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Weekly Update: St Petersburg Economic Forum Goes Off-script
Putin receives unexpected shade from Kazakhstan's Tokayev
Greetings from Izmir! With the situation in Donbas much the same as it was last week, I am taking a break this week from play-by-play summaries of the war to focus more on Russia’s geopolitical predicament. But first, a quick update on my last newsletter.
As you may remember, I implored my followers last week to support my colleague Mykola, who was wounded last month near Severodonetsk. I am pleased to report that the support has been phenomenal. Mykola is getting the treatment he needs with a healthy financial cushion to tide him over. Thanks to everyone who donated.
Kazakhstan President (Lightly) Tells Putin Off
The 2022 St Petersburg International Economic Forum, which in the past has been described as a Russian version of Davos, has not gone well since it began last week. Where in past years the annual event has attracted heads of state and tycoons from around the world, the guest list this years has largely been composed of people who would have trouble getting out of attending. Some of the most noteworthy guests on the first day were representatives of the Taliban. There was also Donetsk People’s Republic leader Denis Pushilin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, but with Pushilin serving as an outright Putin proxy and Lukashenko only marginally more independent, their attendance was hardly significant. Then, on Friday, Vladimir Putin’s speech was delayed by around 100 minutes by a denial of service of attack.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s public meeting with Putin on Friday might have lent a bit of credibility to the forum, had he not stolen the show that day at the Russian president’s expense. The two men were onstage together when moderator Margarita Simonyan of RT notoriety asked Tokayev if he agreed with Russia’s recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (D/LNR) in eastern Ukraine. Tokayev, one of Russia’s chief diplomatic allies, said that he did not.
He said: ”It has been calculated that if the right of nations to self-determination were actually implemented across the globe, then instead of the 193 states that now make up the UN, there would be more than 500 or 600 states on Earth. Naturally, it would be chaos.” Kazakhstan, he continued, would not recognize the D/LNR for the same reason that it does not have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Kosovo, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.
Tokayev’s logic is hardly the most biting criticism of Putin’s actions in the Donbas. I myself consider the D/LNR to be extensions of the Russian state lacking the bedrock of an organic separatist movement. While a high (although often overstated) degree of pro-Russian sympathies has always been present in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, an organized “movement” only manifested itself after Moscow’s forces invaded the land and installed born-and-bred Russian citizens in key leadership positions in the new occupation administrations. But I digress.
This is not the first time that Tokayev has declined to support the Russian war effort. It has been previously reported that Kazakhstan declined a request from Russia to send troops to Ukraine, a rebuff that Putin likely regarded as ungratefulness following the Kremlin’s use of troops to help protect the regime during unrest back in January. (Remember that?) Kazakhstan has also sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine as part of its state-to-state dialogue with Zelensky’s government. In yet another snub, Kazakhstan refused to participate in Russia’s Victory Day parade in June. Tokayev clearly does not view Ukraine as an enemy to quarrel with, nor does he appreciate Putin’s wish that his country pick sides.
Putin, acting only somewhat restrained, did not appreciate Tokayev’s comments. “What is the Soviet Union? This is historic Russia,” he said in response, before taking a softer note by praising Kazakhstan as an ally.
Kazakhstan, of course, is not Ukraine. In addition to lacking the same sentimentality within the canon of contemporary Russian nationalism, Kazakhstan is able to balance its foreign relations with neighboring China. While I do not necessarily expect Beijing to go to war with Moscow should the latter attempt a “special military operation” in Kazakhstan, such a development would certainly incur wrath from the Kremlin’s most crucial partner on the world stage.
Tokayev’s words also speak to the extent to which Russia is on its own. While Ukrainians certainly consider much of the world to be playing them dirty, support for Russia’s war outside of its handful of client states is more a component of enigmatic statecraft than a burning desire to see Putin win. China, for instance, might enjoy watching the U.S. feed its military resources into a European war, but they have also calculated that they better stay on good business terms with the current government in Kyiv so that it can continue incorporating Ukraine into the Belt and Road post-war. Likewise, India’s neutrality on the war may be the best that Moscow can hope for, but it is ultimately no one’s ideal model for friendship.
In other news:
Panic-buying has been observed in recent days in Kaliningrad after Lithuania imposed a railway transport ban on sanctioned goods transiting its territory. Until Saturday, Moscow was able to use pre-existing agreements with Vilnius to keep supplies moving from the Russian mainland to its NATO-surrounded exclave. Lithuania estimates that around 50 percent of all goods that normally take the route will be impacted.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said on Monday that Metolkino village near Severodonetsk fell to Russian forces. Located southeast of the city center, the town’s capture is more bad news for Ukraine but also highlights Russia’s slow-paced struggle to secure the Donets River’s northern bank. As I noted above, the hellish fight for Severodonetsk itself remains mostly unchanged from last week.