Blinken backs Kazakhstan sovereignty as Ukraine raises fears

WASHINGTON (AFP): Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday vowed US support for Kazakhstan’s independence as he sought greater engagement in Central Asia, where traditional alliances with Russia have been rattled by the Ukraine invasion.

Blinken will also visit Uzbekistan and meet foreign ministers of all five former Soviet republics of Central Asia on his first trip to the region where neighbouring China also plays a key role.

“As you know well, the United States strongly supports Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, its independence, its territorial integrity,” Blinken said in talks at the foreign ministry in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.

“Sometimes we just say those words and they actually have no meaning. And of course, in this particular time, they have even more resonance than usual,” Blinken said, referring to Russia’s assault on Ukraine a year ago.

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 explanation 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 told him that the United States has made “important strides” for greater ties with Kazakhstan in recent years and would look for practical ways to do more with Central Asian nations — which also include Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

– Spotlight on sanctions –

The trip is the most senior to Central Asia by an official in the Biden administration and comes days after the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has received billions of dollars in Western support.

Central Asian nations have longstanding security and economic relationships with Russia that have come under greater scrutiny since the war.

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 on Russia.

The United States at the same time has sought to spare Central Asia from actions on Russia. Washington has issued a sanctions exemption for the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which carries Kazakh oil to the West and goes through Russia.

Unlike fellow former Soviet republic Belarus, Central Asian nations have not rallied behind Moscow over the war.

All five Central Asian nations abstained or did not vote last week on a UN General Assembly resolution that demanded that Moscow pull out of Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin’s justifications for the war, which included deploring the treatment of Russian speakers in Ukraine, have rattled nerves 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.

Tokayev recently spoke by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, although he also visited Putin last year to reaffirm ties.

China, which the United States views as its most significant long-term challenger, has also been seeking to expand influence in the adjacent region. President Xi Jinping last year chose Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic.

After Central Asia, Blinken will head to New Delhi for a meeting of the Group of 20 foreign ministers.

He is expected to avoid Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom he has only spoken to by telephone since the war, with the United States believing that Moscow is not sincere about a negotiated solution.