Accessibility links

Breaking News

Giving Up Nukes -- Is The Post-Soviet Experience A Model For Others?

The first Soviet nuclear test was carried out in Semipalatinsk in 1949.
The first Soviet nuclear test was carried out in Semipalatinsk in 1949.
As world leaders gathered for the two-day nuclear-security summit in Seoul this week, a lot of the attention was on countries that were not present -- North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Iran. The first three have nuclear weapons, while Iran's nuclear program has provoked international concern that it could be aimed at producing weapons.

No one, it seems, has yet come up with a workable plan to persuade these countries of the benefits of giving up their nuclear arsenals or ambitions.

Yet U.S. President Barack Obama, who has made improved nuclear security a key foreign-policy priority, met in Seoul with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and hailed the Central Asian country as a possible role model.

"Twenty years ago, Kazakhstan made a decision not to have nuclear weapons," Obama said. "And not only has that led to growth and prosperity in his own country, but [Nazarbaev] has been a model in efforts around the world to eliminate nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands."

Lessons For Iran

In a "New York Times" op-ed on March 25 with the provocative headline "What Iran Can Learn From Kazakhstan," Nazarbaev urged "Tehran to learn from our example." "I have no doubt," Nazarbaev wrote, "that we are a more prosperous, stable country, with more influence and friends in the world because of this decision."

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly independent countries of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan found themselves with large tactical and strategic nuclear arsenals on their territories. In fact, at the time, Kazakhstan had the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal on earth.

U.S. President Barack Obama greets his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev at a meeting in Seoul
U.S. President Barack Obama greets his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev at a meeting in Seoul
Yet all three countries made the decision to give up those weapons and become nonnuclear powers. And all three received help not only in securing the weapons on their territory, but also in securing other nuclear materials and cleaning up the legacy of Soviet-era nuclear programs.

So who got what? And how do they feel about it now, two decades down the road?

Of the three countries, Kazakhstan has arguably benefited the most. The country has made strides cleaning up the horrific legacy of the Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear test site and is now on track to host an international nuclear fuel bank that would provide fuel for civilian power plants to countries complying with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements.

Tulegen Zhukeyev, former deputy chairman of the National Security Council of Kazakhstan, says the decision to give up nuclear weapons did a lot to bring the country into the international mainstream.

"I think that to a significant extent we managed to show Kazakhstan in the best light, to create investment conditions and attract a colossal amount of investment -- primarily in the oil-and-gas sector, of course," Zhukeyev said.

"Nonetheless, we created the necessary atmosphere for the recognition of Kazakhstan as a successful state, as a very responsible state, with rotating government leadership, with whom you can conduct serious negotiations. We managed to do this."

Chornobyl Problem

Aleksei Arbatov, director of the Moscow-based International Security Center, agreed.

"None of this would have been possible if Kazakhstan had stubbornly held on to the heavy rockets that were located on bases on its territory that it could never have used anyway," Arbatov said. "And if it hadn't made the sensible gesture of allowing them to be removed and signing the nonproliferation agreements. It thus became one of the most respected members of the international community."

Perhaps the most obvious indication of this special status for Kazakhstan came in 2010 when it became the first former Soviet country to hold the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Ukraine is in line for the OSCE presidency in 2013.

Ukraine also reaped tangible benefits. Kyiv-based security analyst Mykhaylo Samus says the international assistance the country received was a key factor in its decision to give up nuclear arms.

"I would say the biggest plus has been support in solving the Chornobyl problem, when the United States and other members of the nuclear club helped Ukraine gather the necessary funding for the construction of the infrastructure at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant that has secured the site," Samus said.

Samus said Kyiv benefited less in political and economic terms. Even the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which the United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom undertook to guarantee "the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine," has largely become a "consultative document" rather than a tangible guarantee that ordinary Ukrainians understand, he argued.

The United States and other countries are also helping Ukraine construct a state-of-the-art Neutron Source Facility in the northeastern city of Kharkiv. The facility, largely paid for by the United States, will enable Ukraine to produce more than 50 industrial and medical isotopes.

Under staunchly anti-Western President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Belarus has probably benefited the least from its renunciation of nuclear weapons, says former parliament deputy Mechyslau Hryb.

"We didn't demand any compensation. We didn't receive any compensation directly for giving up nuclear weapons -- and we aren't receiving any such compensation now," Hryb said.

"I don't deny that Russia is constantly helping Belarus and the United States has also provided assistance, but this is generally in the area of helping Belarus fulfill its obligations for the destruction of conventional arms. But as for direct compensation, we gave up [nuclear weapons] without compensation."

In the final analysis, however, there are key differences between the situations of the post-Soviet states and countries like North Korea or Pakistan.

With its legacy of cancer and pollution from the Semipalatinsk test site, Kazakhstan can be thought of as a victim of the nuclear age, comparable to Japan. The same can be said of Belarus and Ukraine, with their shared nightmare of Chornobyl.

On the other hand, countries like North Korea, Pakistan, and, potentially, Iran see themselves as victims of the historical international order and view their nuclear programs themselves as signs of security and prestige.

Perhaps more important, the post-Soviet trio inherited their nuclear arsenals without the means to maintain them. Countries like North Korea and Pakistan developed weapons through expensive and dedicated efforts over many years. No model has yet been developed under which a country that already crossed the threshold and developed nuclear arms has given them up.

Written in Prague by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian and Kazakh services

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.