From January 30 to February 3, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited four post-Soviet countries – Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. The trip was planned back in early January but was postponed due to worsening relations between the United States and Iran. The confrontation escalated when, by order of Donald Trump, the U.S. Air Force launched an airstrike as a result of which Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was killed. During the tour throughout the former Soviet nations, Pompeo’s agenda mainly focused on promoting human rights, energy independence, and economic reform, which could be considered as usual topics within the U.S. foreign policy. However, Ukraine stands apart from other countries, taking into account Washington’s general interests within its global agenda.
Looking at the main purpose of Pompeo’s visit to these countries, we could say they are in line with the U.S. main policy strategy that is containing China and counteracting to Russia’s policy in the region. These are the main lines of the U.S. national security strategy where China and Russia are seen as global rivals. In addition, the trip had importance for Washington so as to describe its Eurasia policy to officials of the visited countries indicating that the United States wants to increase the level of cooperation in order to make their presence more visible. In this article, we will try to analyze the actions of Mike Pompeo in every state he visited through the prism of global tasks of U.S. foreign policy.
The first stop for the head of American diplomacy was Kyiv, Ukraine. Since recently, Ukraine has been a newsmaker in the United States. The scandal, which reached public attention in mid-September 2019, was connected with the suspicion that Donald Trump put pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Allegedly, in the summer of 2019, Trump temporarily froze the allocation of military assistance funds to Ukraine and indicated that he would unfreeze it if Ukraine opened an investigation into former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and his son Hunter. These suspicions became an important part of the abuse of power charge against President Trump during the impeachment process, although President Zelensky stated that he had not felt pressured by Trump. On this point, it is quite interesting that representatives of the U.S. administration cancelled their visit to Ukraine in November 2019 in order not to cause any more suspicion that could be used against Trump in the impeachment case. Therefore, the trip became possible only after the House of Representatives voted for impeachment [CBS, 2019].
Pompeo’s entire visit to Ukraine can be described as an attempt to show that the White House will continue to provide support to this country and will not allow the impeachment process to disrupt the flow of assistance. In 2020, it is expected that the United States will provide $700 million worth of aid to Ukraine, almost half of which will be in the form of weapons and equipment [Zubkova, 2020]. According to the news circulated in the U.S. media, Washington is considering appointing someone with a military background or an experienced diplomat as the next U.S. ambassador to Ukraine [Slovo i Dilo, 2020]. With this potential appointment, one can expect the parties to choose a new vector of relations between the United States and Ukraine.
However, the main question that Pompeo’s visit did not answer is how the United States will help develop the Ukrainian economy. Kyiv hopes to remove various trade restrictions on the export of its products, such as steel, to the United States, as well as receive certain preferences. Pompeo did not comment on these topics in his public speeches. Perhaps the U.S. Secretary of State did not want to talk publicly about trade benefits, since this may affect the image of President Trump as a defender of American manufacturers. Therefore, it is possible that Ukrainian goods will receive benefits without public announcement.
The next destination of Mike Pompeo’s trip was Minsk, Belarus. It was for the first time since 1993 for the U.S. Secretary of State to visit Minsk. Moreover, high-ranking U.S. officials did not come to the capital of Belarus from 1994 until summer 2019 when the U.S. President’s National Security Adviser John Bolton held talks here. In addition to Bolton’s visit and Washington’s promise in September 2019 to return the ambassador to Minsk, Pompeo’s visit could be understood as an attempt by the Trump administration to find a way to reconnect with Belarus. Moreover, in his turn, President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko also wants to revitalize relations with the Western countries.
Pompeo’s visit coincided with yet another crisis in relations between Russia and Belarus. Moscow tried to persuade Minsk to create a single union state – the idea that was popular in the mid-1990s. However, Lukashenko rejected the proposal, which led to the cessation of Russian oil and gas supplies to Belarus. The country’s economy is heavily dependent on preferential supplies of energy resources from Russia. Furthermore, Russia blocked Kazakhstan’s attempts to supply oil to Belarus [Azattyq, 2020].
Against this background, the United States and Belarus are trying to build relations in pursuit of their own interests. Perhaps, for Lukashenko, the dialogue with Washington is important because it allows flexibility and more room for maneuver in its negotiations with Russia. Besides, Moscow is convinced that Minsk, being isolated from the West, is strongly dependent on the Kremlin. It is important that negotiations with the West do not put Belarus in a situation similar to Ukraine’s in 2014, because then Russia could again risk and annex the territory of an independent state. At the same time, paradoxically, the deepening partnership of Belarus with China does not provoke the same anxiety in Moscow as Minsk’s turning to the West does.
On the other hand, it seems that Lukashenko is trying to use a crisis with Russia in order to build around himself the ‘myth’ of a defender of the country’s sovereignty. This should allow an increase in the legitimacy of his presidency. After all, he has been in power for almost 30 years and will increasingly feel the pressure to transfer power, especially against the background of transits in other post-Soviet countries. At the same time, the ‘defense’ of sovereignty should reduce the demands of the United States and Europe for democratization in Belarus and even become a pretext for lifting a number of U.S. sanctions. In turn, the Trump administration will use the dialogue with Belarus as another way to counteract Russia. Attempts to prevent the unification of Russia and Belarus should be positively assessed by Washington’s Eastern European allies, especially Poland. Interestingly, in his pledges of support, Pompeo even promised oil supplies to Belarus, which is hard to imagine, but was appreciated in Minsk. Certainly, no one expects that one of Russia’s key allies will redirect its foreign policy towards the West. However, the development of Belarus-West relations can help initiate more active attempts of political and economic liberalization in the country. At the same time, it is obvious that the stability of Belarus is a key element of its state sovereignty.
The next stop for Mike Pompeo was Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. A trip to Nur-Sultan was largely due to the strategic importance of Kazakhstan, the country bordering with both Russia and China. For a long time, U.S. investments and technologies allowed Kazakhstan to increase oil production, and largely due to this, the country’s economy showed a rapid growth in the 2000s. According to official figures, the total amount of U.S. investments in Kazakhstan amounted to more than $45 billion [Kazakhstan Today, 2020]. However, now, China is increasing its economic presence in Kazakhstan. The country has a strategic location for China’s infrastructural Belt and Road Initiative and increasingly relies on Chinese loans and lines of credit. In this area, the United States has little to offer, although it will remain an important supplier of equipment and technologies. For instance, Tyson Foods, the U.S. agricultural giant, plans to build a factory in Kazakhstan for industrial production of meat. Speaking about the examples of cooperation between U.S. and Kazakh companies, Mike Pompeo noted that such deals guarantee job creation, contract transparency, and labor standards.
Economy is always high on the agenda of U.S.-Kazakhstan relations, but the most important event of Pompeo’s trip to Kazakhstan was his meeting with ethnic Kazakhs whose family members have gone missing or been placed in the ‘re-education camps’ in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region [Twitter, 2020]. Therefore, it was not surprising that the U.S. Secretary of State made remarks several times about the situation with the protection of human rights in China, noting that the United States calls on all countries to join and demand the end of these oppressions [Masanov, 2020]. Actually, the increase in the economic presence of China in Kazakhstan is accompanied with a deterioration in the image of China among citizens of Kazakhstan, especially considering various myths and phobias which are associated with China. Against this background, the actions of the Chinese authorities targeting ethnic minorities have only deepened a negative sentiment.
The reaction of the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan to Pompeo’s statements was very demonstrative. Ambassador Zhang Xiao called the U.S. claims unfounded and a ‘staged performance’ against China [Turan Times, 2020]. Nevertheless, the actions and words of the U.S. politician are likely to find a positive response among the population of Kazakhstan. In this sense, the United States’ ‘soft power’ can help improve the image of the country in Kazakhstani society. It is also interesting that Mike Pompeo noted the actions of Kazakhstan in the fight against coronavirus and indicated that the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention is ready to assist Kazakhstan [Chiacu and Shalal, 2020].
The final point on the negotiation agenda was, most likely, the preparation of President Tokayev’s visit to the White House. To date, the second president of Kazakhstan has already visited Russia, China and other key foreign policy partners except the United States. This visit is necessary for Kazakhstan as the United States is still the world’s major economy and military superpower. It should not be ruled out that the United States is concerned that Russia, rather than Central Asia, may again become a key direction in the renewed concept of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. The multivectoral policy of Kazakhstan, where the main vector is integration with the Central Asian region, suits better the interests of the United States.
The final destination for Mike Pompeo was Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where his agenda included not only bilateral meetings with the Uzbek officials, but also the C5 + 1 format meeting with the foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. At the negotiations with the leadership of Uzbekistan, much time was devoted to economic issues. The U.S. Secretary of State promised technical assistance for developing the capital market in the country, which should support further liberalization of the sector. The reforms will simplify access to free capital, lower lending rates for small and medium-sized businesses, and facilitate the creation of new enterprises.
The most interesting part of the economic negotiations was the discussion of Uzbekistan’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). To date, Russia has been increasing its presence in the economy of Uzbekistan, and apparently, the Kremlin wants Uzbekistan to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). The latter topic came into public space thanks to Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko during her October 2019 visit to Tashkent [Mislivskaya, 2019]. Then the leadership of Uzbekistan sent contradicting signals about the EAEU membership. On this basis, it can be assumed that there is a confrontation in the leadership between opponents and supporters of the membership. Consequently, through a promise to provide comprehensive assistance in accelerating the WTO accession, Mike Pompeo tried to support opponents of the EAEU. It is worth mentioning that previously the United States clearly indicated that joining the EAEU would significantly slow down Uzbekistan’s entry to the WTO. Obviously, American diplomacy is trying to prevent Russia from increasing its influence on Uzbekistan. However, it needs to be noted that Moscow has not yet begun to increase its efforts to convince Uzbekistan on this matter. If Uzbekistan decides to join the EAEU, then the United States will have limited resources to push Tashkent for a different decision.
The political agenda of the negotiations included a very important issue for the Uzbek side. Uzbekistan is trying to negotiate with Washington an exclusion from the list of governments that engage in “serious violations of religious freedom”. Now Uzbekistan is in the secondary list between violators and ‘free’ countries. This position does not imply sanctions, but there is a risk of returning to the list of violators, from where Uzbekistan was removed only in 2018 [Gazeta.uz, 2018]. In fact, in May 2019, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended the Department of State to put Uzbekistan back to the black list [Fergana, 2019], but the U.S. foreign-policy agency did not follow this recommendation. The Uzbek leadership hopes to completely leave the list because it is a barrier for the entry to the WTO and for attracting American businesses to the country. However, Pompeo did not give specific guarantees, noting only the need for further reforms in this sphere.
On the second day of the visit, a meeting of the C5 + 1 format was held where the parties discussed the topics that included various aspects of security in Central Asia, joint economic projects, especially in the trade-transport area, and the situation in Afghanistan. It is noteworthy that before the meeting Pompeo discussed the situation in Afghanistan with Kazakh and Uzbek authorities. The United States encourages the Central Asian states to be more active in creating connectivity with Afghanistan. In turn, the Central Asian countries reasonably fear that transport infrastructure will be the conduit to instability in the region. At present, the United States generally supports stability of Afghanistan, but there is no guarantee that after the full U.S. withdrawal the situation will not deteriorate. It seems that through developing economic ties with the Central Asian states Washington also hopes to contribute to the economic situation in Afghanistan in order to maintain stability in the country. Meanwhile, the Central Asian countries request the United States to stay in the region to ensure security of trade corridors.
Based on the above, we can conclude that the United States used Mike Pompeo’s trip to demonstrate its continued interest in post-Soviet countries, while their leaders try to have the West as an alternative, but understand that the Western opportunities to keep footprint in the region are limited. At the same time, Pompeo’s Eurasian tour showed the U.S. administration’s limited knowledge about and influence in the region, especially the lack of a clear strategy for Central Asia. Although Mike Pompeo presented the new U.S. strategy for Central Asia, it did not contain anything new. As a whole, this is a general weakness of Donald Trump’s foreign policy as he and his administration are acting situationally and tactically, and their main task is to achieve a result that can be tweeted.
A better way to increase and solidify the U.S. presence in Central Asia and contain Russia and China is establishing more concrete ties with the countries in the region. Instead, the Trump administration is trying to be in the headlines for a short period of time. In a region where the United States has a minimal presence, it is possible and necessary to act more delicately and aim at establishing more institutionalized relations that could be strengthened in the future.
Azattyq (2020). Lukashenko: Russia blocks oil supplies from Kazakhstan to Belarus. Retrieved from https://rus.azattyq.org/a/30389680.html. Accessed on 10.02.2020.
CBS (2019). House impeaches Trump for abuse of power and obstruction in historic rebuke. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/trump-impeachment-vote-live-stream-today-house-of-representatives-articles-of-impeachment-2019-12-18/. Accessed on 11.02.2020.
Chiacu, Doina and Andrea Shalal (2020). Trump says the U.S. has ‘shut down’ coronavirus threat; China shuns U.S. help. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-health-usa/trump-says-u-s-has-shut-down-coronavirus-threat-china-shuns-u-s-help-idUSKBN1ZW0OJ. Accessed on 03.03.2020.
Fergana (2019). The U.S. Department of State recommended influencing official Tashkent for religious freedom. Retrieved from https://fergana.agency/news/107033/. Accessed on 12.02.2020.
Gazeta.uz (2018). The United States excluded Uzbekistan from the list of violators of religious freedoms. Retrieved from https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2018/12/12/religion/. Accessed on 11.02.2020.
Kazakhstan Today (2020). U.S. investment in Kazakhstan exceeded $45 billion. Retrieved from https://www.kt.kz/rus/state/45_1377893898.html. Accessed on 13.02.2020.
Masanov, Yuri (2020). Why did Michael Pompeo come to Kazakhstan? Retrieved from https://informburo.kz/stati/zachem-maykl-pompeo-priezzhal-v-kazahstan.html. Accessed on 13.02.2020.
Mislivskaya, Galina (2019). Tashkent chooses a union. Retrieved from https://rg.ru/2019/10/02/valentina-matvienko-provela-vstrechu-s-prezidentom-uzbekistana.html. Accessed on 12.02.2020.
Slovo i Dilo (2020). The United States decided on the candidacy of its ambassador to Ukraine. Retrieved from https://ru.slovoidilo.ua/2020/02/07/novost/politika/ssha-opredelilis-kandidaturoj-posla-ukraine. Accessed on 11.02.2020.
Turan Times (2020). China responded to Pompeo’s statements about Kazakhs in Chinese camps. Retrieved from https://turantimes.kz/politika/12885-jeto-krajne-smeshno-kitaj-otvetil-na-zajavlenija-pompeo-o-kazahah-v-kitajskih-lagerjah.html. Accessed on 13.02.2020.
Twitter (2020). Secretary Pompeo’s Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/SecPompeo/status/1223839023803904000. Accessed on 10.02.2020.
Zubkova, Dasha (2020). USA To Provide USD 700 Million Aid To Ukraine In 2020 – Zelenskyy. Retrieved from https://ukranews.com/en/news/681148-usa-to-provide-usd-700-million-aid-to-ukraine-in-2020-zelenskyy. Accessed on 10.02.2020.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Asset Ordabayev is a junior research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in International Relations from the KarSU (Karahanda) from 2012. In 2014, he earned his Masters degree in International Relations the Kazak National University (Almaty). From 2014 to 2017 he worked at the Institute of World Economy and Politics as a foreign policy expert. The main research interests are the geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent within the framework of the development of transport infrastructure, as well as the ongoing proces