Blinken in Central Asia to boost ties amid Russia-Ukraine war

US secretary of state to meet with counterparts of five Central Asian countries on visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Delegations, led by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, hold talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, February 28, 2023. Olivier Douliery/Pool via REUTERS
Delegations, led by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, hold talks in Astana, Kazakhstan [Olivier Douliery/Pool via Reuters]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Kazakhstan, his first stop on a Central Asia trip to meet his counterparts from all five former Soviet republics in the region.

Blinken sat down for talks with Kazakh foreign minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi and then with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on Tuesday.

A meeting of the so-called C5+1 group, made up of the United States and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, followed.

Blinken’s trip, his first to the area during the administration of President Joe Biden, came just days after the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an event that has been seen to have emboldened leaders in the region to take a firmer approach in dealings with Moscow.

US officials have said the Biden administration is seeking to step up engagement with the region, especially for countries facing economic fallout from the conflict.

Upon meeting Kazakhstan’s Tileuberdi, Biden pledged Washington’s support of the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of the country, which gained independence from Moscow in 1991. Blinken said the US was helping to support the sovereignty of all of the Central Asian countries by helping them to “develop the strongest possible capacities for their own security, their growing economic prosperity, and the strength and resilience of their societies”.

“In our discussions today, I reaffirmed the United States unwavering support for Kazakhstan, like all nations,” Blinken said. “To freely determine its future, especially as we mark one year since Russia lost its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a failed attempt to deny its people that very freedom.”

Blinken added the US had increased an initiative to expand regional trade routes and export markets in the region to $50m during Tuesday’s meetings.

Kazakhstan, which shares the world’s longest continuous land border with Russia, has welcomed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing from a military call-up which began last September.

“We have built very good and reliable long-term partnerships in so many strategically important areas like security, energy, trade and investments,” President Tokayev told Blinken as they met at the country’s vaulting presidential palace. He added, without further explanation, that he had received three personal messages from President Joe Biden.

Before a subsequent meeting, Turkmenistan’s foreign minister Rasit Merodow said the visit allowed the pair to discuss “some of the international and regional issues”.

“At the same time, I think that it will be a very great opportunity to talk about here expanding cooperation between Turkmenistan and the United States,” he said.

Shifting dynamics

All five former Soviet Central Asian republics are traditionally viewed to be within Russia’s sphere of influence, but none has backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, all five abstained in a vote to condemn the invasion last week at the United Nations General Assembly on the anniversary of the war.

A recent study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found a spike in European Union and British exports to Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, part of a customs union with Russia, and suggested that the flow was meant to evade the sweeping Western sanctions on Russia.

At the same time, the US has sought to spare Central Asia from actions against Russia. Washington has issued a sanctions exemption for the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which carries Kazakh oil to the West and goes through Russia.

During a joint news conference with Blinken, Kazakh foreign minister Tileuberdi noted the difficulty of navigating post-invasion sanctions or any shifts away from Russia, saying Kazakhstan and Russia’s economies have been “interconnected for a long time”. He noted the countries are both part of the Eurasian Economic Union.

“It is sometimes very difficult to manage, how we can provide this free trade by products and services without borders, but at the same time we tried to  avoid the possibilities for evasion of sanctions by Russia or any foreign companies,” he said.

Blinken, meanwhile, said the US had made “important strides” for greater ties with Kazakhstan, in particular, in recent years and would look for practical ways to do more with the other Central Asian nations.

Nevertheless, the US has often come up short in its decades-long effort to sway Central Asian countries from Moscow’s influence, evidenced by the deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan at Tokayev’s request to stem anti-government protests in January 2022.

And while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan assisted the US logistically during its 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, following the US withdrawal in 2021, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan agreed to coordinate a joint action with Russia.

China also wields substantial financial influence over the region through its Belt and Road Initiative and major lending.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies