Blinken to visit Central Asia as Ukraine war raises fears

The US State Department announced Thursday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan next week, courting former Soviet republics concerned about Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The top US diplomat will hold talks in Kazakhstan's capital Astana on Tuesday before traveling to Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent on his way to a Group of 20 foreign ministers meeting in New Delhi, according to the State Department.
The trip will take place just days after the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, which has received billions of dollars in US weapons and economic assistance to help fight off Russian invaders.

With the exception of Belarus, whose strongman Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, former Soviet republics outside of Russia have resisted rallying to Moscow's cause, despite close economic and security ties.

Putin invaded Ukraine in part to instill fear among ethnic Russians, who are also a significant minority in much of Central Asia.

Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called for a "peace formula" between Russia and Ukraine and has allowed tens of thousands of Russians fleeing military mobilization to enter the country.

Tokayev, on the other hand, met Putin in November and described Russia as a "strategic partner."

Tokayev called in Russian-led forces a month before the Ukraine invasion to help regain control after riots, but he quickly asked them to leave due to public opposition.

Uzbekistan has also maintained an official neutral stance toward Ukraine. Its leader, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has billed himself as a reformer more open to the world, but free expression is strictly controlled by the government.

Last year, Uzbekistan experienced deadly unrest in response to Mirziyoyev's proposed constitutional reforms, which would have weakened autonomy for the impoverished Karakalpakstan region.

The United States is not the only country interested in Central Asia.

China's President Xi Jinping, regarded as the US's main international rival, visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan last year, his first trip since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, welcomed both Tokayev and Mirziyoyev to Paris late last year and has met with other Central Asian leaders.

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