MOSCOW — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s two-day visit to Central Asia comes as the leaders of the region, especially in Kazakhstan, are increasingly — if carefully — asserting themselves in relations with their former Soviet master, Moscow.
Some three decades ago, after 70 years under Soviet rule, the Central Asian states claimed their independence during the Soviet Union’s collapse. Since then, Kazakhstan has pursued a “multi-vector” policy, splitting its focus among its powerful immediate neighbors, China to the south and Russia to the north, and the United States. But Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has complicated the calculus.
Central Asian nations are now trying to walk a tightrope, neither denouncing nor endorsing the invasion at the United Nations, where all five abstained on a resolution in the General Assembly last week calling for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine and halt the war.
But the war has significantly changed their security calculus, said Arkady Dubnov, an expert on the region. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan borders Russia and has a significant population of ethnic Russians — like those the Kremlin has claimed to be protecting to justify its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Kazakhstan cannot help but consider the case of Russian policy toward Ukraine, which, if Moscow succeeds, may also threaten Kazakhstan,” Mr. Dubnov said.
The Kazakh president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, refused to recognize the independence of the two pro-Russian breakaway republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region before Moscow claimed to have annexed them last fall, along with two other Ukrainian regions.
And the Kazakh foreign ministry pushed back against loud complaints from Moscow about a tent known as a “yurt of invincibility,” set up by the Kazakh community in the war-ravaged Ukrainian city of Bucha. Kazakh diplomats defended the yurt, a traditional dwelling, that has been funded by private companies, and which provides civilians with traditional Kazakh food and tea and the means to charge their electronic devices.
For Washington, Mr. Blinken’s visit is a crucial way to shore up alliances in what Russia sees as its historic sphere of influence. Mr. Tokayev, it is also a message to his domestic audience.
Mr. Tokayev became president of Kazakhstan — the ninth largest country in the world by land mass — in 2019 after the stage-managed exit of his autocratic predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, after 28 years in power. Parliamentary elections are set for mid-March.
“We should bear in mind that the general public mood, so to speak, the general temperature of public sentiment in Kazakhstan in relation to the events in Ukraine, is not at all on Moscow’s side,” said Mr. Dubnov, the regional expert, citing a “significant number of younger Kazakhs who do not support, shun or even condemn,” the war.
Emil Joroev, a researcher at Crossroads Central Asia, a research group in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, which shares borders with China and Kazakhstan, said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had worked hard in recent months to shore up Moscow’s influence in Central Asia, visiting each of the region’s five former Soviet republics at least once.
But this, Mr. Joroev added, “gave a sense of Putin being somewhat desperate” to show he still has friends, or at least not enemies, at a time when many countries, particularly in Europe, view him as a war criminal. “Putin has lost his magic,” Mr. Joroev said, “but he still has much greater leverage in these countries than the U.S. does.”
“Blinken’s visit,” Mr. Joroev said, “can help tilt the scales away from Russia but the State Department understands how far these countries can go and that they won’t come out tomorrow to condemn the war.”
Uzbekistan, where Mr. Blinken will travel on Wednesday, has a different set of priorities. The majority Muslim country borders Afghanistan, and wants to work with Washington to ensure that the threat of Islamic radicalism does not spread.
Because Central Asian countries are well aware of their geography and economic ties,he said, the Kremlin’s wisest reaction to the meetings with Mr. Blinken would be not to react.
Still, said Mr. Dubnov, “this political dialogue with the U.S. is taking place despite Moscow’s discontent. And this is also an indicator that Central Asia is no longer so afraid of shouts from Moscow. Why, when is Russia so weak today as a result of the crisis stemming from the military operation in Ukraine?”
Feb. 28, 2023
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described one of Kyrgyzstan’s borders. It shares a border with China, not Russia.
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