Blinken promises US aid, support to Central Asia after Ukraine fears
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday promised US help for Central Asia to reduce the region's reliance on Russia, vowing support for the sovereignty of former Soviet republics unnerved by the Ukraine war.
Days after the anniversary of the invasion, the top US diplomat met his counterparts from all five Central Asian nations where Moscow has long been the top power and a magnet for workers, and where neighbouring China also has a growing influence.
Blinken announced $25 million in new support, on top of a previous $25 million announced in September, to help Central Asian nations diversify trade routes and create jobs at home.
The initiatives include English-language education, development of electronic payment systems, and training for returned migrant workers.
"I reaffirm the United States' unwavering support for Kazakhstan, like all nations, to freely determine its future, especially as we mark one year since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine," Blinken told a news conference.
In remarks with counterparts from all five nations -- Kazakhstan as well as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- Blinken said the United States backed their "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity."
Blinken later headed to the imposing palace in the capital to meet President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who voiced "appreciation" for US support for Kazakhstan's sovereignty.
Tokayev said, without elaborating before the press, that he had received three personal messages from President Joe Biden.
"We have built very good and reliable long-term partnerships in so many strategically important areas" with the United States, Tokayev said.
Blinken also welcomed recent political reforms by Tokayev.
The top US diplomat will travel later to Uzbekistan, which along with Kazakhstan is seen by US officials as the country most open to building relations with Washington.
- Longstanding ties with Russia -
The Russian government played down the visit by Blinken, the most senior official in the Biden administration to travel to Central Asia.
Russia's longstanding cooperation with Central Asia "is what guides us, is where our interests lie and is what we consider as the top priority of our foreign policy," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in Moscow.
Blinken heads later in the week to New Delhi for a Group of 20 meeting, where he is expected again to avoid Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Washington does not believe Russia is not interested in diplomacy in Ukraine, which has received billions of dollars in Western weapons to defend itself.
The United States has sought to spare Central Asia from its campaign against Russia, 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 evade the sweeping Western sanctions against Russia.
Unlike fellow former Soviet republic Belarus, Central Asian nations have not rallied behind Moscow over the war.
"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."
All five Central Asian nations abstained or did not vote last week on a UN General Assembly resolution demanding that Moscow pull out of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin's government has justified the war in part by deploring the treatment of Russian speakers in Ukraine, an argument that could resonate 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 Russians fleeing military service and called for a diplomatic resolution to the war that respects international law.
China has also been seeking a greater role, with President Xi Jinping last year choosing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic.