US Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his airplane at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on February 26, 2023, as he departs for travel to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and India. AP
Kazakh officials greeted the top US diplomat after midnight in subzero temperatures on the windswept tarmac in the capital Astana, where he will meet President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during the day before flying to Uzbekistan.
In Astana, he will also meet with the foreign ministers of all five former Soviet republics in Central Asia -- which also include Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The trip is the most senior to Central Asia by an official in US President Joe Biden's administration and comes days after the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has received billions of dollars in Western support.
Central Asian nations have longstanding security and economic relationships with Russia but, unlike fellow former Soviet republic Belarus, they have not rallied behind Moscow on the war.
All five Central Asian nations abstained or did not vote last week on a UN General Assembly resolution that demanded that Moscow pull out of Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin's justifications for the war, which included deploring the treatment of Russian speakers in Ukraine, have rattled nerves in Central Asian nations with sizable Russian minorities.
Kazakhstan, which has Russia's longest land border, has welcomed Russians fleeing military service and called for a diplomatic resolution to the war that respects international law. Tokayev recently spoke by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, although he also visited Putin last year to reaffirm ties.
China, which the United States views as its most significant long-term challenger, has also been seeking to expand influence in the adjacent region. President Xi Jinping last year chose Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for his first foreign trip since the Covid-19 pandemic.
After Central Asia, Blinken will head to New Delhi for a meeting of the Group of 20 foreign ministers. He is expected to avoid Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom he has only spoken to by telephone since the war, with the United States believing that Moscow is not sincere about a negotiated solution.