Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday vowed US support for Kazakhstan’s independence on a trip to boost influence in Central Asia, which has been rattled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“As you know well, the United States strongly supports Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, its independence, its territorial integrity,” Blinken said as he met with his Kazakh counterpart.
“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 said that the United States was “determined to make even stronger” the US relationship with Kazakhstan, which has embraced cooperation with Washington since its independence on the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite Moscow’s overwhelming influence.
The top US diplomat later opened talks with President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and will fly afterward to Uzbekistan.
In Astana, Blinken will also meet with the foreign ministers of all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia — which also include Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The trip is the most senior to Central Asia by an official in US President Joe Biden’s 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 but, unlike fellow former Soviet republic Belarus, they 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, 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.