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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Blinken finds receptive leaders in Central Asia, where Russia seeks aid

The U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, and the Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Tuesday.

By Edward Wong and Andrew Higgins

Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to Central Asia to press his case that the region should hold the line against Russian efforts to seek economic aid as Moscow grapples with Western sanctions.

Within hours of landing earlier this week in Astana, the snow-draped capital of Kazakhstan, he received a sign that the United States had some leverage. The Kazakh president stood next to Blinken in the blue-domed presidential palace and thanked the Americans for their support of his nation’s “independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

The president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, has not criticized Russia’s war, and neither have leaders of the four other Central Asian nations, former Soviet republics with decadeslong ties with Moscow. But his pointed statement suggested that, after the invasion of Ukraine, also a former Soviet republic, there was concern that President Vladimir Putin of Russia could try to seize parts of their own nations or encourage separatists.

Parts of northern Kazakhstan are inhabited largely by ethnic Russians and are viewed by Russian nationalists as territory that should belong to Russia. So there is concern that those Kazakh residents could fall victim to Putin’s logic that Moscow has a duty to “protect” ethnic kin wherever they are.

Blinken quickly gave assurances, saying at a news conference later that the United States was a committed partner of the Central Asian nations and that “our support for their independence and sovereignty, their territorial integrity, is real.” His remarks came after a group meeting with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian nations.

Blinken’s visit to Kazakhstan was the first by a Biden administration Cabinet official to any Central Asian nation. It occurs at an important moment in American efforts to rally nations to buttress Ukraine in preparation for its defense against a broader Russian offensive expected this spring and for Kyiv’s own potential military push.

On the battlefield in eastern Ukraine, however, the symbolism of Blinken’s push to help Ukraine was overshadowed by what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described as the “more and more difficult” situation for his troops fighting to hold Bakhmut, an obliterated city that holds symbolic importance for Russia as it struggles to show some headway after military setbacks.

Blinken’s meetings in Kazakhstan and a visit to Uzbekistan, which follow recent trips to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, by President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, are a crucial part of American diplomatic efforts this winter. Gen. Mark Milley, the country’s most senior military adviser, on Tuesday addressed a Rome conference of military chiefs from Africa, where Russia has some allies. Milley will later head to Germany, where he will meet with Ukrainian troops, Pentagon officials said.

The visit to Central Asia is a strike against Moscow in the heart of what it considers its sphere of influence.

U.S. officials say they are realistic about their diplomacy in Central Asia: The five nations — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — maintain close diplomatic, security and economic ties to Russia as well as to China, the other superpower rival to the United States, and Russia’s strongest strategic partner.

But the Americans hope at least to encourage the countries to resist pressure from Russia to give it more support at a time when it is struggling on the battlefield and Western allies believe powerful weapon shipments could help Ukraine make serious gains this spring.

One sticking point: Countries in Central Asia say the United States needs to greatly increase trade ties and economic aid if it hopes to counterbalance Russia and China.

Blinken also acknowledged at the news conference with the Kazakh foreign minister, Mukhtar Tileuberdi, that sanctions on Russia, Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, had had an “economic spillover effect.” He said the U.S. government was issuing “licenses that make sense” for foreign companies to continue conducting legitimate commerce with Russia while “watching compliance with sanctions very closely.”

Consequences from the sanctions on Russia have rippled across Kazakhstan. When the United States, Europe and some Asian nations first imposed them in February 2022, the Kazakh tenge, the local currency, fell 20%. It has gradually climbed back to just under its prewar value.

After meeting the five foreign ministers, Blinken announced an additional $20 million in U.S. funding for economic programs in the region, on top of $25 million from last year. He said the United States would also give $5 million this year to promote “regional connectivity” through economic and energy programs.

That is a small sum compared with the amount of trade between the nations and Russia and China.

Even Central Asian leaders who have benefited from Putin’s policies voice skepticism over the war. Last summer, Tokayev pushed back against 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.

That surprised many observers, since Putin had sent military support to Tokayev months earlier, when street protests in Kazakhstan threatened to bring down the Kazakh leader.

Tokayev is the only Central Asian leader who now speaks with Zelenskyy, a senior Central Asian official said, and Tokayev recently pledged humanitarian aid.

Kazakh diplomats have deflected criticism from Moscow of a project in the ravaged Ukrainian city of Bucha. The project, called the “yurt of invincibility” and set up by private companies, consists of traditional nomadic structures erected to give Ukrainians Kazakh food and tea, and a place to charge electronic devices, since Russian strikes knocked out power and heat.

The geopolitical quake and toll of the war in Ukraine are felt keenly in Kazakhstan. About 200,000 Russians fleeing the draft have sought sanctuary here in the past year. Outside of that, the country has 3.5 million ethnic Russians and 250,000 ethnic Ukrainians, in a population of 19 million.

“Kazakhstan cannot help but consider the case of Russian policy toward Ukraine, which, if Moscow succeeds, may also threaten Kazakhstan,” said Arkady Dubnov, an expert on Central Asia in Moscow.

Still, these countries are not rushing straight into the arms of the Americans. The Kyrgyz government is stalling on signing a cooperation agreement with Washington after years of negotiations. That would replace one scrapped in 2014 after Russian pressure forced the closing of a U.S. air base outside Bishkek that had been set up to fuel warplanes flying over Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan is concerned that if it signs, Russia could strike back by limiting the number of Kyrgyz migrant workers who can work there.

Kazakh officials say the government has to balance interests with Russia, China and other powerful nations.

Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked nation, and it mainly relies on overland export routes through Russia and China to deliver goods to outside markets. Oil makes up more than 60% of its exports — and it is an industry in which American energy companies are deeply involved and are eager to expand.

The shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated Kazakhstan’s drive to develop transportation routes for oil and freight across the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russia, said Peter Leonard, Central Asia editor for Eurasianet. And Kyrgyzstan revived a long-stalled plan last year for a new railway through its territory to Uzbekistan and on to Europe that would curtail its dependence on Russia’s rail network.

“The Ukraine crisis has supercharged sweeping historical trends rather than initiated them,” Leonard said. Russian leaders, he added, “are relying on gravity to maintain their influence. They are perhaps complacent and arrogant but feel that even if Central Asia starts to wobble and moves a bit outside their orbit, it would not require a great deal of effort to drag them back in.”

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