Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s neighbors are right to drop the bomb, says Kazakh author
ALMATY, Kazakhstan — After setting the scene with an intimate portrayal of the landscape that towers over the world’s ninth-largest country, scholar and nuclear policy expert Togzhan Kassenova’s new non-fiction work, Atomic Steppe, suddenly picks up the pace. a thriller.
It was in the steppes of the author’s home country of Kazakhstan that Moscow’s journey to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal began in earnest.
Kassenova’s in-depth account of the pristine test that brought the Soviet Union to nuclear parity with the United States is both gripping and chilling, while his descriptions of the long-term toll borne by the earth and people nearby of the Semipalatinsk test site after four decades of nuclear experimentation are harrowing.
Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviet Union supervised more than 450 nuclear tests in the Belgium-sized territory known as the “polygon”, more than two-thirds of the total carried out by Moscow during the Soviet period.
In the late 1980s, a Kazakh anti-nuclear movement was born, becoming what Kassenova describes as part of the “re-emergence of Kazakh identity”, a process that took a new turn after what many consider the disastrous invasion and not provoked from Ukraine by Russia.
But the heart of Atomic Steppe is an examination of the political processes that have seen Kazakhstan – like Ukraine and Belarus – give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the union at the behest of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers. , the United States and Russia. .
But Russia’s war in Ukraine, its increasingly intimidating posture towards its neighbours, and the nuclear slashes of leader Vladimir Putin following a series of setbacks in the war have cast these 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 member of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL she had no doubt that the newly independent countries were doing what was best for them and for the world.
RFE/RL: At a recent conference in Almaty, you said that the legacy of nuclear testing in northeast Kazakhstan is not something people experienced, but something they still experience today. Can you talk a bit about the long-term impact on the people living in the area surrounding the polygon?
Togjan Kasenova: Even though more than three decades have passed since the last nuclear test at the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, people are still paying the price. If you travel to the nearby villages of the former site, you will encounter the dark legacy of Soviet nuclear testing.
Studies by the Kazakh Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology in Semey (formerly known as Semipalatinsk) confirm that second and third generations of people exposed to ionizing radiation near the former nuclear test site of Semipalatinsk suffer from higher death and cancer rates.
From my own travels in the region, I would mention three observations: there are hardly any old people, many do not survive to retirement; you meet children (the fourth generation of victims) with visible health problems, such as extra or missing fingers, cancers; every family has one or more tragic stories – parents, children, friends or classmates who died too young.
As in the rest of rural Kazakhstan, socio-economic conditions in the region are appalling. In some places there is no running water and no modern pipes. People have to deal with poor living conditions, lack of jobs, limited medical care in addition to their continued suffering from Soviet nuclear tests. They are forced to travel to Astana or the city of Semey to receive medical treatment. Honestly, it baffles me how a country with a shiny capital and millions of dollars spent on image projects doesn’t provide enough care for nuclear test survivors.
RFE/RL: Ukraine, like Kazakhstan, gave up its nuclear arsenal at the end of the Cold War. History teaches us that full-fledged conflicts between nuclear-armed countries are rare. Do you think the populations of these countries should regret this decision, given what is happening in Ukraine?
Cassenova: Absolutely not. Renouncing nuclear arsenals was the right decision. Let us remember the kind of challenges that Kazakhstan and Ukraine faced at the time. What they needed most was to enter the international community on good terms — to receive foreign direct investment, foreign technology and access to international markets. If they had tried to fight their way into a nuclear club against established norms, they would have become pariah states.
Nuclear weapons programs would not have solved their problems. In fact, they would interfere with meeting the immediate needs of Kazakhstan and Ukraine – building economies, resolving socio-political crises in the wake of the Soviet collapse, and strengthening sovereignty. For Kazakhstan, choosing a non-nuclear path was an important part of building its national identity. [by] withdraw from the Soviet nuclear weapons program that so devastated its people.
I would also like to point out that Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus received security guarantees of their sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for their decision to become non-nuclear.
Whether one of the signatories to the Budapest Memorandum – the Russian Federation – has so blatantly violated international norms and its own promises is another matter.
On the contrary, the current global tension caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine has highlighted a single truth: as long as nuclear weapons exist, the populations of all countries remain hostages.
RFE/RL: Astana has remained neutral since the start of the war while refraining from openly criticizing Russia’s actions. Given Kazakhstan’s nuclear history, how do you think its government might react to Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine?
Cassenova: Kazakhstan’s position is firmly aligned with international norms and instruments. I expect the leaders of Kazakhstan to find Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine abhorrent.
I cannot speak for the government, but I can tell you in no uncertain terms what I have heard from the new generation of Kazakh scholars and activists. They find the threat of nuclear use by Russia beyond irresponsibility. They also raise a question: should we consider a country that exceeds the nuclear facilities of another countrylike Russia did 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 over the past 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 denuclearization has also become part of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s cult of leadership?
Cassenova: There are several reasons why we have heard little about others involved in the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site or in negotiations over the fate of nuclear weapons. The first reason is the personification of the modern history of Kazakhstan. There has been quite a bit of deliberate myth-making around Nursultan Nazarbaev as a one-man show. I find it unfortunate that until now the historical record has been skewed to focus on Nazarbaev to the detriment of the memory of many other people who contributed to nation building.
That said, 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 his relations with Moscow, Washington and other international partners. As a scholar, I fear that the discourse in Kazakhstan will shift to another extreme and that Nazarbayev’s good deeds will be denied because of what his figure has come to represent over time: nepotism, corruption and suppression of political opposition.
Another related reason why certain key figures have been relegated to obscurity has something to do with political competition. For example, in the case of the leader of the anti-nuclear movement, Olzhas Suleimenov, it was feared that he would become an alternative political figure to compete with Nazarbaev. Or take, for example, Tulegen Zhukeev, the former state councilor and deputy chairman of the National Security Council (Nazarbayev was chairman). Zhukeev was literally next after Nazarbaev tried to negotiate on nuclear issues in the early 1990s, but you won’t find his name in official accounts. Why? Zhukeev left the government and joined the opposition. Somehow, the context of Kazakhstan meant that all of its contributions to nation-building, in general – and in particular on nuclear issues – were nullified.
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.