WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to Central Asia hoping that greater US engagement will reassure former Soviet republics rattled by the Ukraine war, although Russia’s historic clout limits the extent of cooperation.
Days after the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion, the top US diplomat will hold talks on Tuesday (Feb 28) in Kazakhstan and then Uzbekistan and meet jointly with foreign ministers of all five ex-Soviet Central Asian states in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.
Donald Lu, the top US diplomat for South and Central Asia, said the United States was realistic that the five nations were not going to end their relationships with Russia or their other giant neighbour, China, which has been boosting its own presence.
But he said Blinken would show that the United States is a “reliable partner” and different from Moscow and Beijing.
“We have something to offer in terms of engagement economically, but we also have something to offer in terms of the values that we bring to the table,” Lu told reporters.
After a year of travelling the world to rally support for Ukraine, Blinken’s mission may be his most subtle yet.
Diplomats and experts say that Central Asian leaders are walking a tightrope due to formal security agreements with Moscow and Russia’s overwhelming security and economic influence, including as a destination for labourers.
All five abstained or did not vote as the UN General Assembly on Thursday demanded that Russian forces leave Ukraine.
For the United States, “the sky is the limit in Central Asia right now”, said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, an expert on the region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the University of Pittsburgh.
“There is a real desire among the leaders of these nations to move away from Russia. I think they realise that Russia is a threat to them, but by geography, there’s very little they can do about it, and their economic situation doesn’t give them a lot of options,” she said.
“So I think there’s a real opportunity for the United States to be creative, to engage with the leaders of these countries and sort of meet them where they are.”