Kazakhstan Opts for Nuclear Engagement, Not Deterrence via Huff Post


. In 1991, Kazakhstan hosted one of the largest nuclear test sites of the Soviet empire, as well as the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, larger than those of the UK, France, and China combined. Although wedged between two nuclear-armed giants, Kazakhstan chose to accede to START-I, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. Under these, Kazakhstan relinquished all nuclear warheads to Russia instead of maintaining and building up an independent deterrent it could ill afford. This was vastly consequential — and highly controversial.

As one study suggests, when full-fledged political and economic chaos immediately ensued after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s leadership not only lacked a clear vision of how to proceed with the massive nuclear arsenal but also the information and capacity to administer it. In that unprecedented and uncertain historic moment, Nazarbayev opted for strategic ambivalence to gain time. However, after weighing the decision for half a year and the political and economic costs of both keeping and getting rid of the nukes, the Kazakh leadership finally decided to take a chance and opt for a nuke-free future.

Nazarbayev not only embraced nuclear disarmament but made it a part of his country’s brand. The new international identity for Kazakhstan is widely associated with safe and responsible nuclear policy. For example, Kazakhstan brokered the Treaty of Semipalatinsk, which established the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone comprised of all five former Soviet republics of the region, and disposing of highly enriched uranium in cooperation with the U.S.

Nevertheless, as the largest producer of uranium ore in the world, Kazakhstan has not renounced civilian nuclear technology. The capital, Astana, recently hosted Expo 2017. The international exposition’s theme was “Future Energy”, featuring nuclear energy rather prominently. To combine its lucrative nuclear energy business and uniquely determined non-proliferation foreign policy, Nazarbayev’s government also came up with an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)-sponsored low enriched uranium (LEU) bank— the very first of its kind in the world. By creating this, Kazakhstan seeks to store low enriched uranium (the fuel for civilian nuclear reactors) in their country instead of in other countries under a guarantee of international supervision to assure the uranium hexafluoride is only processed for peaceful civilian purposes, and then shipped back to the customer. The LEU bank is operated by the IAEA in agreement with nuclear powers, including the United States, and neighboring Russia and China, who hold key strategic positions when it comes to transportation of the nuclear material.

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