Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Central Asia, where he emphasized that the United States supports the territorial integrity of regional countries and hopes to expand economic ties, missed the opportunity to highlight more substantial areas of cooperation—namely, nuclear proliferation and arms control. Amid Russia postponing New START meetings in late 2022 and China steadily increasing its nuclear warhead count, the prospects of arms control between Russia and the United States seem bleak. Moreover, worsening U.S.-Russia arms control relations could also threaten future cooperation on nonproliferation. However, one Central Asian country can play a critical role in these dire circumstances: Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan has been and can continue to be a partner for the United States in the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was left with one of the most significant remnants of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and associated nuclear infrastructure. Removing and dismantling these weapons was one of the outstanding achievements of U.S. nonproliferation policy, and it continues to be an integral part of U.S.-Kazakh relations.
Recently, the United States has taken the initiative regarding nonproliferation in the region. For example, Jill Hruby and Frank Rose, the administrator and principal deputy administrator, respectively, of the National Nuclear Security Administration, completed a trip to Kazakhstan on October 5 of last year to commemorate the achievements of U.S.-Kazakh joint nonproliferation efforts. Previously, these efforts brought about the successful 1994 “Project Sapphire,” which reduced the threat of nuclear proliferation by removing nuclear material from Kazakhstan as part of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. “Cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation is a cornerstone of the strong relationship between our countries,” Hruby said.
Since Kazakhstan dismantled these Soviet weapons, it has become a leader in arms control and disarmament diplomacy. Not only has Kazakhstan been able to secure nuclear weapons and material left in its territory, but it also has led nonproliferation efforts to make Central Asia a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone via a treaty signed in 2006.
Kazakhstan also has a track record of nonproliferation diplomacy beyond its backyard. Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev participated in all four of the Nuclear Security Summits organized by the Obama administration. Nazarbayev articulated to Iran the drawbacks of operating nuclear programs and that it could choose peace like Kazakhstan. These efforts culminated in Kazakhstan’s crucial coordination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This involved hosting two rounds of negotiations between Iran and P5+1 in 2013. Kazakhstan’s participation through hosting negotiations reinforced its status as a valued member of the nonproliferation community.
For the United States, WMD nonproliferation continues to be an avenue to work with the Russians, who historically share similar concerns about the spread of these weapons. Moreover, Russia understands the dangers of the spread of WMDs on its periphery. Therefore, the United States must make the case that adhering to nonproliferation norms promotes a more stable international security environment.
Given Kazakhstan and Russia’s geographical proximity and historical bonds, Kazakhstan will likely be an increasingly critical partner for the United States in future arms control negotiations with Russia. Concretely, multilateral support for arms control treaties will be essential in maintaining accountability for nuclear stability. New START lasts through 2026 and is the only active arms control treaty aiming to provide guardrails between the United States and Russia. However, this area of cooperation stands on shaky ground due to the increasingly adversarial relations and limited diplomatic contact between the United States and Russia since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Russia’s suspension of New START talks is not great news, but a third-party country like Kazakhstan could potentially play a mediator role and host future arms control talks. Thankfully, Russia’s suspension does not mean the deal is nullified and that a buildup of Russian nuclear weapons is inevitable. U.S. policymakers should resist the pressure from defense hawks to expand nuclear buildup, considering that more nuclear weapons do not ensure U.S. security. Instead, they could easily have the opposite effect by raising threat perceptions in Moscow.
Despite the current dire straits that envelop the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the record of nonproliferation is impressive, given that no new countries have acquired nuclear weapons since North Korea acquired them in 2006. This speaks to the effectiveness of treaties like the Treaty of the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Arms control efforts to prevent the buildup of nuclear weapons among great powers have been an even more significant challenge. With regional partners like Kazakhstan that have a greater understanding of their respective regional landscape and security dynamics, the United States stands a better chance of fostering nuclear stability.
Alex Little is an MS graduate of Georgia Tech and specializes in Russian and Central Asian affairs.