Blinken offers to help jittery Central Asia reduce reliance on Russia
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday promised US support for jittery Central Asian nations to reduce their reliance on Russia as he warned that any wavering on Ukraine could embolden Moscow elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc.
Days after the anniversary of the Russian invasion, the top US diplomat met jointly with counterparts from all five Central Asian nations, where Moscow has long been the top power and magnet for workers, and where neighbouring China also has a growing influence.
At the meeting in Kazakhstan's icy, windswept capital Astana, Blinken announced $25 million in new funding, on top of $25 million announced in September, to help Central Asia diversify trade away from Russia.
The initiatives include English-language education, development of electronic payment systems, and training for returned migrant workers.
Meeting the foreign ministers of all five nations -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- Blinken said the United States backed their "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."
"I reaffirmed the United States' unwavering support for Kazakhstan, like all nations, to freely determine its future, especially as we mark one year since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a failed attempt to deny its people that very freedom," Blinken told a news conference with his Kazakh counterpart.
Blinken said while he had no information that Russia planned to expand its war beyond Ukraine, the invasion showed the need to build "strong, resilient societies" in Central Asia.
"Had we failed to stand up in support of the principles that Russia was violating by invading Ukraine, that would have created, I think, a greater prospect that Russian aggression would point in other directions," he said.
- Reliable partnerships -
On a day in the pre-planned capital, earlier known as Nur-Sultan, Blinken entered an imposing blue-domed palace to see President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who voiced "appreciation" for US backing of Kazakhstan's sovereignty.
Tokayev hailed the "reliable, long-term partnerships" with the United States and said, without elaborating, that President Joe Biden had sent him three personal messages.
Blinken welcomed reforms by Tokayev, who controversially but briefly invited Russian troops a month before the Ukraine invasion to control unrest.
The top US diplomat later flew to Uzbekistan, which along with Kazakhstan is seen by US officials as the country most open to building relations with Washington, before heading to Group of 20 talks in India.
- Enforcing sanctions -
The Russian government played down Blinken's visit, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that longstanding cooperation with Central Asia was "the top priority of our foreign policy."
The United States has sought to spare Central Asia from its campaign against Moscow's invasion, issuing a sanctions exemption for the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which carries Kazakh oil to the West and goes through Russia.
But a recent study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found a spike in EU and British exports to Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan -- part of a customs union with Russia -- and suggested that the flow was meant to bypass the sweeping Western sanctions against Russia.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi told Blinken that his government would work to prevent sanctions evasion but said it was also not seeking to oppose Russia, which he described as an ally.
"We are trying to keep the system of checks and balances," he said, calling for "mutually beneficial cooperation" with all nations.
Unlike fellow former Soviet republic Belarus, Central Asian nations have not rallied behind Moscow over the war, with all five abstaining or not voting on a UN General Assembly resolution last week that demanded a Russian pullout.
"We have to tread very carefully," a senior diplomat from one of the Central Asian countries said on condition of anonymity.
The diplomat said his nation has been clear it does not back the Ukraine invasion but, also, "there is a sort of reticence, not to provoke Russia further."
President Vladimir Putin's government has justified the war in part by deploring the treatment of Russian speakers in Ukraine, an allegation that raises fears in Central Asian nations with sizable Russian minorities.
Kazakhstan, which has the longest land border with Russia at 7,644 kilometres (4,750 miles), has welcomed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing military service, a step hailed by Blinken.