Global Agenda

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on a diplomatic tour of Central Asia. What is the US trying to achieve by returning to the “Great Game”?

Pavol Beblavý

Anthony John Blinken landed in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, on February 28, where he met with Kazakh officials. He also attended the C5+1 format meeting, which is attended annually by the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the United States.   Topics of discussion included anti-Russian sanctions, territorial integrity and economic cooperation. The US Secretary of State then visited a conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and concluded his trip in India at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Conference. What was Blinken’s reason for the visit and what does it say about the situation in Central Asia and around the world?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia has been deep in the sphere of influence of the Russian Federation. Through the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Moscow maintains military bases in Central Asia and also sends troops to the region when necessary as a precaution against local conflicts or uprisings. In exchange, Russia has gained exclusive economic advantages in the form of access to the natural resources that Central Asia is rich in. Since at least 2013, however, Beijing’s influence in the region has also been growing. At that time, China launched the so-called “Belt and Road Initiave”, which aims to build a strategic infrastructure linking Eurasia and Africa. An integral part of this programme is to build an infrastructure of direct economic links between China, Central Asia and Europe. China has invested heavily in Central Asia as part of this initiative, and in doing so has endeared itself considerably to local regimes. It gained influence in the region, but this was purely economic. Russia and China had thus informally divided their spheres of influence in Central Asia: Russia had a monopoly on security and China on the economy. But this status quo broke down after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For Central Asian countries, Moscow ceased to be seen as a guarantor of security, became a potential threat, and, as a result of military defeats in Ukraine, was no longer able to project power in the region. The old-new players subsequently entered the power vacuum and local actors renewed their disputes.

The best example of this trend is Kazakhstan, which Blinken visited as the first country on his trip. Kazakhstan, until recently a loyal ally of Moscow, has been ruled since 2019 by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The Tokayev regime’s strong attachment to Moscow became apparent in January 2022, when Russian troops helped quell anti-government unrest in the country. But just days later, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and Kazakhstan subsequently changed its stance drastically. Like Ukraine, Kazakhstan was formerly part of the USSR, currently borders Russia and has a large Russian minority. Fear of a Russian invasion has caused Kazakhstan to considerably limit its cooperation with Russia and has even begun to take steps on the international stage that are contrary to Russian interests. For example, Kazakhstan is helping the West to enforce sanctions against Russia and has refused to recognise the existence of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. The reorientation of the largest economy in Central Asia has caused other players to seek its cooperation: China and the USA. China has long-standing economic interests in Central Asia and has opportunistically exploited the situation to extend its influence. During a visit to Kazakhstan, Chinese President Xi-Jing Ping proclaimed his guarantee of Kazakhstan’s ‘territorial integrity’. He made this clear to Russia and hinted at an expansion of Chinese activity in the region from a purely economic to a potentially military one.

The decline of Russian influence in the region has also been reflected in renewed tensions between Tajikistan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan. The two countries have long-standing territorial disputes over the shape of their mutual border, which date back to the days of the USSR. In the context of Russia’s defeats in Ukraine and Russia’s diminished ability to project power in Central Asia, an intense armed conflict erupted between the two countries in late April and early May 2022. Border clashes claimed approximately 100 casualties and were ended by a bilateral ceasefire.

Into this fresh chaos enters Anthony Blinken. His top priority is to ensure that local states cooperate with US sanctions against Russia and, moreover, that they do not help Moscow circumvent those sanctions. At the moment, Blinken’s visit to Kazakhstan seems to have been a great success, with the US Secretary of State verbally supporting the territorial integrity of that state and, above all, promising more economic support for Kazakhstan. In addition to efforts to counter Russia, Central Asia is also important to the US in terms of natural resources. By investing in the region, the US aims to open up Central Asia to international trade. The vast reserves of oil, natural gas and precious metals in Central Asia would be available for world consumption. At the same time, the US entry into the ‘Great Game’ for Central Asia serves to limit the growth of Chinese influence in the region, primarily through US economic stimulus.

Blinken’s visit is thus part of a trend of Central Asia’s independence from Russia’s influence.  The US is likely to build an anti-Russian coalition in the region in the near future. However, it can be expected that after the end of the conflict in Ukraine, regardless of its outcome, Moscow will once again seek to reverse the decline of its influence in Central Asia and try to return to the region. Similarly, in the past, Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War caused it to satisfy its expansionist needs in Central Asia and, within a few years, to completely dominate it. However, in the event of Russian aggression against one of the countries in the region, the West, given the geographical distance, would very likely not be able to respond nearly as effectively as it did in the case of Ukraine. But any Russian aggression in Central Asia would probably pit Russia and China against each other and lead to an end to cooperation between the two countries.

Photo credit: Flickr.com/U.S. Department of State

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