How the Soviet Collapse Thrust Kazakhstan Into Nonproliferation Diplomacy

August 9, 2021 Topic: Nuclear Weapons Region: Eurasia Tags: NuclearWeaponsRussiaKazakhstanCold War

How the Soviet Collapse Thrust Kazakhstan Into Nonproliferation Diplomacy

The world has become very blasé about Kazakhstan’s place in the post–Cold War roll of honor. Both western and non-western national security establishments often assume its nonproliferation accomplishment only happened in an increasingly distant past.


In an imperfect world, getting the basics right and then sticking to them should take precedence over lesser issues. Nowhere does this tested truism have more salience than in the necessarily ceaseless effort to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In three decades since the cold war’s end, even the modicum of success reached in this singularly crucial goal has required ongoing and hard-edged realist interaction among all nuclear weapons states. This has happened regardless of governmental system or cultural affinities, i.e., on a scale of priorities, these are important but still the lesser issues. 

Long gone are the straightforward days of bipolar U.S.-USSR arms control negotiations. The Soviet collapse abruptly thrust a newly independent Kazakhstan into nonproliferation diplomacy; its actions helped to secure real, as opposed to symbolic, results. 

Restraining nuclear weaponry requires ongoing compromise in each country’s hard-edged national interest. Because nuclear weapons pose such uniquely inherent risks, managing them remains the basic priority for the United States. With this goal prioritized, other norms can be advanced—like widening civil society, expanding gender equity, democratizing governance, and other aspirations that give American foreign policy its special character. 

But the basics come first, without an insistence on a perfect outcome. The words Never let the Best be Enemy of the Good offer a maxim well suited to the current multipolar world. Today’s security threats spell ongoing danger in novel ways, as in global pandemics, global warming, and global migratory pressures. 

Each of these challenges has pushed out still further the global security agenda but, taken severally or collectively, they cannot be equated with avoiding nuclear catastrophe. The same applies to other challenges such as cybersecurity, routine manipulation of computer systems, and even the growth of authoritarian leadership. 

Within this steadily expanding threat environment, fear of nuclear war must still come first. This means staying focused, as the Kazakhs have been, on “old-fashioned” arms control—meaning curbing of production/dispersal of nuclear weapons material, monitoring destabilizing technologies, and limiting arsenals, delivery vehicles, and problematic new research. 

Although three decades have passed since the Soviet Union’s demise, much of the nonproliferation effort today remains “old-fashioned.” As the USSR fragmented in 1991, Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev signed a decree in August that year which closed the enormous (7,000 square miles) Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site. 

The move came amid a raft of skillfully managed moves by Soviet and western leaders to reduce cold war tensions. Nazarbayev’s decree dovetailed with his new country’s indigenous anti-nuclear movements. For reasons of political optics, he also linked the testing site’s closure to domestic American pressure seeking to end nuclear testing in Nevada. But those things were unrelated. 

With the Americans acquiescing in the false equivalency, the Nazarbayev decree and other parallel moves gained political leverage within the residual Soviet-era system. But sustained anti-nuclear opposition within the United States never came close to the intensity of Kazakh reaction to Soviet weapons development programs and their terrible environmental legacy. 

Memories fade. Thirty years later, the Trump administration’s flippant attitude to arms control imperatives elicited a matching disdain from Russia and indifference from China. Today, new arms races (weapons miniaturization and destabilizing new delivery vehicles) have gripped the security establishments of China, Russia, the United States, France, India and Israel). 

Left unchecked, current trends could threaten the nonproliferation gains won in the early post–Cold War period when bipartisan congressional leadership worked in tandem with the White House of George H. W. Bush. Thirty years ago, senators Richard Lugar (R) and Sam Nunn (D) secured funding for sustained denuclearization programs in the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Ukraine.

Both these new countries moved nuclear weapons stored in their respective territories back to Russia. But the key parts of the Soviet nuclear weapons programs after 1947 happened in Kazakhstan. But the Kazakhs took care of that, too. Fast forward to August 2021. The man currently directing Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Center, Yerlan Gadletovich, has described “two ongoing necessities” since the test site’s closing in 1991. First, a continuation of foreign partnership (mainly but not exclusively American) to help “eliminate the testing infrastructure.” Few realize this work has been ongoing since 1991, cooperating with the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which monitors WMD around the world. 

The second “necessity” rests on a deliberately vague use of language, in “resolving issues related to the consequence management of testing such weapons. . . . a large and serious task.” This task, a ceaseless one, merits Kazakhstan’s continuing place in the dynamics of nuclear nonproliferation. 

Kazakh expertise has become part of global scientific monitoring of weapons of mass destruction. Kazakh specialists routinely interact with the national security bureaucracies in neighboring countries, including geographically contiguous Russia and China. The Kazakhs keep tabs on laboratory improvements in monitoring technologies. Beyond the region, they brief EU nuclear agencies and maintain close contact with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. 

Given past achievements and ongoing work, western ignorance about Kazakhstan’s nonproliferation contribution is surprising. This includes important but behind-the-scenes work to renew the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995.

The world has become very blasé about Kazakhstan’s place in the post–Cold War roll of honor. Both western and non-western national security establishments often assume its nonproliferation accomplishment only happened in an increasingly distant past. 

Not so. Kazakhstan retains a role it assumed thirty years ago when moving against the cold war nuclear nemesis. Careful political footwork balancing two powerful neighbors since then has helped it retain a nonproliferation focus, working also with Japan and other countries in the UN. In fact, the UN General Assembly declared August 29, 2020, which is the day that Kazakhstan closed the weapons testing facility, an “International Day Against Nuclear Testing.”

In this context, monitoring Kazakh civil liberties and post-Soviet governance has its place. But it may also run the risk of weakening an important moderating voice restraining the development of de-stabilizing nuclear weapons delivery systems. In a rekindled arms race, making the Best an Enemy of the Good makes little sense. The ongoing, basic nonproliferation agenda remains the top priority; handled sensibly, it can leave room for secondary issues.

A former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense, James Clad has reported to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission about destabilizing weapons systems and the strategic balance in Asia. 

Image: Reuters.