US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Kazakhstan, his first stop on a journey to Central Asia to meet with his counterparts from all five of the region’s former Soviet republics.
Blinken sat down on Tuesday for talks with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi and then Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
A meeting of the so-called C5+1 group, consisting of the United States and the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, followed.
Blinken’s trip, his first visit to the area during President Joe Biden’s administration, came just days after the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an event that would have encouraged leaders in the region to strengthen relations with Moscow. to deal with. .
US officials have said the Biden administration is trying to increase engagement in the region, especially for countries facing economic fallout from the conflict.
Meeting with Kazakhstan’s Tileuberdi, Biden pledged Washington’s support for the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of the country, which gained independence from Moscow in 1991. Blinken said the US helped support the sovereignty of all Central Asian countries by helping them “develop the strongest possible capabilities for their own security, their growing economic prosperity and the strength and resilience of their societies.”
“In our discussions today, I reaffirmed the unwavering support of the United States for Kazakhstan, like all nations.” Flashing said. “To freely determine its future, especially as we mark a year since Russia lost its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a failed attempt to deny its people that same freedom.”
Blinken added that at Tuesday’s meetings, the US raised an initiative to expand regional trade routes and export markets in the region to $50 million.
Kazakhstan, which shares the world’s longest contiguous land border with Russia, has welcomed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing a military call-up that began last September.
“We have built very good and reliable long-term partnerships in so many strategically important areas such as security, energy, trade and investment,” President Tokayev told Blinken when they met at the country’s vaulted presidential palace. He added without further explanation that he had received three personal messages from President Joe Biden.
Before a subsequent meeting, Turkmenistan’s Foreign Minister Rasit Merodow said the visit enabled the pair to discuss “some of the international and regional issues”.
“At the same time, I think it will be a great opportunity to talk about expanding cooperation between Turkmenistan and the United States,” he said.
All five of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics are traditionally considered to be within Russia’s sphere of influence, but none have supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, all five abstained from condemning the invasion last week at the United Nations General Assembly on the anniversary of the war.
A recent study by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found a spike in European Union and British exports to Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, part of a customs union with Russia, and suggested the flow was intended to ease the sweeping Western sanctions against bypassing Russia.
At the same time, the US has tried to protect Central Asia from actions against Russia. Washington has issued a sanctions exemption for the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which carries Kazakh oil to the West and passes through Russia.
At a joint press conference with Blinken, Kazakh Foreign Minister Tileuberdi noted the difficulty of navigating post-invasion sanctions or shifts away from Russia, saying that Kazakhstan and the Russian economies “have been linked for a long time.” He noted that the countries are both part of the Eurasian Economic Union.
“It is sometimes very difficult to manage how we can provide this free trade through borderless products and services, but at the same time we tried to avoid the opportunities for sanctions evasion by Russia or foreign companies,” he said.
Blinken, meanwhile, said the US had taken “significant steps” in recent years toward closer ties with Kazakhstan, in particular, and would look for practical ways to do more with the other Central Asian countries.
Nevertheless, the US has often fallen short in its decades-long efforts to keep Central Asian countries from Moscow’s influence, evidenced by the deployment of Russian troops to Kazakhstan at Tokayev’s request to halt anti-government protests in January 2022 to call.
And while Uzbekistan and Tajikistan helped the US logistically during their 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, following the US withdrawal in 2021, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan agreed to coordinate joint action with Russia.
China also exerts significant financial influence over the region through its Belt and Road Initiative and large loans.