The Russian fake news machine continues to operate, fabricating lies not only about Ukraine and NATO member states but even about neighboring states whose governments have cordial relations with Moscow. A recent fake news post about Kazakhstan in a Russian Telegram channel highlights how Astana must continue to walk a fine line regarding its interactions with Moscow and Washington.
A July 21 post by the Telegram channel Baraeva, which has 2,300 followers, originally (and falsely) posted that Astana “has already given the US State Department consent to the relocation of almost 30(!) Pentagon biological laboratories from Ukraine.” The post covers its tracks fast, arguing that it is “waiting for official confirmation,” but still goes on to note that Kazakhstan would become a “biological weapons testing site if the news is true [reminder: it isn’t]. And this is right next to China.”
Alexander Kobrinsky, director of Russia’s Agency for Ethno-National Strategy, expanded on the Baraeva post in his own Telegram channel, Cobra, noting that Kazakhstan possesses Soviet-era labs which, “although in a semi-abandoned state, are suitable for the transfer of biological laboratories from Ukraine.” The transfer of these laboratories “is a threat not only to the host country and Russia but also to the whole of Southeast Asia,” including “China… India and Pakistan, [and] the entire Southeast Asia,” warned the Cobra channel. In so doing, it rephrased the Baraeva post, so it appears as if the fake agreement is a fact.
This fake news deserves more analysis. First, this supposed deal between Astana and Washington for labs and bioweapons production is a blatant lie. Moreover, and more alarmingly, Moscow used the fake allegation of U.S. laboratories and bioweapons production in Ukraine as another reason to justify the invasion.
Kazakhstan has remained generally neutral since the war commenced. Astana has not criticized Russia in international forums like the United Nations, nor has the Central Asian nation’s government recognized the pro-Russia separatist regions in Ukraine. Astana has prohibited its citizens from participating in the war as well.
Kazakhstan has called for peace and negotiations in line with its multi-vector foreign policy. However, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev famously called for the “sovereign equality of states [and] the territorial integrity of states” at the 2022 U.N. General Assembly. Kazakhstan is also following international sanctions against Moscow (though there are reports that some companies are violating them) but has stated that bilateral trade will not be jeopardized.
Moreover, it is generally believed that Tokayev and Russian President Vladimir Putin are on cordial terms. The Central Asian leader visited Moscow for the Victory Day celebrations this year (along with other regional heads of state), and the two leaders had a publicly-disclosed telephone conversation as recently as June, during the Wagner crisis.
Despite this, Moscow arguably continues to interpret the most fundamental diplomatic initiatives between Astana and Washington as threatening. Such exchanges are heating up: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan in late February, and a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Council also visited the country in June. U.S. President Joe Biden will reportedly meet with Central Asian leaders at the U.N. General Assembly this September in New York under the C5+1 format. Astana is also keen to attract more U.S. investments and partnerships with U.S. industries.
On the other hand, defense relations between the two countries are minimal. The U.S. military used to sponsor the exercise Steppe Eagle; however, the last iteration occurred in 2019. The watered-down exercise Regional Cooperation has replaced Steppe Eagle.
In other words, Astana-Moscow relations remain cordial, and Kazakhstan’s overall attitude toward the United States has a primary focus on attracting investment and trade, not defense cooperation. Simply put, there is no justification for the Russian fake news machine to continue to produce lies about alleged U.S. bioweapons coming to Kazakhstan.
The fake news about these supposed labs and bioweapons production has short- and long-term objectives. For example, just like with Ukraine, Moscow may want to plant seeds to justify to its population a potential action against Kazakhstan (military or otherwise) in the future. By mentioning how these supposed labs threaten other countries besides Russia, the Telegram post implies that any future action against Kazakhstan will protect peace throughout Central Asia and the rest of Asia, therefore justifying it.
Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine commenced, many prominent Russians have insulted Kazakhstan or claimed that countries like Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova are historical parts of Russia. Former President Dmitry Medvedev famously labeled Kazakhstan an “artificial state” in a Vkontakte post in August 2022. Using social media, like Vkontakte and Telegram, for fake news and attacks helps them go viral quickly.
Kazakhstan’s multi-vector policy has been put to the test since the war started. Astana has to follow a cautious strategy to bring investment, diversify its economy, and maintain profitable bilateral ties, all while considering the tense geopolitical situation and not angering its nuclear neighbor. While bilateral relations between Astana and Moscow appear to be generally cordial, the fake news posted on Telegram vis-a-vis Kazakhstan and its relationship with the United States demonstrates that Astana remains in a dangerous position.