The Biden administration on Tuesday pledged to support the independence of the five Central Asian nations, in a not-so-subtle warning to the former Soviet states that Russia’s value as a partner has been badly compromised by its year-old war against Ukraine.
In Kazakhstan for a series of meetings with top Central Asian diplomats, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said no country, particularly those that have traditionally been in Moscow’s orbit, can afford to ignore the threats posed by Russian aggression to not only their territory but to the international rules-based order and the global economy. In all of his discussions, Blinken stressed the importance of respect for “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”
The Central Asian states have hewed to a studied position of neutrality on Ukraine, neither supporting Russia’s invasion nor U.S. and Western condemnations of the war.
“Ever since being the first nation to recognize Kazakhstan in December of 1991, the United States has been firmly committed to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Kazakhstan and countries across the region,” Blinken said after meeting in Astana with the foreign ministers of the so-called C5+1 group, made up of the U.S. and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
“In our discussions today, I reaffirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Kazakhstan, like all nations, to freely determine its future, especially as we mark one year since Russia lost its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in a failed attempt to deny its people that very freedom,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference with Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi.
Tileuberdi thanked Blinken for the U.S. commitment to Kazakhstan’s freedom, but signaled that his country was unlikely to adopt either a pro-Russian or pro-Western position. Tileuberdi said Kazakhstan would continue to act in its own national interest given “the complex international situation.”
“Our country continues a balanced multilateral foreign policy,” he said.
Tileuberdi noted that while Kazakhstan has very close and historic ties with both Russia and Ukraine, it would not allow its territory to be used for any Russian aggression or sanctions evasion. He added that even though Kazakhstan shares the world’s longest land border with Russia, it did not see a threat from Moscow.
Blinken also held separate meetings in Astana with the foreign ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Tajiistan and Turkmenistan. After visiting Kazakhstan, Blinken arrived in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, on his first trip to Central Asia as secretary of state.
None of the five former Soviet republics in Central Asia, traditionally viewed as part of the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, publicly backed the Russian invasion. Kazakhstan welcomed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing from the military call-up last fall.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has spoken by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy three times since Russian troops rolled into Ukraine last February, calling for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict in accordance with the U.N. charter and international law.
However, all five Central Asian republics, along with India, which Blinken will visit next after Uzbekistan, abstained in a vote to condemn the invasion as a violation of core international principles last week at the U.N. General Assembly, on the first anniversary of the war.
“If we allow (those principles) to be violated with impunity, that does open the prospect that Russia itself will continue to consider further aggression against other countries, if it sets its sights on them, or other countries will learn the wrong lesson and would-be aggressors in every part of the world will say ’well, if Russia can get away with this, then we can too,’” Blinken said. “That’s a recipe for a world of conflict, a world of instability, a world that I don’t think any of us want to live in.”
“So, that’s why it’s been so important for so many countries to stand up and say, no we don’t accept this,” he said.
The U.S. has for decades sought — without great success — to wean the former Soviet nations of the region from Moscow’s influence. Some, notably Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, assisted the U.S. logistically during its 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, but their ties to Russia remain deep and extend to the economic, military and diplomatic spheres as members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Moscow-dominated grouping of ex-Soviet nations.