Kazakhstan, like Ukraine and Belarus, temporarily became a potential nuclear weapons power after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviets had deployed 104 SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) containing more than 1400 nuclear warheads in the Kazakh steppe. These were the largest and most threatening land-based Soviet nuclear weapons, and their future control was uncertain in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Togzhan Kassenova, a senior fellow at the University of Albany, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a native Kazakh whose father was head of Kazakhstan’s Center for Strategic Studies at the time, tells the story of the diplomatic minuet between Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States in the early- and mid-1990s that resulted in Kazakhstan’s surrender of any claim over those weapons in her new and timely book Atomic Steppe.
But Kassenova’s book is more than just diplomatic history; it also reviews the history of Soviet nuclear tests and experiments in Kazakhstan—beginning with the first such test in August 1949 and continuing until 1989—and the resulting negative health and environmental effects on the Kazakh land and people. She notes that the Soviets conducted more than 450 nuclear tests (both above and below ground with a total megatonnage equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima bombs) at the city of Semipalatinsk at a testing site called the Polygon (which was the size of Belgium). Nearby residents suffered the effects of nuclear explosions and radiation poisoning of their air, water and food. The tests decimated what the author calls a vast land of “natural beauty” and the “cradle of Kazakh literature”.
Kazakhstan had suffered from previous Soviet initiatives, including Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s which created a famine that caused the death by starvation of an estimated 1.3 million ethnic Kazakhs. The health effects of the nuclear tests, however, extended over generations as the descendants of the Semipalatinsk region of that period suffered (and continue to suffer) from abnormal rates of cancers, stillbirths, birth defects, and suicides. Kassenova laments:
the forty years of nuclear testing in the Kazakh steppe had claimed thousands upon thousands of victims. People drank contaminated water and milk and ate meat from animals who had fed on pastures laced with radioactive isotopes. Thousands of families continued to go through the heartbreak of losing loved ones to cancers and other diseases. Women suffered from miscarriages or had babies with birth defects. The everyday life of people living in the Semipalatinsk region was mired in the stress of constant bombardment from nuclear explosions and the long-term suffering that was their aftermath.
The author notes that the tragedy and misery in Semipalatinsk led to the growth and vocal advocacy of an anti-nuclear movement during the Gorbachev years as perestroika and glasnost loosened the state’s totalitarian grip over dissent.
When the Soviet Union fell and Kazakhstan became independent, the nuclear tests stopped, but the weapons and infrastructure of the Soviet nuclear program remained on Kazakh (and Ukrainian and Belarusian) soil but were still under Russian military control. What was to be done? Thus began a flurry of diplomatic activity between Kazakhstan’s new leaders, Russia, and the United States designed to remove nuclear weapons from Kazakhstan (and Ukraine and Belarus) and secure the uranium, plutonium, and other aspects of the nuclear infrastructure against black market and terrorist capture.
Kassenova details the diplomacy between successive US administrations, the Russian government under Boris Yeltsin, and Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, including a secret operation called Project Sapphire in which the Kazakh government transferred highly-enriched uranium to the Americans who transported 600 kilograms of the nuclear material to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the overt Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program (named after two US senators) that provided American funds to pay for “the dismantlement and elimination of former Soviet weapons infrastructure on Kazakh territory.” Nunn-Lugar was also extended to Ukraine and Belarus.
Although Atomic Steppe was completed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kassenova claims that Kazakhstan’s new government was less influenced by nationalists than was the new Ukrainian government. Kazakh leaders, she believes, understood their geographical vulnerability with Russia to the north (and China to the east and south), so they maintained good relations with Russia even as they cooperated with the US. Ukraine, on the other hand, looked to the West where it flirted with both EU and NATO membership (often encouraged by US and European leaders), and thereby inflamed Russian nationalism, militarism and insecurities, as Russian expert George Kennan had presciently warned about in 1996 and 1997.
In the end, both Kazakhstan and Ukraine received similarly vague security pledges from the US and Russia in return for surrendering any claim to the former Soviet nuclear weapons located in their countries. And their different approaches to post-Soviet Russia have resulted thus far in two very different outcomes.