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International relations

Blinken, Central Asia leaders meet 1 year on from Ukraine war

Top U.S. diplomat makes first visits to capitals of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during a meeting in Astana on Feb. 28.   © Reuters

ASTANA (Reuters) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Central Asia Tuesday to meet officials from all five former Soviet republics following the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Blinken's visit to the capitals of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is his first to the region as the Biden administration's top diplomat.

The trip comes just days after the Feb. 24 anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, which has tested Moscow's influence in a region that also includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Leaders in the region have been emboldened to stand up to Russia by their newfound leverage as Moscow looks to their markets and trade routes in a bid to circumvent Western sanctions.

Blinken will meet the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states in Astana on Tuesday before traveling on to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

U.S. officials say the Biden administration has stepped up engagement with the region in an effort to demonstrate the benefits of U.S. cooperation to countries facing economic fallout from the conflict to the west.

In Astana on Tuesday, Blinken met Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who was reelected in a landslide in November and has pushed back publicly against territorial claims made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

"We have built very good and reliable long-term partnerships in so many strategically important areas like security, energy, trade and investments," Tokayev told Blinken as they met at the imposing presidential palace.

Blinken earlier told Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi that Washington supports the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan, which won independence from Moscow in 1991.

"Sometimes we just say those words, but they actually have real meaning and of course we know in this particular time they have even more resonance than usual," Blinken said in reference to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, also a former Soviet republic.

Russia and Kazakhstan share the world's longest continuous land border, prompting concern among some Kazakhs about the security of a country with the second-biggest ethnic Russian population among ex-Soviet republics after Ukraine.

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