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Changes in the U.S. foreign policy towards Central Asia

24 Apr 2023 - 12:21

Translator : Mohsen Shahrafiee

In the current situation that the relations between Russia and the United States are in one of the worst possible conditions, the strengthening of the C5+1 political Platform by the U.S. and its increasing attention to the countries of Central Asia, may lead to the weakening of Russia's influence in Central Asian countries. This event will not please Moscow and Putin at all, and we have to wait and see what Russia's response to it will be.

By: Ahmed Ghasemzadeh

The U.S. relations with the countries of Central Asia have always been complicated in practice, while its goals have been simple. Usually, the combination of several factors has caused this complexity, including America's long-term view of developments in the region, its competitive and sometimes hostile approach towards Russia and China, and the extreme conservatism of Central Asian countries. Despite this, after three decades of various developments in the relations between the two sides, we can identify a specific behavior pattern for Washington, based on short-term, medium-term and long-term goals; Especially, given the war in Ukraine and the unprecedented tensions that have led to proxy conflicts between Russia and the United States, the goals of Blinken's first visit to Central Asia are more clear than ever. However, there are still many uncertainties about how the US will play the Central Asian card. In this report, we try to address some of these ambiguities, while examining America's behavior based on the Blinken’s visit to Central Asia.

Blinken's first visit to Central Asia
Last month, a few days after the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, during a two-day trip to Central Asia (February 27 and 28), visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and at a meeting in Astana the capital of Kazakhstan, met with the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This is Blinken's first visit to Central Asia since taking the post of the U.S. Secretary of State. Although he previously had meetings with the officials of Central Asian countries in Washington or in other places, his presence in one of the areas of Russia’s strategic interests is important in itself.

Similar to other international actors, Blinken visited two large and influential Central Asian countries, and it proves the priority of these two actors in American foreign policy. In this visit, he sought to strengthen the security, political and economic cooperation between the United States and the countries of Central Asia, and as expected, he spoke mostly about the danger of Russia for these countries, and emphasized on reducing their reliance on Russia. The US Secretary of State also warned that any faltering and retreating in the face of Russia in Ukraine could make Moscow bolder with other former Soviet countries.

A show of power against China and Russia
 According to some sources, After China and the countries of Central Asia did not agree with the UN resolution regarding the condemnation of Russia's military attack on Ukraine, the diplomatic apparatus of the United States decided to put pressure on these countries through the C5+1 mechanism. Turkmenistan was not present in this voting, and all four other Central Asian republics abstained from voting. It seems that the continuation of this strategy and the ineffectiveness of various tactics to influence the political behavior of Central Asia towards Russia, has led to Washington's concern. However, US diplomats believe that the decision of these countries to abstain from voting was dictated by Beijing.

During this visit, Anthony Blinken asked the US Embassy in Kazakhstan to strengthen its cooperation with Kazakh nationalist parties and patriotic people, like Arman Shuraev and Mukhtar Taizhan. It was a smart decision to intensify the policy of Russophobia and Sinophobia in Kazakhstan. The decision was smart because the issue of Russophobia and Sinophobia has had many fans in Kazakhstan in the last two decades. This issue has been complementary to the socio-cultural policies of the media and cultural currents close to the U.S. during the last five years.

Discussions related to Sinophobia have existed in Kazakhstan since the time of the former Soviet Union. For many reasons, it has been able to influence public opinion to a large extent, in a way that in the 2000s, Dariga Nazarbaeva also used the capacity of this issue (inciting anti-Chinese sentiments) in establishing and the expansion of the Asar Party. Later on, other parties and individuals, depending on the circumstances, have benefited from this issue. Also, in the past years, we have witnessed many anti-Chinese public protests in different cities of Kazakhstan.

The emergence of some protests and ethnic tensions in this country, along with the image of China that Massimov had made in this country, has strengthened these approaches. Some elites and media identified Massimov as an agent for lobbying China's interests.
During this visit, Blinken also spoke about Russia's threats to Central Asian countries, especially to Kazakhstan. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly justified the invasion of Ukraine by using ethnic issues and referring to the presence of Russians in Ukraine; a point that Blinken focused on to warn Kazakhstan about the presence of Russians in the north of the country. It should be noted that Kazakhstan has the longest land border with Russia, and the Russians in the north of the country constitute the largest ethnic minority in Kazakhstan. This issue is important because Putin has commented on it many times, during the past years He had also demanded annexing parts of Kazakhstan's lands to Russia, and claims that these lands were gifted to Kazakhstan during the former Soviet era. During these years, some of Putin's words have been widely criticized in Kyrgyzstan, including “before independence from Moscow in 1991, Kazakhstan was not a state”, or "Nazarbayev is the smartest leader in the region, because he managed to create a state in a land where there was no state before". At the same time, the tense atmosphere after the war in Ukraine and the serious fear of Astana officials from Moscow, has encouraged Kremlin to some predictable behaviors, such as speeding up and strengthening the border talks with Kazakhstan.

Economic goals
After Nazarbayev’s resignation and Tokayev’s inauguration, Kazakhstan has undergone many changes in various fields, and is on the path of reforms now. In this visit, Blinken praised the reforms made by Tokayev and considered them to be the basis for the presence of foreign investors, including Americans, in Kazakhstan and the economic growth of the country. According to reports, US-Kazakhstan bilateral trade value exceeded 3 billion dollars in 2022, which shows an increase of 37.2% compared to the previous year. The total direct investment of the United States in Kazakhstan in the past years has exceeded 62 billion dollars, and the amount of American investments in the first three quarters of 2022 has increased by 58.8% compared to the same period in 2021.

However, it should also be noted that in general, Kazakhstan's economy is widely intertwined with Russia's economy. Previously, Russia's sanctions after the annexation of Crimea caused a lot of damage to the country's economy. In the past years, Tokayev has tried to reduce Kazakhstan's economic dependence on Russia by using the investment of Western countries, and provide the basis for the economic growth and development of the country. In the current situation, the slightest behavior that indicates Astana's support or cooperation with Moscow may provoke the anger of the United States and other Western countries, and make Kazakhstan's economic situation more difficult than the current situation. This is while, last year, this country was hardly able to calm the people's protests against the country's economic problems.

Perhaps the best phrase that can explain Kazakhstan's behavior in the last year's tensions between the West and Russia is this: "very cautious steps". Although Kazakh officials have said their country will not become a route to bypass Russian sanctions, Astana has abstained from a UN resolution condemning Russia's military attack on Ukraine. This shows that the country has adopted a kind of cautious policy to avoid further provoking Russia.

By issuing sanctions relief to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) which carries Kazakhstan's oil to Europe through Russia, The United States is seeking to protect Kazakhstan from the aftereffects of its campaign against Moscow, and in return to ask the Kazakh government to be more cooperative with punitive policies against Moscow.

In the current situation that the relations between Russia and the United States are in one of the worst possible conditions, the strengthening of the C5+1 political Platform by the US, and its increasing attention to the countries of Central Asia, may lead to the weakening of Russia's influence in Central Asian countries. This will not please Moscow and Putin at all. So, we should wait and see what Russia's response to this visit will be.

Ahmed Ghasemzadeh, is an Expert and researcher of Central Asian issues.

Story Code: 3434

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Institute for East Strategic Studies