There is nothing like the Anglo-American mainstream media when it comes to their herd mentality. So practically every major news group has been running the same line about President Xi Jinping’s first trip abroad since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The preset news template has been “all eyes will be on” the expected meeting between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and how far Beijing will continue with their friendship described as “without limits”. The subtext, of course, is that the pair are the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of contemporary autocracy. A dose of reality is in order. The fact that Xi has made such a big fuss about his state visit to Kazakhstan before attending the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the Uzbek city of Samarkand has already exposed some very concrete limits to that “without limits” friendship with Russia. And that’s something the Western-centric narrative about the war in Ukraine usually overlooks. You probably won’t know it if your daily news diet consists of reading the major English-language press. But actually, Kazakhstan, one of Moscow’s closest allies, has been sympathetic to Ukraine, often publicly. That’s key to understanding Xi’s state visit and the dynamics at the SCO summit. Like China, Kazakhstan has followed Western sanctions against Russia, if not even more stringently. And like China, it won’t recognise the so-called “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine under Russian and pro-Russian secessionist occupation. But Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev went even further; in June, at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum at which Putin was present, Tokayev openly said so. The Russians were understandably upset. After all, in January, Russian troops helped put down deadly riots in Kazakhstan at Tokayev’s request. It was in this context that an online message purportedly sent by former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev early last month caused what a rude English slang calls an excremental storm. In his Facebook-like Vkontakte account reportedly followed by 2.2 million people, Medvedev declared that Russia-backed breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia must be merged with Georgia and reunited as a single state with mother Russia, and that Kazakhstan was an “artificial state”. He alleged “genocide” as being committed against ethnic Russians who live in northern Kazakhstan through forced resettlement. He then warned that Russia would always protect ethnic Russians and hinted that Kazakhstan could be next after Ukraine. Sound familiar? They were exactly the same accusations levelled at Ukraine by Putin before the late February invasion. The message stayed online for several days before it was deleted, with an explanation claiming that Medvedev’s online account was hacked and that the message was fake. Well, fake or not, it caused extreme consternation in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital, as well as in the capitals of the other -stans, all of which were former Soviet satellite states. Even if it was fake, the message still reflected the neo-imperial sentiments of Russian hardliners. While Tokayev has been criticised as repressive as his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev, he is much more economically liberal and politically independent from Moscow. China, while acknowledging Central Asia as Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, prefers Tokayev that way. In fact, having invested so much prestige and resources in building up the SCO, Beijing is not unhappy to see member states in the region to be more assertive at Moscow’s expense. At Samarkand, Xi needs to play a delicate balancing act between the interests of Russia and those of the other SCO members, many of which feel threatened by Putin – especially after Ukraine – and are not unhappy about his most recent military setbacks in Ukraine. After all, China’s Belt and Road Initiative runs through all of them. Rather than going over to the West like Ukraine, which geographically is not really an option, they may want to tilt more towards Beijing. In his official meeting, sitting opposite Tokayev, Xi said: “China will continue our strong support of Kazakhstan to protect its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as firm support to the reforms you are carrying out to ensure stability and development, and strongly oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country.” Indeed, in January, Moscow, Beijing and Nur-Sultan all used similar language to blame foreign forces for causing the unrest. Now, though, one wonders what Beijing may make of the potential Russian threat in Kazakhstan. But whatever may be the case, you can be sure that China will be much more upset about any Russian aggression in Central Asia than against Ukraine. While it may not be the security guarantor of the -stans yet, it very much wants to see their preferably pro-China independence going forward.