Pompeo in the Post-Soviet Space: Between Russia, Impeachment, China and Afghanistan

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.

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Now let’s turn to Pompeo’s visits and their specifics. Formally, post-2014 Ukraine on the friendliest terms with the United States out of the four countries being visited. However, Ukraine remains a serious problem, especially for the Trump administration. The accusations that Trump put pressure on Ukrainian President Zelensky to get arguments against Biden, are precisely what served as the pretext for the impeachment attempt. Therefore, Pompeo must show that the United States is providing comprehensive assistance to Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia. Even on the eve of the visit, on the website of the US Department of State, a statement appeared that the key goal is to support the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine" (this applies, first of all, to Crimea and Donbass). At the final press conference on Friday, January 31st, Pompeo reaffirmed these principles of Washington’s policy. He promised to continue the military assistance to Kiev and congratulated the schismatic Orthodox Church of Ukraine for receiving international recognition (which can be considered as one of the forms of support for a “symbolic divorce” between Ukraine and Russia). The head of the US State Department recalled the practical actions of the Trump administration, including the introduction on January 29th of a package of additional US sanctions against individuals and companies in Crimea. Zelensky said that in 2020 Washington intends to provide Kiev with $700 million in aid, of which $365 million is intended for military needs. 

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.

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The visit to Minsk took place on February 1st. It should be recalled, that in August 2019 John Bolton as an adviser to the President of the United States visited the republic, and David Hale, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, visited Minsk in September. Here the American administration is trying to take the opportunity to help Minsk distance itself from Moscow. The West also positively assesses the role of Lukashenko in resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The conflict between Belarus and Russia currently concerns first of all  the energy prices, and Minsk here relies on Western assistance, including the American one. Pompeo promised a new investment. Washington and Minsk are preparing for a mutual return of ambassadors. In 2019, Belarus lifted restrictions on the number of American diplomats.

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.

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In Uzbekistan, the Chinese economic influence is not as strong as in Kazakhstan. However, as part of Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s reforms, Uzbekistan is opening up to the world. The country really needs foreign investment and trade to grow. However, an element of strategic choice also arises here. Investments and additional incomes from trade can be obtained both from Russia and China, and in the West. It is obvious that Pompeo supports Uzbek reforms (incidentally, the Economist recognised Uzbekistan as the country that had achieved the greatest positive changes in 2019). Surely, Pompeo also promised investments to support the “Western vector” in Uzbek foreign policy.

Afghanistan is also an important topic for Central Asia and the United States. Kazakhstan has always made great efforts to help the international community in resolving the Afghan problem, including its work in the UN Security Council. Under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan also sharply intensified these efforts, in particular, by holding an international conference on the Afghan problem. Obviously, Pompeo discussed cooperation between the United States and Central Asian countries on maintaining stability in Afghanistan, especially in the event of a withdrawal of American troops.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.