Kazakhstan – Once More a Testing Ground?

Being a staunch supporter of international nuclear disarmament efforts since many years, a very recent and little noticed decision by the Kazakh parliament to approve the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons could test the seriousness of nuclear disarmament supporters.

Kazakhstan’s history is closely linked to Moscow’s nuclear weapons program. During the Cold War, Soviet leaders ordered excessive nuclear testing in the vast steppes of what later became the modern Kazakh state. Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet military conducted no less than 456 air and underground nuclear weapons tests at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site. Radiation exposure led to massive suffering of the local population and caused long-term Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev to support international nuclear disarmament efforts ever since Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991.

Together with the other four Central Asian states, Kazakhstan was critical in pushing for the establishment of a Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, which materialized in 2009. As a result, Central Asian states undertake not to research, develop, manufacture, stockpile, acquire, possess, or have any control over any nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device. When 122 countries voted in favor of a new global Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in 2017 at the United Nations in New York, Kazakhstan was amongst the supporters. Two years on, the Central Asian state is now becoming the 25th country to approve the TPNW, which enters into force once 50 states have deposited their instruments of ratification with the United Nations.

Kazakhstan’s decision reflects a growing frustration among UN member states with the nuclear weapons-states not meeting their disarmament obligations under a much older agreement. In 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) codified what has become known as the ‘nuclear haves’ and the ‘nuclear have nots.’ Under the terms of the NPT, five states – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – are officially allowed to have nuclear weapons while all other states are denied these weapons of mass destruction. To sweeten the massively unfair deal for the ‘have nots,’ the ‘nuclear haves’ pledged to assist in the development and use of civil nuclear energy and promised to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to … nuclear disarmament.” Quite contrary to that promise, today, all ‘nuclear haves’ are modernizing their arsenals, effectively extending their operation well into the second half of the 21st century.

The TPNW, or Ban Treaty, aims to outlaw nuclear arms completely and for the first time. Predictably, nuclear weapons-states are in fierce opposition to the Treaty. Ever since its coming into being, supporters and opponents exchange stark rhetoric about the impact or non-impact of the new accord. Meanwhile, particularly civil society groups in favor of the TPNW such as the Nobel Peace Price-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), take aim at those NPT states that are officially non-nuclear weapons-states but take part in nuclear activities such as NATO’s nuclear sharing mechanisms. For right or wrong, those states – Germany, Belgium, Italy, to name just a few – are being heavily criticized for their direct or indirect support of nuclear weapons policies by NGOs such as ICAN.

What does all that have to do with Kazakhstan? To begin with, Kazakhstan is a member of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Akin to NATO, the CSTO – comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan – was built on a collective defense clause. Article 4 of the 1992 Treaty on Collective Security states: “In case an act of aggression is directed against any of the States Parties, all other States Parties shall provide it necessary assistance, including military assistance, and shall also support it by all means available in exercise of the right of collective defense under Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.” Given that Russia is nuclear-armed, “all means available” could as well mean ‘nuclear means.’ While the wording of the CSTO defense clause leaves room for interpretation, another Kazakh link to Moscow’s nuclear deterrent is more obvious.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan signed bilateral treaties with Russia on the lease of missile testing ranges on Kazakh territory. For instance, 25 percent of Russia’s Kapustin Yar testing range are located in Kazakhstan. From the Russian part of the Kapustin Yar site Russian missiles are regularly launched to test Russian missile defense installations located at the Sary-Shagan site, a Kazakh testing ground, 480 km in length and located near lake Balkhash. One could argue that missile defense tests, at least those testing interceptors, are not a directly related part of a nuclear weapons program. But in November 2015, Russia’s strategic missile force successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile RS-12M “Topol” from Kapustin Yar. The purpose of the test was to test a new warhead. According to the Russian Defense Ministry’s strategic missile force spokesperson Colonel Igor Yegorov, “The missile’s dummy warhead hit a hypothetical target at the Sary-Shagan proving ground, in neighboring Kazakhstan. The accuracy was within the expected parameters.”

How are these activities in line with the stipulations of the TPNW? The short answer is they are not. Article 4(2) of the Treaty expressly requires signatories to remove or destroy all nuclear arms they might possess, “including the elimination or irreversible conversion of all nuclear-weapons-related facilities.” A first meeting of States Parties to the Treaty is set to determine a deadline for irreversible elimination/conversion, once the Treaty has entered into force. While this might take some time, Kazakhstan’s choices are somewhat limited. If the country is to seriously comply with the TPNW it will have to close its testing ranges to Russian missile testing. Alternatively, it could push to water down the rather unspecific provisions of the TPNW, withdraw from the Treaty altogether or cheat. Neither of these options looks favorable. At least Moscow seems very relaxed. “This does not prevent us from remaining allies and friends,” commented an unperturbed Russian government official back in 2017 when Kazakhstan voted in favor of the Ban Treaty.

Taken together, Kazakhstan’s continued contribution to and benefitting from Moscow’s nuclear deterrent could help to undermine the Ban Treaty while still in its infancy. At least, it puts into question how serious supporters of the Ban Treaty are when it comes to establishing a clear-cut disarmament norm. Once the TPNW enters into force, states parties will have to face the difficult task of defining what nuclear weapons-related activities really means. Anon, civil society groups such as ICAN will have to answer whether they would also openly criticize TPNW signatories or only those remaining outside of the agreement. Clearly, Sary Shagan represents a testing ground for the new Treaty.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.