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With a carrot and a stick. Narratives and evaluations of the visit by Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the USA, to Central Asia

photo: independent.co.uk
5 March 2023

Three objectives of the visit

Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the USA, paid a formal visit to the countries of Central Asia (CA). The head of the US foreign policy started his voyage in Kazakhstan, then he headed for Uzbekistan, and then attended the meeting of the heads of G20 member-states in India. In Astana, the Secretary of State had meetings with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the President of Kazakhstan, and Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Vice-Premier and the Foreign Affairs Minister. At the same day, Antony Blinken took part in the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the CA countries and the USA in the 5+1 format. Then, in Tashkent, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a meeting with the acting Foreign Affairs Minister Baxtiyor Saidov and with Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of Uzbekistan; he also had a briefing with journalists. The Secretary of State of the USA made several ambitious statements including the one about the need to «hold back the aggression of Russia», about supporting the policy of reforms and the territorial integrity of the countries of the region, as well as about assistance in diversifying the trade relations in order to minimize the connections with Russia. [1]

A series of important features of this visit drew the attention of experts. Some Western media highlighted the fact that the trip of the Secretary of State practically coincided with the yearly date of starting the special military operation (SMO) and added that SMO had a «negative impact on Moscows influence in the region». On top of that, that was the first official visit of the head of the USA State Department to Central Asia evidencing the growing geopolitical importance of the region. Today, in addition to the neighboring Russia and China, other players have also enhanced their activities in Central Asia the EU, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, the Arabic countries, and now the USAs turn has come. At present, Washington sets the objective of increasing its strategic influence in the region to win in the face of its traditional competitors the PRC and the RF. Some experts emphasize that the nearest objective of Washington is to detach the closest allies from Moscow in Central Asia or, at least, persuade them to better adhere to the Western sanctions introduced against Russia. [2]

Regional experts highlighted three main objectives of Blinkens visit. «One of the strategic issues is that Kazakhstan is at the confluence of the interests of two geopolitical adversaries of the USA Russia and China. In this sense, Central Asia is important for the United States, as they want to have a point of pressure. Another factor is connected with the extremist threats from the South and from Afghanistan. And the third objective is to explore the region in terms of supporting Russia in its was with Ukraine», Gaziz Abishev, the political analyst from Kazakhstan, believes. [3]

Let us remind here, that at the yearly date of starting the SMO the UN General Assembly voted for the resolution calling for «finishing the war» and requiring Russia to withdraw its troops from the territory of Ukraine. The resolution was approved by 141 countries, 7 voted against it, and 32 countries abstained. Four C5+1 participants were among those, who abstained Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan with its neutral status was among those who did not vote.

Shortly before the visit, Donald Lu, the Assistant to the Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, explained that Washington was concerned with that voting. He believes that just one visit by Antony Blinken will not have a noticeable impact on the position of the abstained Central Asian countries, as well as China and India, because they have a long and complicated story of their relations with Russia. «I do not think they will soon put an end to these relations», Donald Lu remarked. «But we are in a dialogue with them about the role they could play in this conflict». Thus, the American diplomat gave an indication that Washington intended to act softly, but firmly in its interaction with the Central Asian countries. However, today, the countries of this region are not ready yet for making a tough choice between the West and the East. They intend to develop friendly relations and stable economic ties both with Russia and China, and with the West. This is confirmed by a peaceful statement of Mukhtar Tleuberdi at the press-conference in Astana. He emphasized that Kazakhstan had historic ties with both Russia and Ukraine.

Due to these sound reasons, the regional media turned out to be quite wary in their evaluation of the potential results of the Blinkens mission. [4] The governments of the CA countries understand their national interests very well, that is why there will be many promises and a long mutual bargaining. Experts believe that its highly improbable that the countries of the region will radically change their foreign policy vector after the official visit of the Secretary of State. In our opinion, the Central Asian tour of Mr. Blinken is similar to his recent trip to Turkey. These visits are in line with the general American strategy «Anaconda Plan» meant to weaken the Eurasian power including Russia and China. The essence of this plan is to gradually bring the shore territories and friendly adjacent countries from under the control of Moscow Beijing not allowing for integration across the continent. The visit of the secretary of State is a trial balloon for gradual formation of the «hostility belt» in the «soft belly» of Russia and China.

The five «stans»

The ministerial meeting of the heads of the diplomatic services of Central Asia and the USA in the 5+1 format was a matter of routine. The agenda included the energy, economy and terrorism counteraction, as well as international context including the situation around Ukraine. Let us note here that CA has similar formats with other countries India, Japan, and South Korea. The 5+1 format per se was established in 2015 to implement the USA 2025 Strategy for Central Asia, where the stability of this region was the main factor. Hence, in his presentation, Blinken spoke about the hopes for the regional integration, which «would be beneficial for the peoples of Central Asia and the USA». In the opinion of some regional experts, «the traditional bilateral format with respect to the Central Asian countries is gradually transforming into the multi-lateral one, when this space is viewed as an integral design». It is associated with the fact, that for the USA only such integral space of CA is of pragmatic interest from the political and economic standpoint. [5] As one of the Kazakhstan diplomats ironically mentioned behind the scenes of the meeting, «for Americans we all look alike, we are just «the five stans».

The new and universal approach of the USA to the peripheric countries was clearly seen in all Blinkens speeches and presentations. For example, at the meetings with the President of Kazakhstan and with the President of Uzbekistan, the US Secretary of State paid the same compliments to them. [6] Firstly, Antony Blinken appraised political and economic reforms in these two countries. Secondly, he assured that the United States supported their sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and explained that in the current circumstances he imbedded a special sense into these routine words. [7] «Once again, the firm commitment of the USA to supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uzbekistan was emphasized. The irreversible democratic transformations and socio-economic reforms on-going in the country were highly appraised and fully supported», the Press Service of the President of Uzbekistan highlighted. Regional experts have similar opinions that for the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan the positive American appraisal of the going-on political transformations was extremely important.

The territorial integrity topic also has a very high value for the Central Asian countries, where border conflicts emerge on a regular basis. This is especially important for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who is not tired of repeating the words about Astanas commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent states. Thus, in June 2022, at the St.-Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) Tokayev stated the non-recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics, which, in the opinion of the President of Kazakhstan, were «quasi-states». On top of that, right from the SPIEF tribune Tokayev claimed that a series of Russian parliament members, journalists and celebrities allowed absolutely incorrect declarations regarding Kazakhstan. For example, absolutely inappropriate rhetoric about the Northern part of Kazakhstan, where the majority of the population is Russian-speaking, was a «gift» to Kazakhs from the USSR and Russia. Eventually, all this propagandistic hype from «turbo-patriots» and Armenian Lobbyists was a real gift for the US Department of State as a real example of the «Russian threat».

Antony Blinken made his most prominent statements at the press-conference with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan. Journalists calculated that the head of the US Department of State more than 10 times accused Russia in «aggression» against Ukraine. On top of that, Blinken expressed the concern that Russias «aggression» against the fundamental principles of the UN Charter can give birth to other precedents including in Central Asia. Then he said that Washington was working on becoming the «unflinching partner» for the Central Asian countries. Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan, responded to the words of the Secretary of State, that Kazakhstan «did not have a sense of any risks or threats on behalf of Russia» and is a member of various alliances, such as EAEU, CSTO and CIS. «We have a solid legal framework. We have completed the delimitation of borders between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan, and this is the longest land boundary of the world», Mukhtar Tleuberdi remarked. The Minister especially emphasized that the foreign policy of Kazakhstan was and would continue to be a multi-vector one in order to assure mutually beneficial cooperation with all the countries across the globe. [8]

A carrot and a stick

The Western and regional media provide substantially different assessments of the visit of the US Secretary of State. According to the Western media, Blinkens trip across the region was called to demonstrate that the USA is a reliable partner capable of assisting the CA countries. They focus on potential aid of the West in struggling with high prices for food and energy rallying due to the war in Ukraine. Regional media have a more pragmatic view of the visit. «The main focus was to discourage the CA countries from setting up the zone free from international sanctions for the RF, from becoming such a platform for by-passing the sanctions against Russian companies or banks. The West des not want these countries, first of all Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to turn into something similar to Iraq for Iran, when the Iran leaders are using Iraq banks and institutes to by-pass the sanctions», Rafael Sattarov, the Uzbek political analyst believes. [9]

Indeed, the topic of sanctions became the theme tune of public speeches by Antony Blinken and of the negotiations behind the scenes. «The USA and their partners are closely monitoring the compliance with the sanctions and support the Central Asian countries in their aspiration to diversify trade relations and to cut down their ties with Russia», the US Secretary of State said in Astana. According to him, the increase of the volumes of trade with Russias neighbors may be a sign of Moscow being successful in mitigating the sanctions effect. As per statistics, during the preceding year export from Kazakhstan to Russia grew almost by 15%, i.e., up to USD 7.8 bn, and the sanctioned export share grew dozens of times, and for certain positions hundreds of times. For example, computer equipment supplies from Kazakhstan to Russia grew 64 times, and processors supplies 121 times. During his visit to Kazakhstan, Antony Blinken expressed his concern with the RF receiving microchips and other technologies by importing them from its neighbor countries.

Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan, at the joint briefing with Blinken stated that Kazakhstan did not want his territory to be used for by-passing the sanctions. He confirmed that Astana and Washington were in close contact on sanctions-related issues. He also added, that so far not a single Kazakhstan company had been caught for by-passing the sanctions. It means that Kazakhstan officials will be using all possible ways to avoid the secondary sanctions and to protect major state-owned corporations from such accusations. For example, this explains the shutdown of Kazakhstan trade mission in the RF. At the same time, Astana tends to overlook the activities of minor firms, which are difficult to control with the account of the realities of the Eurasian Economic Union. In essence, the re-export «grey zone» has developed in Central Asia over the preceding year significantly mitigating the shock from the Western sanctions for Russia.

As of now, the US Administration intends to impose stricter sanctions against the re-export of electronics for Russia via the buffer countries, such as Turkey, Kazakhstan and the UAE. The restrictions may also cover the supplies of various machines, dual-purpose goods and even the household appliances. The West claimed several times that household appliances are being stripped down to components, which are used in Russian defense industry. Antony Blinken signaled to the Central Asian countries that sooner or later they will have to assure compliance with sanctions-related restrictions. He explained that the USA had granted a deferral and licenses to help the regional companies «to stop these activities and to break their connections with Russia». Washington plans to allocate USD 25 mln as a compensation to support regional connections within economic and energy programs. Marat Shibutov, the Kazakhstan analyst, calls this amount ridiculous in the context of the trade turnover between Russia and Kazakhstan, which constitutes dozens of billions of US Dollars. [10]

In reality, this quite modest amount is just the first tranche for developing the possible alternative economic routes in case of refusal to cooperate with Russia and China. In addition to this small «carrot», the US Secretary of State brought a big «stick» he repeated the words secondary sanctions in his speeches as many times as «Russian aggression» or «Russian threat». The elites of the Central Asian countries heavily depend in the USA in terms of capital exports, oil production and uranium sales. Antony Blinken promised substantial grants to various NGOs in the region and mass-media support. For example, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)* allocated USD 1.3 mln to Kazakhstan NGOs las year for working with human rights advocates, activists, youth and «independent» media. «Blinken does not to say straightforwardly, that the United States demand that the Central Asian countries decide whether they are with Russia or with the West. The business communities in these countries understand perfectly well the American expectations even without Blinken openly saying that», Azamat Osmonov, the political analyst from Kyrgyzstan concludes. [11]

Interim results

In essence, the first official visit of the US Secretary of State to the Central Asian countries is an open declaration of new American interests in the region, which traditionally was considered to be the «backyard» of Russia and China. This is a trial step within the program of gradual bringing the friendly countries of the Great Limitrophe (their most important South-East end) from under the control of Moscow and Beijing. Formation of the «hostility belt» across Central Asia is the long-nurtured dream of the American strategists. This provides for abrupt penetration into the «soft belly» of Russia and the rear territories of India, China and Iran.  With account of the marine power of the USA, there is a possibility to affect Iran and the Middle East both from the side of the Persian Gulf, and from the Caspian Region. The Americans will also receive a unique opportunity for simultaneous pressure over China from the side of the Pacific theatre of operations and from the side of Sinkiang and the Tibet. Within the long-term objective of deterring China as the main geopolitical competitor of the USA, Washington views the presence in Central Asia as strategically important and vital.

According to some sources in the diplomatic circles, during the recent trip of Antony Blinken, the possibility of a blitz visit to the region by Jo Biden, the President of the USA, was discussed behind the scenes similar to Bidens recent trip to Kyiv and Warsaw. Not a single American President visited the Central Asian region previously, so this visit could have a big political and symbolic meaning. Firstly, it will obviously raise the geopolitical status of the region; secondly, it will symbolize the migration of the post-Soviet countries into the zone of vital American interests; and thirdly, it will demonstrate the come-back of the military presence of the US in this strategically important region after the infamous exodus of Americans from Afghanistan. Analysts believe that in future there may be a discussion of opening a US Air Forces base at the Uzbek aviation base Karshi-Khanabad, as well as about the presence of the US Special Operations Forces and the control points of the Central Command (CENTCOM) in Central Asia. It is expected that during the possible Bidens visit a big package of economic aid to the Central Asian countries may be announced along with a series of humanitarian initiatives.

At present, the leaders of the Central Asian countries is rather averse about direct military presence of the USA in the region. In their opinion, this will result in an unavoidable break of the existing collective security system built with participation of the CA countries, as well as Russia and China. Today, the Central Asian countries are participating in a number of successful projects CSTO, SCO, BRICS, «One Belt, One Road» and Regional Anti-Terrorist System (RATS) within SCO. Replacing them with the «pin-point» military presence of the USA will result in chaotization of the region turning it from a peaceful buffer zone into the bloody battlefield, as well as in violent change of the existing political regimes. Due to these compelling reasons, the leaders of the Central Asian countries will be more and more inclined towards keeping the neutrality to avoid the direct choice between the West and the East. It seems that already in the very near future we will see the growth of the role of the Non-Aligned Movement as a political justification of such neutrality. Together with the CA, such meaningful countries as India and Brazil will be using this platform to develop the peaceful alternative to the increasing military standoff on our planet.

In the mid-term perspective, after Blinkens trip we are to expect noticeable toughening of Western restrictions in finance, supplies of microelectronics and other important equipment via the Central Asian countries. Similar restrictions may be introduced with respect to Turkey and the UAE, which are also important partners for Russia. The US Administration is seriously concerned with the existing capabilities of the Russian Federation to support long-lasting confrontation in the conditions of sanctions.

According to the plans of the American strategists, the «rebellious Russia» needs to be put down until the end of the year already, and after that it will be Chinas turn. That is why they intend to use the two-factor scheme to get out of the long-lasting conflict in Ukraine: via aggravation of the situation in the theatre of military operations, and via restricting the supplies in the rear. It means that the pressure on the Central Asian countries will be growing. Instead of the unregulated market of «grey» supplies of the sanctioned goods, the EAEU member-states will have to establish a multi-tier export-import scheme using the examples of the cold war.

In general, the visit of the US Secretary of State to Central Asia should be viewed as a serious geopolitical challenge and the intent to open the second front against Russia, which should not be ignored.


* The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is qualified by the RF General Prosecutors Office as an undesirable organization in the territory of the Russian Federation. 

1. The USA will assist the Central Asian countries in minimizing their ties with Russia Blinken. Podrobno.uz, 28.02.2023. https://podrobno.uz/cat/politic/ssha-pomogut-stranam-tsentralnoy-azii-sokratit-svyazi-s-rossiey-blinken/

2. The pitched geopolitical battle for Central Asia. Kommersant, 28.02.2023. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5843266

3. Bound for the East: why the US Secretary of State went to Central Asia. Zakon.kz, 27.02.2023. https://www.zakon.kz/6385601-kurs--na-vostok-zachem-gossekretar-ssha-otpravilsya-v-tsentralnuyu-aziyu.html

4. Blinken failed the mission to Astana. Vestnik Kavkaza, 01.03.2023. https://vestikavkaza.ru/analytics/blinken-provalil-astaninskuu-missiu.html

5. Kazakhstan expert assessed Blinkens speech in Astana. Zakon.kz, 28.02.2023. https://www.zakon.kz/6385758-kazakhstanskiy-ekspert-otsenil-vystuplenie-blinkena-v-astane.html

6. The topic of the discussion between Tokayev and Blinken. KazTAG, 28.02.2023.  https://kaztag.kz/ru/news/o-chem-govorili-tokaev-i-gossekretar-ssha-blinken

7. We support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Central Asian countries Antony Blinken. UzDaily.uz, 01.03.2023. http://www.uzdaily.uz/ru/post/75870

8. At present Kazakhstan does not see any risks or threats from Russia the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan. Gazeta.uz, 01.03.2023. https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2023/03/01/kazakhstan/

9. The US Secretary of State visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: a political analyst believes he tried to persuade them to refuse from helping Russia in by-passing the sanctions. Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 01.03.2023. https://www.currenttime.tv/a/kazakhstan-uzbekistan-blinken-usa/32294806.html The RF Ministry of Justice included the TV Channel Nastoyashcheye Vremya into the list of media foreign agents.

10. The USA is using money and threats to turn Central Asia against Russia. Vzglyad, 02.03.2023. https://vz.ru/world/2023/3/2/1201340.html

11. Blinken brings a carrot and a stick to Central Asia. NEWS.ru, 28.02.2023. https://news.ru/cis/blinken-privez-v-srednyuyu-aziyu-knut-i-pryanik/

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Reports

With a carrot and a stick. Narratives and evaluations of the visit by Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the USA, to Central Asia

photo: independent.co.uk
5 2023

Three objectives of the visit

Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the USA, paid a formal visit to the countries of Central Asia (CA). The head of the US foreign policy started his voyage in Kazakhstan, then he headed for Uzbekistan, and then attended the meeting of the heads of G20 member-states in India. In Astana, the Secretary of State had meetings with Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the President of Kazakhstan, and Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Vice-Premier and the Foreign Affairs Minister. At the same day, Antony Blinken took part in the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Ministers of the CA countries and the USA in the 5+1 format. Then, in Tashkent, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a meeting with the acting Foreign Affairs Minister Baxtiyor Saidov and with Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the President of Uzbekistan; he also had a briefing with journalists. The Secretary of State of the USA made several ambitious statements including the one about the need to «hold back the aggression of Russia», about supporting the policy of reforms and the territorial integrity of the countries of the region, as well as about assistance in diversifying the trade relations in order to minimize the connections with Russia. [1]

A series of important features of this visit drew the attention of experts. Some Western media highlighted the fact that the trip of the Secretary of State practically coincided with the yearly date of starting the special military operation (SMO) and added that SMO had a «negative impact on Moscows influence in the region». On top of that, that was the first official visit of the head of the USA State Department to Central Asia evidencing the growing geopolitical importance of the region. Today, in addition to the neighboring Russia and China, other players have also enhanced their activities in Central Asia the EU, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, the Arabic countries, and now the USAs turn has come. At present, Washington sets the objective of increasing its strategic influence in the region to win in the face of its traditional competitors the PRC and the RF. Some experts emphasize that the nearest objective of Washington is to detach the closest allies from Moscow in Central Asia or, at least, persuade them to better adhere to the Western sanctions introduced against Russia. [2]

Regional experts highlighted three main objectives of Blinkens visit. «One of the strategic issues is that Kazakhstan is at the confluence of the interests of two geopolitical adversaries of the USA Russia and China. In this sense, Central Asia is important for the United States, as they want to have a point of pressure. Another factor is connected with the extremist threats from the South and from Afghanistan. And the third objective is to explore the region in terms of supporting Russia in its was with Ukraine», Gaziz Abishev, the political analyst from Kazakhstan, believes. [3]

Let us remind here, that at the yearly date of starting the SMO the UN General Assembly voted for the resolution calling for «finishing the war» and requiring Russia to withdraw its troops from the territory of Ukraine. The resolution was approved by 141 countries, 7 voted against it, and 32 countries abstained. Four C5+1 participants were among those, who abstained Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Turkmenistan with its neutral status was among those who did not vote.

Shortly before the visit, Donald Lu, the Assistant to the Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, explained that Washington was concerned with that voting. He believes that just one visit by Antony Blinken will not have a noticeable impact on the position of the abstained Central Asian countries, as well as China and India, because they have a long and complicated story of their relations with Russia. «I do not think they will soon put an end to these relations», Donald Lu remarked. «But we are in a dialogue with them about the role they could play in this conflict». Thus, the American diplomat gave an indication that Washington intended to act softly, but firmly in its interaction with the Central Asian countries. However, today, the countries of this region are not ready yet for making a tough choice between the West and the East. They intend to develop friendly relations and stable economic ties both with Russia and China, and with the West. This is confirmed by a peaceful statement of Mukhtar Tleuberdi at the press-conference in Astana. He emphasized that Kazakhstan had historic ties with both Russia and Ukraine.

Due to these sound reasons, the regional media turned out to be quite wary in their evaluation of the potential results of the Blinkens mission. [4] The governments of the CA countries understand their national interests very well, that is why there will be many promises and a long mutual bargaining. Experts believe that its highly improbable that the countries of the region will radically change their foreign policy vector after the official visit of the Secretary of State. In our opinion, the Central Asian tour of Mr. Blinken is similar to his recent trip to Turkey. These visits are in line with the general American strategy «Anaconda Plan» meant to weaken the Eurasian power including Russia and China. The essence of this plan is to gradually bring the shore territories and friendly adjacent countries from under the control of Moscow Beijing not allowing for integration across the continent. The visit of the secretary of State is a trial balloon for gradual formation of the «hostility belt» in the «soft belly» of Russia and China.

The five «stans»

The ministerial meeting of the heads of the diplomatic services of Central Asia and the USA in the 5+1 format was a matter of routine. The agenda included the energy, economy and terrorism counteraction, as well as international context including the situation around Ukraine. Let us note here that CA has similar formats with other countries India, Japan, and South Korea. The 5+1 format per se was established in 2015 to implement the USA 2025 Strategy for Central Asia, where the stability of this region was the main factor. Hence, in his presentation, Blinken spoke about the hopes for the regional integration, which «would be beneficial for the peoples of Central Asia and the USA». In the opinion of some regional experts, «the traditional bilateral format with respect to the Central Asian countries is gradually transforming into the multi-lateral one, when this space is viewed as an integral design». It is associated with the fact, that for the USA only such integral space of CA is of pragmatic interest from the political and economic standpoint. [5] As one of the Kazakhstan diplomats ironically mentioned behind the scenes of the meeting, «for Americans we all look alike, we are just «the five stans».

The new and universal approach of the USA to the peripheric countries was clearly seen in all Blinkens speeches and presentations. For example, at the meetings with the President of Kazakhstan and with the President of Uzbekistan, the US Secretary of State paid the same compliments to them. [6] Firstly, Antony Blinken appraised political and economic reforms in these two countries. Secondly, he assured that the United States supported their sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and explained that in the current circumstances he imbedded a special sense into these routine words. [7] «Once again, the firm commitment of the USA to supporting the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uzbekistan was emphasized. The irreversible democratic transformations and socio-economic reforms on-going in the country were highly appraised and fully supported», the Press Service of the President of Uzbekistan highlighted. Regional experts have similar opinions that for the leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan the positive American appraisal of the going-on political transformations was extremely important.

The territorial integrity topic also has a very high value for the Central Asian countries, where border conflicts emerge on a regular basis. This is especially important for President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who is not tired of repeating the words about Astanas commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of independent states. Thus, in June 2022, at the St.-Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) Tokayev stated the non-recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples Republics, which, in the opinion of the President of Kazakhstan, were «quasi-states». On top of that, right from the SPIEF tribune Tokayev claimed that a series of Russian parliament members, journalists and celebrities allowed absolutely incorrect declarations regarding Kazakhstan. For example, absolutely inappropriate rhetoric about the Northern part of Kazakhstan, where the majority of the population is Russian-speaking, was a «gift» to Kazakhs from the USSR and Russia. Eventually, all this propagandistic hype from «turbo-patriots» and Armenian Lobbyists was a real gift for the US Department of State as a real example of the «Russian threat».

Antony Blinken made his most prominent statements at the press-conference with the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan. Journalists calculated that the head of the US Department of State more than 10 times accused Russia in «aggression» against Ukraine. On top of that, Blinken expressed the concern that Russias «aggression» against the fundamental principles of the UN Charter can give birth to other precedents including in Central Asia. Then he said that Washington was working on becoming the «unflinching partner» for the Central Asian countries. Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan, responded to the words of the Secretary of State, that Kazakhstan «did not have a sense of any risks or threats on behalf of Russia» and is a member of various alliances, such as EAEU, CSTO and CIS. «We have a solid legal framework. We have completed the delimitation of borders between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Kazakhstan, and this is the longest land boundary of the world», Mukhtar Tleuberdi remarked. The Minister especially emphasized that the foreign policy of Kazakhstan was and would continue to be a multi-vector one in order to assure mutually beneficial cooperation with all the countries across the globe. [8]

A carrot and a stick

The Western and regional media provide substantially different assessments of the visit of the US Secretary of State. According to the Western media, Blinkens trip across the region was called to demonstrate that the USA is a reliable partner capable of assisting the CA countries. They focus on potential aid of the West in struggling with high prices for food and energy rallying due to the war in Ukraine. Regional media have a more pragmatic view of the visit. «The main focus was to discourage the CA countries from setting up the zone free from international sanctions for the RF, from becoming such a platform for by-passing the sanctions against Russian companies or banks. The West des not want these countries, first of all Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to turn into something similar to Iraq for Iran, when the Iran leaders are using Iraq banks and institutes to by-pass the sanctions», Rafael Sattarov, the Uzbek political analyst believes. [9]

Indeed, the topic of sanctions became the theme tune of public speeches by Antony Blinken and of the negotiations behind the scenes. «The USA and their partners are closely monitoring the compliance with the sanctions and support the Central Asian countries in their aspiration to diversify trade relations and to cut down their ties with Russia», the US Secretary of State said in Astana. According to him, the increase of the volumes of trade with Russias neighbors may be a sign of Moscow being successful in mitigating the sanctions effect. As per statistics, during the preceding year export from Kazakhstan to Russia grew almost by 15%, i.e., up to USD 7.8 bn, and the sanctioned export share grew dozens of times, and for certain positions hundreds of times. For example, computer equipment supplies from Kazakhstan to Russia grew 64 times, and processors supplies 121 times. During his visit to Kazakhstan, Antony Blinken expressed his concern with the RF receiving microchips and other technologies by importing them from its neighbor countries.

Mukhtar Tleuberdi, the Foreign Affairs Minister of Kazakhstan, at the joint briefing with Blinken stated that Kazakhstan did not want his territory to be used for by-passing the sanctions. He confirmed that Astana and Washington were in close contact on sanctions-related issues. He also added, that so far not a single Kazakhstan company had been caught for by-passing the sanctions. It means that Kazakhstan officials will be using all possible ways to avoid the secondary sanctions and to protect major state-owned corporations from such accusations. For example, this explains the shutdown of Kazakhstan trade mission in the RF. At the same time, Astana tends to overlook the activities of minor firms, which are difficult to control with the account of the realities of the Eurasian Economic Union. In essence, the re-export «grey zone» has developed in Central Asia over the preceding year significantly mitigating the shock from the Western sanctions for Russia.

As of now, the US Administration intends to impose stricter sanctions against the re-export of electronics for Russia via the buffer countries, such as Turkey, Kazakhstan and the UAE. The restrictions may also cover the supplies of various machines, dual-purpose goods and even the household appliances. The West claimed several times that household appliances are being stripped down to components, which are used in Russian defense industry. Antony Blinken signaled to the Central Asian countries that sooner or later they will have to assure compliance with sanctions-related restrictions. He explained that the USA had granted a deferral and licenses to help the regional companies «to stop these activities and to break their connections with Russia». Washington plans to allocate USD 25 mln as a compensation to support regional connections within economic and energy programs. Marat Shibutov, the Kazakhstan analyst, calls this amount ridiculous in the context of the trade turnover between Russia and Kazakhstan, which constitutes dozens of billions of US Dollars. [10]

In reality, this quite modest amount is just the first tranche for developing the possible alternative economic routes in case of refusal to cooperate with Russia and China. In addition to this small «carrot», the US Secretary of State brought a big «stick» he repeated the words secondary sanctions in his speeches as many times as «Russian aggression» or «Russian threat». The elites of the Central Asian countries heavily depend in the USA in terms of capital exports, oil production and uranium sales. Antony Blinken promised substantial grants to various NGOs in the region and mass-media support. For example, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)* allocated USD 1.3 mln to Kazakhstan NGOs las year for working with human rights advocates, activists, youth and «independent» media. «Blinken does not to say straightforwardly, that the United States demand that the Central Asian countries decide whether they are with Russia or with the West. The business communities in these countries understand perfectly well the American expectations even without Blinken openly saying that», Azamat Osmonov, the political analyst from Kyrgyzstan concludes. [11]

Interim results

In essence, the first official visit of the US Secretary of State to the Central Asian countries is an open declaration of new American interests in the region, which traditionally was considered to be the «backyard» of Russia and China. This is a trial step within the program of gradual bringing the friendly countries of the Great Limitrophe (their most important South-East end) from under the control of Moscow and Beijing. Formation of the «hostility belt» across Central Asia is the long-nurtured dream of the American strategists. This provides for abrupt penetration into the «soft belly» of Russia and the rear territories of India, China and Iran.  With account of the marine power of the USA, there is a possibility to affect Iran and the Middle East both from the side of the Persian Gulf, and from the Caspian Region. The Americans will also receive a unique opportunity for simultaneous pressure over China from the side of the Pacific theatre of operations and from the side of Sinkiang and the Tibet. Within the long-term objective of deterring China as the main geopolitical competitor of the USA, Washington views the presence in Central Asia as strategically important and vital.

According to some sources in the diplomatic circles, during the recent trip of Antony Blinken, the possibility of a blitz visit to the region by Jo Biden, the President of the USA, was discussed behind the scenes similar to Bidens recent trip to Kyiv and Warsaw. Not a single American President visited the Central Asian region previously, so this visit could have a big political and symbolic meaning. Firstly, it will obviously raise the geopolitical status of the region; secondly, it will symbolize the migration of the post-Soviet countries into the zone of vital American interests; and thirdly, it will demonstrate the come-back of the military presence of the US in this strategically important region after the infamous exodus of Americans from Afghanistan. Analysts believe that in future there may be a discussion of opening a US Air Forces base at the Uzbek aviation base Karshi-Khanabad, as well as about the presence of the US Special Operations Forces and the control points of the Central Command (CENTCOM) in Central Asia. It is expected that during the possible Bidens visit a big package of economic aid to the Central Asian countries may be announced along with a series of humanitarian initiatives.

At present, the leaders of the Central Asian countries is rather averse about direct military presence of the USA in the region. In their opinion, this will result in an unavoidable break of the existing collective security system built with participation of the CA countries, as well as Russia and China. Today, the Central Asian countries are participating in a number of successful projects CSTO, SCO, BRICS, «One Belt, One Road» and Regional Anti-Terrorist System (RATS) within SCO. Replacing them with the «pin-point» military presence of the USA will result in chaotization of the region turning it from a peaceful buffer zone into the bloody battlefield, as well as in violent change of the existing political regimes. Due to these compelling reasons, the leaders of the Central Asian countries will be more and more inclined towards keeping the neutrality to avoid the direct choice between the West and the East. It seems that already in the very near future we will see the growth of the role of the Non-Aligned Movement as a political justification of such neutrality. Together with the CA, such meaningful countries as India and Brazil will be using this platform to develop the peaceful alternative to the increasing military standoff on our planet.

In the mid-term perspective, after Blinkens trip we are to expect noticeable toughening of Western restrictions in finance, supplies of microelectronics and other important equipment via the Central Asian countries. Similar restrictions may be introduced with respect to Turkey and the UAE, which are also important partners for Russia. The US Administration is seriously concerned with the existing capabilities of the Russian Federation to support long-lasting confrontation in the conditions of sanctions.

According to the plans of the American strategists, the «rebellious Russia» needs to be put down until the end of the year already, and after that it will be Chinas turn. That is why they intend to use the two-factor scheme to get out of the long-lasting conflict in Ukraine: via aggravation of the situation in the theatre of military operations, and via restricting the supplies in the rear. It means that the pressure on the Central Asian countries will be growing. Instead of the unregulated market of «grey» supplies of the sanctioned goods, the EAEU member-states will have to establish a multi-tier export-import scheme using the examples of the cold war.

In general, the visit of the US Secretary of State to Central Asia should be viewed as a serious geopolitical challenge and the intent to open the second front against Russia, which should not be ignored.


* The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is qualified by the RF General Prosecutors Office as an undesirable organization in the territory of the Russian Federation. 

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2. The pitched geopolitical battle for Central Asia. Kommersant, 28.02.2023. https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5843266

3. Bound for the East: why the US Secretary of State went to Central Asia. Zakon.kz, 27.02.2023. https://www.zakon.kz/6385601-kurs--na-vostok-zachem-gossekretar-ssha-otpravilsya-v-tsentralnuyu-aziyu.html

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7. We support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Central Asian countries Antony Blinken. UzDaily.uz, 01.03.2023. http://www.uzdaily.uz/ru/post/75870

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9. The US Secretary of State visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: a political analyst believes he tried to persuade them to refuse from helping Russia in by-passing the sanctions. Nastoyashcheye Vremya, 01.03.2023. https://www.currenttime.tv/a/kazakhstan-uzbekistan-blinken-usa/32294806.html The RF Ministry of Justice included the TV Channel Nastoyashcheye Vremya into the list of media foreign agents.

10. The USA is using money and threats to turn Central Asia against Russia. Vzglyad, 02.03.2023. https://vz.ru/world/2023/3/2/1201340.html

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