In Central Asia, Blinken Will Urge Distance From Russia, and Ukraine War

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is flying on Tuesday into the heart of what Moscow considers its sphere of influence to urge senior Central Asian officials convening in Kazakhstan to maintain independence from Russia and China.

The meetings come at a critical juncture in American efforts to head off Moscow’s global efforts to seek economic aid — and in some cases military aid — as the United States and its allies rush new weapons into Ukraine to try to give the Ukrainians a battlefield advantage over Russian troops.

This is Mr. Blinken’s first trip to Central Asia since Russia’s invasion, while both President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and President Xi Jinping of China — who are competing to expand their nations’ influence across the region — made visits in September.

Foreign ministers from five Central Asian republics that broke away from the Soviet Union — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are scheduled to meet one on one with Mr. Blinken and to hold formal group discussions with him and other senior U.S. officials. The United States knows these nations, which still have strong ties to Moscow, are unlikely to break those relations.

But American officials have noted the skeptical remarks that some top Central Asian officials, including in Kazakhstan, have made about Mr. Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, another former Soviet republic. The Biden administration aims to exploit that as it seeks to isolate Moscow and keep up sanctions meant to impede its efforts to continue the war.

 Mr. Blinken’s trip is part of a concerted effort by the United States to bolster Ukraine, which included President Biden’s unannounced trip to Kyiv last week and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s visit on Monday to the Ukrainian capital to announce  the transfer of $1.25 billion in economic and budget assistance to Ukraine to keep its government operating.

After Kazakhstan, Mr. Blinken is scheduled to have meetings in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Wednesday and then travel to India for a conference of foreign ministers of the Group of 20 nations.

What is at stake for the United States?

The main context is the war in Ukraine.

“Our main goal is to show that the United States is a reliable partner,” Donald Lu, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia and Central Asia, said in a news briefing on Friday. “And we see the difficulties that these economies are facing — high food prices, high fuel prices, high unemployment, difficulty in exporting their goods, slow post-Covid recovery and a large influx of migrants from Russia.”

But American officials say they are cleareyed about their goals. They do not believe that many of the Central Asian nations that have tried to remain neutral in the war will announce bold statements soon against Russia since they have decades-long ties to Moscow, including military relations.  

None of the Central Asian nations voted yes on the United Nations resolution last week calling for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and to agree to a lasting peace recognizing Ukraine’s full sovereignty.

What is the state of Russia’s relations with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan?

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are walking a treacherous geopolitical path between the biggest players in their neighborhood: Russia and China. Russia remains their most important partner when it comes to security, although China has been increasingly asserting itself and building economic ties, especially since Moscow seems distracted by the war in Ukraine.

Kazakhstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia’s answer to NATO, and when violent street protests in Kazakhstan threatened to bring down President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in January 2022, Russia led a contingent of 2,500 troops to quell the unrest.

But neither Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan has voiced support for the war in Ukraine or recognized Mr. Putin’s attempted annexation of four Ukrainian regions. The countries have taken in tens of thousands of Russians seeking to avoid Moscow’s draft.

And last summer, in a move that surprised many, Mr. Tokayev pushed back openly against Mr. Putin while sharing a stage with him at an economic conference in St. Petersburg, declaring that Kazakhstan would not recognize the “quasi-state territories” that Russia was propping up in eastern Ukraine. On Feb. 16, Mr. Tokayev spoke by phone with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to discuss “humanitarian ties” between their countries.

In previous statements, Central Asian countries have made clear that they support their own continued independence and sovereignty.

Still, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Saturday in support of China’s peace initiative for Ukraine, which Western officials derided as Beijing’s attempt  to give diplomatic cover to Moscow as it continues waging war.  

How is Russia reacting to Mr. Blinken’s trip?

Russia’s response has been muted so far. But Mr. Blinken’s visit is sure to be viewed as provocative by some in Moscow. At the same time, the Kremlin appears to be trying to avoid being seen as pushing too hard at a moment when its relations with countries in the region are fragile.

According to Temur Umarov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Mr. Putin held more than 50 meetings — online and in person — with Central Asian leaders in 2022. It was also a rare year in which Mr. Putin visited all five Central Asian nations.

“Moscow does not demand unswerving allegiance, otherwise the pressure being applied would be far, far greater,” Mr. Umarov wrote in December, describing Russia’s approach to Central Asia in the past year. “In any case, it can hardly afford to lose its few remaining allies.”

What are the U.S. economic interests in Central Asia?

Kazakhstan has some of the world’s largest oil fields outside the Middle East. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, investments worth tens of billions of dollars by international oil companies, including Chevron and Exxon Mobil, have helped make the former Soviet republic a sizable petroleum producer.

The involvement of American companies — and their role in helping build the Kazakh economy — has helped sustain relations between the United States and Kazakhstan.

But Russia also plays a role in Kazakhstan’s oil-focused economy. Most of Kazakhstan’s oil exports travel through a long pipeline that ends at Russia’s Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.

The pipeline could provide a pressure point for Moscow to strike back against U.S. sanctions. It probably helps that Russia is a large shareholder in the pipeline, which also carries some Russian oil, so it has a financial interest in maintaining the pipeline’s flow.

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