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Kazakhstan as a nuclear co-operation model: The roots and the successes

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In the past two months, a diplomatic offensive involving high-profile visits has highlighted Kazakhstan as the nexus of Eurasian diplomacy and strengthened nuclear cooperation between the United States and Kazakhstan, writes Dr. Stephen J. Blank, senior fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Programme.

But today’s successes have deep roots: Kazakhstan’s then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s three-decades-old decision to dismantle its nuclear arsenal was ambitious and unprecedented. Now, this farsighted policy is bearing fruit for the country as it is viewed as the island of peace in the stormy sea stretching from Ukraine to Afghanistan.

Recent visits

The Kazakhstani government has had a few busy diplomatic months: in September, Pope Francis visited for a conference on global religions, and simultaneously President Xi Jinping visited on his first trip abroad since Covid began to strengthen ties. Weeks later, Kazakhstan hosted the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), as European Council President Charles Michel visited the country. 

Equally important were visits by US nuclear officials. In late September, personnel from the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) visited Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center in Kurchatov, which “included Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) visits and progress checks for ongoing work to upgrade physical security at the Baikal-1 and Impulse Graphite Reactor complexes”. A press release by the US embassy in Kazakhstan noted: “These efforts reflect a joint commitment to nuclear security and nonproliferation.”

On 5-6 October representatives of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Administrator Jill Hruby and Principal Deputy Administrator Frank Rose, visited Kazakhstan to discuss nuclear security. “Cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation is a cornerstone of the strong relationship between our countries,” Hruby said.

Kazakhstan’s Historic Decision

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Administrator Jill Hruby noted: “Kazakhstan has been an outstanding partner of the United States on nuclear security and nonproliferation for over 30 years.” In the early 1990s as Kazakhstan emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union, Nazarbayev, took the historic decision to dismantle its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal.

This process involved unprecedented tripartite cooperation between the U.S., Kazakhstan, and Russia, to move nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation and dismantle the Semipalatinsk test site and other facilities. A total of 1,040 nuclear warheads for 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 370 nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were removed. 

 Togzhan Kassenova's Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan gave up the bomb explains Kazakhstan’s denuclearization process in detail. “That decision was made after the leadership considered security interests as well as economic political and diplomatic priorities. It [preserving nuclear material] was incompatible with how it wanted to present itself to the world decision-makers,” said Tossanova during an October event in Kazakhstan about her book.

Kazakhstan’s denuclearization had several positive impacts. Most importantly, humanity is all the safer. By removing the WMDs Nazarbayev drastically decreased the chances of them falling into the hands of violent non-state actors. Kazakhstan’s decision was followed by all Central Asian governments,  with the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) Agreement signed at the Semipalatinsk test site in 2006. Kazakhstan’s denuclearization informed South Africa’s own nuclear experience while it helped refine nuclear inspection protocols. Many also see Kazakhstan as the only practical model for denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. 

After Nazarbayev retirement in 2019, his policy endured. During his September speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev emphasized the continuation of Nazarbayev’s policies. Kazakhstan’s tragic experience with nuclear testing during Soviet times, when hundreds of thousands developed cancers and other diseases, led Tokayev to reiterate, “nuclear disarmament has become a key part of Kazakh foreign policy and we will be continuously struggling for a world free of nuclear arsenals”. 

He also voiced concerns about “the lack of progress made by the NPT review conferences” and the “increased rivalry and rhetoric of Nuclear States,” without mentioning specific governments. Only weeks after the UNGA, Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted at potential nuclear strikes against Ukraine, prompting global concerns about the war going nuclear. 

Kazakhstan’s decision to dispose of its WMD arsenal teaches us that denuclearization is possible through great power cooperation. This is not just idealism, but a policy with concrete material and political advantages. 

Under Nazaerbayev’s vision, denuclearization has helped Kazakhstan to enact a dynamic multi-vector foreign policy and become a credible convener of peace negotiations (see the Astana Syrian Peace Process) with a diversified economy and positive international image. CICA’s headquarters is in Kazakhstan and it remains the only Central Asian state to have been a member of the UN Security Council. While some international tension is unavoidable (e.g. Russia), the disarmament and non-proliferation policy model crafted three decades ago still continues to yield positive results for Kazakhstan’s international stature.

Conclusions

While total international denuclearization is infeasible, Kazakhstan’s experience should be a blueprint for limiting and reducing nuclear arsenals. The relevance is for all to see: With great powers cooperating, Nazarbayev’s denuclearization laid the foundations for a nuclear-weapons-free Central Asia. Other regions, from Korea to the Middle East could clearly benefit from Kazakhstan’s visionary model.

Dr. Stephen J. Blank is senior fellow at FPRI’s Eurasia Program. He has published over 900 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, US, Asian, and European military and foreign policies, and testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia.

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