How Did Kazakhstan Give Up the Bomb? – The Diplomat


Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan discovered itself in possession of the world’s then-fourth largest nuclear weapons stockpile. By the tip of 1995, the weapons have been gone, repatriated to Russia in a de-nuclearization course of rigorously negotiated and carried out with the help of the USA. The weapons have been gone however not forgotten. Forty-two years earlier than Kazakhstan’s independence, the Soviet Union had begun testing nuclear weapons on a patch of steppe these in Moscow seen as uninhabited. 

In “Atomic Steppe,” a e-book 15 years within the making, Togzhan Kassenova tells the story of how Kazakhstan gave up the bomb. Kassenova, a senior fellow on the College at Albany, SUNY and a nonresident fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace, spoke to The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz about Kazakhstan’s denuclearization, the complexity of the method, and the teachings there for world denuclearization efforts.

The Soviet Union started nuclear testing in what’s now Kazakhstan in 1949. What concerns went into the selection of location – Semipalatinsk – and, extra importantly, what did Soviet authorities not keep in mind?

The Soviet authorities thought of sensible issues. Is it far sufficient from main transportation routes to forestall entry of overseas spies however shut sufficient to permit the motion of building supplies? Is there easy accessibility to these supplies – sand, water? They checked out geology, geography, topography. They wished a comparatively distant place. 

However what’s “distant” for Moscow isn’t “distant” for individuals who stay within the area. The army planners talked in regards to the chosen web site as “uninhabited.” Once more, that is relative. How is an space uninhabited if hundreds of individuals stay there [and] use the land for herding livestock? To not point out a significant metropolis of Semipalatinsk, which was solely 75 miles away from the positioning chosen. Granted they didn’t absolutely perceive the potential impression, it’s evident that residents from the agricultural settlements, town of Semipalatinsk, and different cities close by got little thought in these deliberations.

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In the course of the Soviet interval, was there opposition to the testing? 

I’d remind readers that the nuclear testing program was shrouded in secrecy. So even when the federal government of Kazakhstan knew the Soviet army used it for nuclear exams, it wasn’t absolutely conscious of the extent of what transpired on the Polygon. But, in fact, the impression on locals’ well being manifested itself early on, and it wasn’t a secret that no matter was taking place on the Polygon wasn’t good for the individuals.

The file is spotty, however from what we all know, on at the least a number of events, distinguished Kazakh people tried to draw consideration to the struggling of native individuals. In 1957, a well-known Kazakh author and a local of the Semipalatinsk area, Mukhtar Auezov, talked in regards to the Polygon on the anti-nuclear convention in Japan. In 1958, the native governor of the Semipalatinsk area Mukhametkali Suzhikov requested data from the specialised medical facility in Semipalatinsk established by the Soviet authorities to observe (not deal with) the well being of native individuals. Based mostly on the knowledge he acquired in regards to the alarming impression of ionizing radiation on locals’ well being, Suzhikov despatched a secret letter to the Soviet chief Nikita Khruschev and Kazakhstan’s chief Nikolai Beliaev. The Soviet authorities approved insignificant monetary and medical help to the area in response. Suzhikov shortly misplaced his job after, with many believing it as payback for elevating the plight of locals. In 1962, one other Semipalatinsk governor Mikhail Karpenko wrote to Kazakhstan’s chief Dinmukhamed Kunaev requesting assist for the area and warning the republic’s management about fashionable discontent with the Polygon. It seems that the Kazakh management appointed by Moscow was powerless.

The actual opposition to nuclear exams on all ranges grew to become potential solely within the late Nineteen Eighties.

In your studying of the memoirs of scientists and others concerned within the testing program what stood out to you?

A couple of issues. First, how little selection rank-and-file troopers and officers had when the federal government despatched them to the center of the Kazakh steppe to construct the Polygon. They didn’t even know the place they have been going till they reached their vacation spot. These first Polygon builders, together with gulag prisoners despatched by [Lavrentiy] Beria, confronted grueling situations. Many perished.

As for the scientists, it was fascinating to watch how they have been concurrently celebrated as those engaged on the nation’s most necessary nationwide safety undertaking, however on the similar time, their freedom was curtailed. Scientists have been underneath the fixed watch of Beria and his individuals, and later, after Beria’s fall, of the KGB. In my e-book, I wished to provide justice to the scientists who felt satisfaction of their work and scientific achievements, who believed they have been constructing their nation’s crucial “nuclear protect,” even when the product of their work prompted hurt to individuals within the speedy neighborhood. I’d additionally add, Soviet scientists and take a look at program individuals didn’t do it in a vacuum. They have been doing it as a part of the Soviet effort to not fall behind the American nuclear weapons program. 

Andrei Sakharov’s memoirs stood out as a microcosm of the complicated dynamics. Sakharov created the world’s strongest weapons – thermonuclear bombs. But, he struggled with the notion that his creation might trigger a lot hurt. Sakharov finally grew to become one of many staunchest anti-nuclear proponents. 

When the Soviet Union dissolved, what sorts of nuclear weapons, materials, and infrastructure have been in Kazakhstan on the time? What have been the early discussions in regards to the weapons like?

Kazakhstan’s nuclear inheritance included greater than a thousand nuclear warheads, greater than 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles, dozens of heavy bombers able to carrying nuclear bombs, and tons of nuclear materials. By way of the infrastructure, services that produced or saved nuclear materials have been particularly consequential. Within the bomb-making course of, the manufacturing of nuclear materials is essentially the most technologically difficult element. You might be one step away from a bomb if in case you have nuclear materials.

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I believe it’s useful to separate weapons from nuclear materials and the infrastructure. Kazakhstan didn’t have entry to command and management of nuclear weapons, though the weapons have been on its sovereign territory, and Kazakhstan’s selections have been essential for the destiny of these weapons. Kazakhstan was in full management of fabric and infrastructure that theoretically might have served as a stable basis for an indigenous nuclear program if Kazakh management was ever . In that sense, Kazakhstan’s strategic choice to go nuclear-free was essential for worldwide safety.

Kazakhstan’s choice to surrender nuclear inheritance was not speedy however got here comparatively early on. Kazakh management acknowledged that all the pieces that Kazakhstan hoped to attain as a brand new state could be out of attain if it tried to carry on to nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan wanted entry to overseas direct funding, world markets, worldwide establishments, know-how. All that might not be accessible if Kazakhstan tried to push its manner right into a nuclear membership. 

The voluntary denuclearization of Kazakhstan is commonly simplified into the story of an unmitigated diplomatic success on the a part of the USA and Kazakhstan. What does that simplified narrative get proper, and what’s lacking?

The narrative that we all know will get the basic issues proper – Kazakhstan made the best choice by selecting a non-nuclear path, and the USA performed a decisive position in making each the choice and its implementation potential. 

I do suppose that the accepted narrative is just too linear and simplistic.

On the Kazakh aspect, the nuclear story has been skewed towards portraying Kazakhstan’s nuclear coverage as a one-man present, with the one man being Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev, in fact, was the last word decision-maker, and Nazarbayev of the early Nineties was a formidable determine – a shrewd politician who maneuvered effectively between Russia and the USA. However he wasn’t performing alone. Simply to provide one instance, one of many key roles in these early nuclear negotiations belongs to the previous State Counselor Tulegen Zhukeev. But, you’ll hardly hear any references to him within the official discourse on nuclear diplomacy as a result of all the pieces in Kazakhstan has traditionally been Nazarbayev-centric and since Zhukeev finally left the federal government and have become a distinguished opposition determine.  

This centering round Nazarbayev isn’t restricted to the nuclear subject. In terms of many elements of Kazakhstan’s state-building, we hear little about distinguished figures apart from Nazarbayev. For instance, how many individuals exterior of Kazakhstan (and inside Kazakhstan) keep in mind Kazakhstan’s first and solely Vice President Erik Assanbayev, an individual who performed a crucial position within the early phases of Kazakhstan’s nation-building? With the latest occasions in Kazakhstan, nevertheless, I fear that we are going to go to a different excessive – by denying Nazarbayev his achievements, particularly these of the early Nineties.

Getting again to the nuclear theme and the significance of recording historical past with nuance, particularly on the query of the closure of the Semipalatinsk Check Web site, we should not neglect the position of Kazakhstan’s public anti-nuclear motion led by Olzhas Suleimenov, of all of the common residents, who have been those marching and rallying, and who made it potential for the Kazakh authorities to behave and shut down the nuclear take a look at web site. 

As for the U.S.-Kazakh denuclearization diplomacy, in fact, it was profitable. All sides met its targets. But how they received there wasn’t straightforward or linear, and for me, it was fascinating to trace these ups and downs, moments of pressure and apprehension. As a scholar engaged on policy-relevant matters, I cherished delving into how Kazakhstan and the USA navigated nuclear points. Finding out these complexities made me respect the ultimate outcome much more. 

Do you suppose Kazakhstan’s nuclear expertise, from testing to disarmament, holds classes for ongoing world denuclearization efforts?

Completely! There are such a lot of. Let me point out a number of. The primary lesson that I draw from all of it – when all is claimed and accomplished, nuclear weapons packages are an amazing waste of expertise, scientific effort, and assets. I might lastly absolutely respect the size of the Semipalatinsk Polygon and the abuse the land took when I discovered myself on a helicopter overfly. It’s actually one thing to see from above the territory stretching for miles and miles, with indicators of former army exercise (e.g., elements of the infrastructure, flattened land, and many others.). Folks and the atmosphere pay too excessive a value for nuclear arsenals.

But, there are additionally constructive classes. Kazakhstan’s case exhibits that nations can see nuclear packages as a legal responsibility for his or her safety quite than a profit. The early calculations and selections of the Kazakh management to decide on a non-nuclear path and enter the worldwide neighborhood on good phrases and with full entry to funding, markets, and establishments, laid the muse for Kazakhstan’s statehood. Kazakhstan’s case exhibits that we shouldn’t take as a on condition that nuclear weapons robotically imply extra safety. 

The truth that each Kazakhstan and the USA received what they have been after exhibits the ability of diplomacy and worldwide engagement. 

On a sensible stage, Kazakh, American, and Russian scientists and technical consultants obtained distinctive expertise in cooperative risk discount work – dismantlement of infrastructure, securing nuclear materials, participating former weapons scientists in peaceable work, and there are lots of classes discovered on dos and don’ts in implementing this type of work on the bottom. This expertise can profit related work in different elements of the world. 

I do know this was a really private e-book for you — you have been born in Kazakhstan, your father was concerned in Kazakh nuclear policymaking. Are you able to describe a few of what it was prefer to chase down such an in depth, troublesome story and attempt to convey it, in all its complexity, to the world?

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It was thrilling and troublesome. I felt privileged to have such a powerful connection to the story I used to be attempting to inform, however this proximity created challenges. At occasions, it was arduous to tread the road between being a scholar and being a Kazakh, particularly when describing such painful elements of historical past because the affected by the Soviet nuclear exams. I needed to preserve scholarly objectivity whereas coping with plain feelings of anger for what my fellow countrymen and girls went via.

The truth that my father, as a overseas coverage adviser, performed an necessary half within the Kazakh policymaking course of supplied a novel lens as I used to be uncovered to these debates from an early age. I felt liable for doing my half and recording this crucial interval of Kazakhstan’s historical past. 

The toughest half was the size of the interval the e-book coated – from the Nineteen Forties to these days. I understood my limitations – I didn’t stay via half of the interval I described, it was merely unattainable to corroborate each little a part of the story, and never all archival paperwork have been accessible. Nonetheless, I knew that I did all the pieces I might, and that was why it took me 15 years! I do know it’s only the start, and I hope students who come after me will add extra nuance to this complicated story.

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