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.

Mr. Blinken’s trip is the first by any Biden cabinet official to Central Asia, 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 strain 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.

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. But they are at least hoping to keep the countries from helping Russia evade Western sanctions or giving it diplomatic support on war-related issues in venues such as the United Nations.  

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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