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Despite Russian Invasion Of Ukraine, Moscow's Neighbors Correct To Give Up The Bomb, Says Kazakh Author

In 1953, the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb was successfully tested here at the Semipalatinsk test site.
In 1953, the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb was successfully tested here at the Semipalatinsk test site.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- After setting the scene with an intimate portrait of the landscape that dominates the world's ninth-largest country, scholar and nuclear politics expert Togzhan Kassenova's new nonfiction work Atomic Steppe suddenly takes on the pace of a thriller.

It was on the steppes of the author's home country, Kazakhstan, that Moscow's journey toward having the world's largest nuclear arsenal began in earnest.

Kassenova's thoroughly researched retelling of the virgin test that brought the Soviet Union nuclear parity with the United States is both gripping and frightening, while her descriptions of the long-term toll borne on the land and the people in the vicinity of the Semipalatinsk Test Site after four decades of nuclear experimentation are harrowing.

Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union oversaw more than 450 nuclear tests at the Belgium-sized territory known as "the polygon," more than two-thirds of the total carried out by Moscow during the Soviet period.

The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, known in the West as Joe-1, on August 29, 1949, at the Semipalatinsk site. Joe-1 was a direct copy of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki and had a yield of about 20 kilotons.
The Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb, known in the West as Joe-1, on August 29, 1949, at the Semipalatinsk site. Joe-1 was a direct copy of the plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki and had a yield of about 20 kilotons.

In the late 1980s, a Kazakh antinuclear movement was born, becoming what Kassenova describes as part of the "reemergence of Kazakh identity," a process that is taking a fresh turn after what many see as Russia's disastrous, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

But the heart of Atomic Steppe is an examination of the political processes that saw Kazakhstan -- like Ukraine and Belarus -- give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the union at the urging of the world's two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia.

But Russia's war in Ukraine, its increasingly intimidating posture toward its neighbors, and leader Vladimir Putin's nuclear saber-rattling following a series of reverses in the war have cast those decisions to disarm in a new light.

Kassenova, a Washington, D.C.-based senior fellow with the Project on International Security, Commerce, and Economic Statecraft (PISCES) at SUNY-Albany, and a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL she had no doubt that the newly independent countries did what was best for them and the world.

RFE/RL: During a recent talk in Almaty, you said that the legacy of nuclear testing in northeastern Kazakhstan isn't something that people lived through but something they are living through even now. Can you talk a bit about the long-term impact on populations living in the region surrounding the polygon?

Togzhan Kassenova: Even though more than three decades have passed since the last nuclear test at the Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site, people continue to pay the price. If you travel to the villages next to the former site, you will be confronted with the dark legacy of Soviet nuclear tests.

Studies from the Kazakh Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology in Semey (formerly known as Semipalatinsk) confirm that the second and third generations of people exposed to ionizing radiation in the vicinity of the former Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site suffer from higher mortality and cancer rates.

From my own trips to the region, I would mention three observations: there are hardly any older people, many do not survive to retirement; you meet children (the fourth generation of victims) with visible health issues, such as extra or missing fingers, cancers; every single family has a tragic story or several -- parents, children, friends, or classmates who died too young.

Togzhan Kassenova attends a book talk in Almaty on October 6.
Togzhan Kassenova attends a book talk in Almaty on October 6.

Like the rest of rural Kazakhstan, socioeconomic conditions in the region are appalling. In some places there is no running water and no modern canalization. People must deal with poor living conditions, lack of jobs, limited medical care on top of their continued suffering from the Soviet nuclear tests. They are forced to travel to Astana or the city of Semey to receive medical treatment. It honestly baffles me how a country with a shiny capital and millions of dollars spent on image projects is not providing sufficient care for the survivors of nuclear tests.

RFE/RL: Ukraine, like Kazakhstan, gave up its nuclear arsenal at the end of the Cold War. History tells us that full-blown conflicts between nuclear-armed countries are rare. Do you think the populations of these countries should regret that decision, given what is happening in Ukraine?

Kassenova: Absolutely not. Giving up nuclear arsenals was the right decision. Let us remember the kind of challenges Kazakhstan and Ukraine faced back then. What they needed most was to enter the international community on good terms -- receive foreign direct investment, foreign technology, and access to international markets. If they had tried to push their way into a nuclear club against the established norms, they would have become pariah states.

Nuclear weapons programs wouldn't have solved their problems. In fact, they would interfere with meeting the immediate needs of Kazakhstan and Ukraine -- building up economies, overcoming sociopolitical crises in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and strengthening sovereignty. For Kazakhstan, choosing a nonnuclear path was an important part of its national identity-building [by] removing itself from the Soviet nuclear weapons program that brought so much devastation to its people.

I would also stress that Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus had received security assurances of their sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for their decisions to become nonnuclear.

That one of the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum -- the Russian Federation -- has so blatantly violated international norms and its own promises, is a different matter.

If anything, the current global tension caused by Russia's war against Ukraine has put a single truth into sharper focus: as long as nuclear weapons exist, populations of all countries remain hostages.

RFE/RL: Astana has stayed neutral since the war began while refraining from outright criticism of Russia's actions. Given Kazakhstan's own nuclear history, how do you think its government might react to the use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine by Russia?

Kassenova: Kazakhstan's position is firmly aligned with international norms and instruments. I would expect that Kazakhstan's leadership would find Russia's use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine abhorrent.

I cannot speak for the government, but I can tell you what I heard in clear terms from the new generation of Kazakh scholars and activists. They find the threat of nuclear use by Russia beyond irresponsible. They also pose a question: should we consider a country that overtakes another country's nuclear facilities, as Russia has in Ukraine, a nuclear terrorist state?

RFE/RL: Kazakhstan has positioned itself as a leader in nuclear diplomacy, hosting high-level talks on Iran's nuclear program in the last decade and cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency to set up a Low-Enriched Uranium Bank for international use on its territory. But is it also fair to say that de-nuclearization also became part of former president Nursultan Nazarbaev's leadership cult?

Kassenova: There are several reasons why we heard little about others involved in shutting down the Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site or negotiations on the fate of nuclear weapons. The first reason is the personification of Kazakhstan's modern history. There has been quite a bit of deliberate mythmaking around Nursultan Nazarbaev as a one-person show. I find it unfortunate that so far, the historical record was skewed towards being Nazarbaev-centric at the expense of remembering many other people who contributed to nation-building.

Having said this, it would be remiss not to give credit to the first president as he was the ultimate decision-maker. Especially in the early 1990s, Nazarbaev showed political acumen in dealing with Moscow, Washington, and other international partners. As a scholar, I worry that the discourse in Kazakhstan will swing to another extreme and Nazarbaev's good deeds will be negated because of what his figure came to represent with time: nepotism, corruption, and the suppression of political opposition.

Candidate Nursultan Nazarbaev casts a ballot next to his wife Sara Nazarbaeva (right) and grandson Nurali in the presidential election in Almaty in December 1991.
Candidate Nursultan Nazarbaev casts a ballot next to his wife Sara Nazarbaeva (right) and grandson Nurali in the presidential election in Almaty in December 1991.

Another related reason why some key figures were relegated to obscurity has something to do with political competition. For example, in the case of the leader of the antinuclear movement, Olzhas Suleimenov, there were worries about him becoming an alternative political figure to rival Nazarbaev. Or take, for example, Tulegen Zhukeev, the former state counselor and deputy chair of the National Security Council (Nazarbaev was chairman). Zhukeev was literally next in line after Nazarbaev tried to negotiate on nuclear issues in the early 1990s, but you won't find his name in official narratives. Why? Zhukeev left the government and joined the opposition. Somehow, Kazakhstan's context meant that all his contributions to nation-building, in general -- and specifically on nuclear matters -- were canceled out.

Part of my motivation for Atomic Steppe was to paint a more nuanced picture of Kazakhstan's nuclear history and to add names other than Nazarbaev to Kazakhstan's modern history.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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