Photo: Andrey, Adobe Stock

Berlin’s struggle for influence in Central Asia

German Foreign Minister Baerbock has been in Central Asia trying to break the region out of Russian and Chinese influence. Berlin has been trying this for 15 years – without success.

Photo: Andrey, Adobe Stock

BERLIN/ASTANA/TASHKENT ( – The German government is seeking to use differences between Kazakhstan and Russia to drive a wedge between the two states. Astana is doing well to recognise neither the secession of Crimea nor the Russian annexation of parts of Ukraine, said Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at a meeting with her Kazakh counterpart at the beginning of the week; the aim now is to expand cooperation with Berlin. However, Kazakhstan does not recognise the secession of Kosovo either.

Baerbock also advocated close cooperation in the production of green hydrogen. To this end, a company from Dresden signed an agreement last week on a large-scale project in Kazakhstan, which is to produce two million tonnes of hydrogen annually for the EU from 2032. Until now, Kazakhstan has been one of Germany’s largest oil suppliers. However, because the oil is exported via a Russian port, it cannot be ruled out that it will be affected by the EU oil embargo, which will soon come into force. Kazakh oil producers are already looking for alternative export routes – but so far without any real success.

Principles of international law

In Kazakhstan and yesterday also in Uzbekistan, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock tried to exploit differences between the governments of both countries and Russia to drive a wedge between Moscow and Central Asia. Astana and Tashkent each abstained when the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the invasion of Ukraine as well as the annexation of Ukrainian territory – clearly intending not to side with the latter in the major conflict between Russia and the West.

However, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan did not recognise the secession of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, nor the secession of Donetsk and Luhansk: They insist on the principle of international law to preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states. For this reason, both, unlike the West, also do not recognise the secession of Kosovo. In Kazakhstan’s case, the motivation to maintain this position is also strengthened by the fact that the Russian-speaking minority in the north of the country, a good fifth of the total Kazakh population, is in the majority: Astana fears that if it recognises a secession from whatever country, this could be seen as a precedent in the case of its Russian-speaking minority.

15 years without success

Berlin’s and the EU’s attempts to strengthen their influence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are not new – on the contrary. As early as 2007, at the insistence of the Federal Republic of Germany, the EU adopted a Central Asia strategy with the aim of breaking Russia’s traditional influence and China’s new, growing influence in the resource-rich region. The efforts largely fizzled out, while China’s New Silk Road Strategy (Belt and Road Initiative, BRI) launched in 2013 proved successful.

In 2018, the EU followed up with a “connectivity strategy” explicitly aimed at countering China’s New Silk Road and strengthening European positions in the development of Central Asian infrastructure. Even then, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office Niels Annen tried to present the EU as an allegedly advantageous alternative to the People’s Republic; “priorities” for Berlin and Brussels were, for example, “social, environmental, security and human rights standards,” Annen claimed in the Uzbek capital Tashkent in September 2018: “This is where our offer differs from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.” Of course, Berlin’s and Brussels’ influence campaign at the time did not lead to success either.

The next attempt

Central Asia is currently experiencing the next German-European attempt to increase its own influence in the region. Last week, EU Council President Charles Michel travelled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to emphasise the desire to expand cooperation. In Astana, Michel also took part in a meeting with the presidents of all five Central Asian states. Afterwards, he was quoted as saying that “Europe and Central Asia” are now “more connected than ever.” On what exactly Michel bases the claim is not clear.

Baerbock, in turn, sought – like Minister of State Annen in 2018 – to praise Berlin as a cooperation partner by claiming that Germany always cooperates with other states “fairly, on an equal footing, without gag loans and without a hidden agenda,” while some countries – meaning Russia and China – operate “not only with military force,” but also with deals “hiding a web of dependencies.” It is unclear whether Baerbock’s remarks were intended primarily for the German audience. Outside Europe, the West’s wars as well as its neo-colonial gag deals are commonly well known.


Among the topics Baerbock discussed in Astana were Kazakhstan’s oil exports to Germany. Kazakhstan transports around 1.4 million barrels of crude oil per day – one per cent of global supply – through a pipeline to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, from where it is delivered by ship to Western customers. Germany thus covered about ten per cent of its total oil imports in 2021. The pipeline is considered vulnerable and has had to be shut down briefly at times in recent years to repair leaks or weather-related damage.

Above all, however, it is uncertain whether it can continue to be used after the EU embargo on Russian oil comes into force. The question arises not only because Russian companies are involved in the operating company (Caspian Pipeline Consortium, CPC) in addition to Kazakh and Western companies, but also because the oil is loaded in Novorossiysk in Russia, i.e., it comes from Russia. The consortia producing oil in Kazakhstan – in which Western companies have a large share – have long been looking for alternative export routes. So far, however, they have only succeeded in delivering oil to Azerbaijan via the Caspian Sea – and only in extremely small quantities.

Wind and sun

While it is unclear what results Baerbock’s talks in Astana led to regarding Kazakh oil exports, the Foreign Minister announced new measures to expand cooperation in renewable energies. Last week, the Dresden-based Svevind Group had already concluded an agreement on a large-scale project to produce green hydrogen in the presence of EU Council President Michel. According to the agreement, wind and solar plants with a capacity of 40 gigawatts are to be built in the Kazakh steppe by 2030; they are to be used to produce two million tonnes of hydrogen annually.

If it goes ahead, the project would be the fourth largest project to produce green hydrogen worldwide. However, much is still unclear, such as the question of who will finance the wind and solar plants and the electrolysers. There is also the question of how and where the hydrogen can be transported. If it is to reach Europe bypassing Russia, costly sea transports across the Caspian Sea would have to be planned. A simple alternative is the use of pipelines that currently deliver oil and gas from Kazakhstan to China; they could be converted.

This, however, would not be in the EU’s interest. Baerbock announced on Monday that Berlin would open a “hydrogen diplomacy office” in Kazakhstan to help push forward joint projects. Those who know the country are sceptical: in practice, they say, the Kazakh government “continues to rely on oil and gas, the export of which makes a lot of money;” there has been a lot of talk about the expansion of renewable energies for years, but only “little” is implemented.

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