ALMATY -- Uzbekistan's and Kazakhstan's ties to Russia are increasingly putting the two nations at risk as Moscow continues to exploit the Central Asian nations.
Kazakhstan earlier this month faced scrutiny after Turkish customs authorities on July 1 held the Kazakh cargo ship Zhibek Zholy (Silk Road) as it arrived in Karasu with 4,500 tonnes of grain allegedly stolen from Ukraine, Voice of America reported.
Although Kyiv asked Ankara to detain the ship, it eventually returned to Russian territorial waters, AFP reported.
"Ignoring an appeal from Ukraine, the ship was released on the evening of July 6," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
It said it was "deeply disappointed" that Turkey had not acted on its request to seize the ship, which was sailing under the Russian flag.
"We regret that Russia's ship Zhibek Zholy, which was full of stolen Ukrainian grain, was allowed to leave Karasu port despite criminal evidence presented to the Turkish authorities," Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko tweeted.
It was not immediately clear what had happened to the wheat.
Last October, the Zhibek Zholy was leased to Green Line, a Russian company, through November 2022, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (Kazakhstan Railways), whose subsidiary transport and logistics company KTZ Express owns the vessel, said on July 1.
KTZ is committed to compliance with existing sanctions and international law and emphasised that it was unaware of the use of a Kazakh vessel to transport Ukrainian grain, KTZ said in another statement July 2.
"Under the practice and terms of the concluded agreement, the lessee has failed to harmonise with the shipowner on the type of cargo and the routes of its transportation," said the statement.
"In order to clarify the situation and to rule out violations of international law," KTZ wrote to the lessee with a "an urgent demand for a detailed explanation of the current situation with all supporting documents" such as contracts and certificates, KTZ added.
Meanwhile, Kazakh authorities declared their readiness to tear up the contract with the Russian lessee if it violated international law.
Turkey was investigating who chartered the ship, who sent the cargo and what sanctions pertained to the cargo, Kazakh Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Development Kairbek Uskenbayev told reporters July 5.
"If it [the Russian lessee] engaged in some kind of activity that violates the legal norms accepted in Kazakhstan and international law, then, of course, this contract will be abrogated, and the ship will be recalled," Uskenbayev said.
Kazakhstan, for its part, did not violate international law and faces no consequences in connection with this incident, he said.
However, the incident has been a notable blow to Kazakhstan's image, say Kazakh observers.
Russia left Kazakhstan vulnerable by involving it in questionable operations, according to Ruslan Nazarov, an international relations specialist from Nur-Sultan.
"While [Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev publicly declared support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and offered to help Western countries stabilise the energy situation, a Kazakh ship was transporting grain stolen from Ukraine," Nazarov said.
Kazakhstan will never recognise the self-proclaimed, Russian-backed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DPR) or "Luhansk People's Republic" (LPR) in eastern Ukraine, Tokayev told reporters while attending the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 17.
The Russian authorities who supervised the Zhibek Zholy are well aware of Nur-Sultan's position on the geopolitical crisis but "still dragged it into their criminal acts as an accomplice", he said.
Tokayev refuses to recognise the separatist regions of Ukraine because Kazakhstan wants to be counted among civilised countries, not outcasts, said Amirjan Qosanov of Almaty, a politician and candidate in the 2019 presidential elections.
"However, Russia has enough tools to pressure Kazakhstan, and I hope it won't use them -- doing so will not bring it the desired result," he said.
The 'Russian question'
Uzbekistan's ties with Russia are also putting that nation's reputation at risk after an Uzbek entity was sanctioned last month.
The United States added Uzbek company Promcomplektlogistic to its list of sanctioned companies, the US State Department said in a statement June 28.
In March, the United States imposed sanctions on Russia's Radiavtomatika for supplying products to Russia's defence industry.
However, Promcomplektlogistic -- a transport service company owned by Oleg Grabilin, who also owns several Russian companies -- helped Radiavtomatika evade the sanctions by supplying microcircuits to the company.
The sanctions on Promcomplektlogistic serve as a "warning" to companies around the world, the statement said.
"If you do business with sanctioned entities or individuals, you risk exposure to sanctions," it said.
Under the sanctions, all Promcomplektlogistic assets in the United States will be frozen and US companies will be prohibited from doing business with the company.
The news sparked widespread outrage among Uzbeks who are upset that Russia is using their country for its own arms industry.
Co-operation with a sanctioned Russian company could damage Uzbekistan's business reputation, said Tashkent blogger Ali Yuldashev.
"We are doing everything to make Uzbekistan more attractive to foreign investors. We are trying to build a healthy market economy with the help of Western capital," he said.
Russia, under severe sanctions, will continue to exploit the economic and infrastructural resources of Central Asian countries in order to solve its problems, said Nazarov.
The region should unite and develop a common position and approach to resolving the "Russian question", he said.
"By deepening 'friendship and partnership' with Central Asia today, Russia is pursuing only its own interests, and the consequences of this 'partnership' may be devastating for us," Nazarov said.