it] has pursued what has come to be known as a multivector foreign policy, meaning we build normal good relations with Russia, with China, with the West.

These are relationships based on mutual respect.

In the past year, we have realised perhaps ever so clearly that this is the perfect foreign policy for Kazakhstan, because while it is the ninth largest country in the world, it also borders two of the world’s largest nations by size, Russia, and by population, China.

Kazakhstan wants to build its normal relations with all its neighbours.

It is in our DNA to seek peaceful resolution of conflicts. We dismantled the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, which we inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed. We understand that diplomacy is the best way to protect our national interests.

We will continue to stay true to this principle and we will continue to present it strongly to Russia, to China, and to the West. Kazakhstan is not in favour of any great games again in the 21st century.

Al Jazeera: There are concerns, though, that Kazakhstan is helping Russia to circumvent Western sanctions. Kazakh exports to Russia, in the past year, for instance, have increased…

Vassilenko: Kazakhstan is part of the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia. There are no customs controls on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia – and there are 51 border crossings between our countries. So you can imagine the intensity of exchange on a daily basis.

But from the first day of the conflict, we said that while we are not imposing sanctions on Russia, we will also not allow our territory to be used for the circumvention of sanctions.

[As well as from Europe, we receive] higher-end products, including washing machines and fridges and iPhones, also from countries that do not impose any sanctions on Russia, such as China, India, Vietnam. And it is those products that do find their way to Russia because businesspeople in Kazakhstan, they see no legal issues with this.

However, we decided to introduce as of April 1 an electronic monitoring system for goods exported in the Eurasian Economic Union – so that we can track these goods.

Al Jazeera: By monitoring exports, what do you hope to achieve with the data?

Vassilenko: We have very clear guidelines for the businesses in terms of what is possible to export to Russia and what is not advisable to be exported to Russia, given the circumstances.

Al Jazeera: You’ve spoken about Kazakhstan’s ties with Western nations. Do you think the West has any misunderstandings about the Central Asian region?

Vassilenko: No, I think the West understands Central Asia very well, and I think they understand the situation in Russia and Ukraine very well.

Our message is please continue to be understanding of the precariousness and delicate nature of our position, because we are indeed in this neighbourhood.

The region is now surrounded by the most sanctioned countries in the world – unfortunately for us and for our trade.

We don’t have it easy here. We need support also for economic development. We are committed to building democracy. Democracy is not built in the snap of the fingers. We need to be patient. We are moving towards the very high ideals of democracy – participatory democracy. We need support along this way.

Al Jazeera: After the Russia-Ukraine war ends, what lessons will the world be left with?

Vassilenko: We will have to, if not reinvent the UN, somehow strengthen the UN and strengthen the international system.

[This war] makes it obvious that the world doesn’t have a plan B. This is our planet. We need to really work on the most pressing issues that face our world. It is not the time to resolve differences through war.

Editor’s note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.


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