During US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Uzbekistan, a diverse number of issues should be resolved regarding foreign policy, as well as domestic political calculations and the plans of the American administration. Pompeo's trip to the former Soviet Union began on January 30th and should conclude on February 3rd.
Each of the four countries in the post-Soviet space have their own specific aspects for American diplomacy, including in the context of US-Russian relations. The latter are obviously the key topic of the visits. Ukraine is in direct and open conflict with Russia. Belarus and Kazakhstan are Moscow’s allies and partners in the CSTO and the EAEU (and, in the case of Minsk, also in the Union State of Russia and Belarus). Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are in a partnership with Russia and China (which is perceived by the Trump administration as Washington’s key global adversary) within the framework of the SCO and the Chinese Belt and Road initiative (which is currently actively cooperating with the EAEU in the framework of the “confluence” agreements). Uzbekistan under Karimov pursued a policy of distancing itself from various integration initiatives, including with Russia, but now there is an active discussion of the possibility of joining the EAEU or some other form of cooperation within the framework of “Eurasian integration”.
The post-Soviet countries have different meanings for American domestic politics. Ukraine was at the centre of the scandal over Trump’s impeachment; the other countries, in this context, are not “tainted” by this scandal.
Finally, there is another issue that is important for American foreign and (to a much lesser extent) domestic policy. This is a possible withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Obviously, the countries of Central Asia bordering Afghanistan are important in this process. The withdrawal of troops, if it really takes place (given the ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Taliban, its probability has increased), will dramatically increase the importance of Afghanistan’s neighbours. They will be called upon to solve many problems emanating from that country.
The domestic political significance of the withdrawal is also important. Now in the American media, there is an active "post-mortem" discussion regarding what went wrong in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Trump has every chance to hold Democrats associated with the Obama administration (for example, Hillary Clinton as a former secretary of state and even Joe Biden as a former vice president) responsible for the failure of the AfPak concept and “reconstruction” of Afghanistan promoted by the Obama administration. At one time, Obama accused George W. Bush of shifting US attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, which undermined the efficiency in the fight against international terrorism, and did not solve the Afghan (and, at the same time, the Pakistani-related) problem. A lot of money was spent God knows where, serious losses among American soldiers also should be somehow explained. On the other hand, if the US withdrawal is unsuccessful, the Democrats will be able to accuse Trump of yet another isolationist move that proved detrimental to American national interests.
However, while at home in the United States, Pompeo voiced completely different rhetoric. In particular, shortly before his visit to Kiev, he was triggered by uncomfortable questions about Ukraine posed by Mary Louise Kelly, a reporter from National Public Radio (NPR). In order to demonstrate that Ukraine wasn’t important for the United States, he demanded that the journalist point to the country on a map. Despite all of Pompeo’s assurances to the contrary, it’s quite obvious that the topic of Ukraine is “toxic” for the Trump administration, and it is difficult to expect close cooperation between Trump and Zelensky while the impeachment process remains underway. Their interaction, apparently, will be limited to symbolic gestures.
However, it is not worth exaggerating the significance of Pompeo’s visit to Minsk. The United States is well aware that Belarus is not going to completely abandon allied relations with Russia. For everyone who knows the history of Belarus’s latest diplomacy, it’s clear that this is, first of all, just another attempt Lukashenko is making, using foreign policy arguments, to “bargain” for more favourable economic (and possibly political) conditions for cooperation with Russia. In this regard, Pompeo said, Washington does not require that Minsk choose whether Belarus cooperates with Russia or the United States.
Regarding Pompeo’s visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, here, as we mentioned, Russia is not the only factor that is important, but also a whole series of other foreign policy issues. First, the “Chinese factor” in Central Asia is playing an increasingly important role. Confronting China (primarily in the economic sphere) is the key foreign policy idea of the Trump administration.
In Kazakhstan, China is the largest investor, and Kazakhstan itself, with its enormous land border with the PRC, is a key element of the Chinese Belt and Road strategy. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan pursues a “multi-vector” foreign policy, while maintaining cooperation with the United States, NATO and the EU countries. The US administration fears that the combined influence of Russia and China in Kazakhstan will make the “Western vector” of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy too weak. One of Pompeo’s goals, therefore, was to support those forces in Kazakhstan that would like to maintain the “Western vector,” along with others. However, being a realist, Pompeo understands that Kazakhstan will not become a US partner to the detriment of its relations with Russia and China.