Russia and the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone

23.12.2019

Since their creation in the 1940s, nuclear weapons have posed the biggest threat to humanity and global security. With this in mind, it is imperative that states make strides to eradicate these weapons. One of the most effective and powerful mechanisms for this goal is the creation of Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZ). These zones represent a consolidated effort of states in a particular region to strengthen their commitment to a denuclearized world. As of 2019, there are five regional NWFZ in the world: the Treaty of Tlatelolco, Treaty of Rarotonga, Treaty of Bangkok, Treaty of Pelindaba, and finally the Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia (CANWFZ). The CANWFZ is a legally binding obligation not to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons in or by the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Republic of Kyrgyzstan,  the Republic of Tajikistan,  the Republic of Turkmenistan, and the Republic of Uzbekistan. This treaty was signed at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan on September 8, 2006 and is a clear victory for nonproliferation and disarmament measures. However, this treaty almost did not come to fruition due to power plays but the United States and the Russian Federation.

The intention for a CANWFZ was birthed at a time of instability and regional power struggles in Central Asia. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there has been a constant competition for power and influence by the Central Asian states. This continuous conflict had caused insecurities within the region that drew the concerns of numerous countries in the world. Although Central Asian states had a high energy resource potential, all projects were halted due to security concerns and fears of nuclear trafficking1. Hence, the creation of a CANWFZ would establish regional security that would allow for the foreign investment of states in the region. This concept did not elude Russia, in fact experts were “aware that the issue of the creation of the zone is used by the states in the region as an instrument and an arena of political struggle for influence in the region and of attracting the attention of the world community”2. Although competitors, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan joined forces in pushing for the NWFZ at the UN throughout the beginning of the 1990s. It was not until 1997 that this idea transformed into an established concept, known as the Almaty Declaration, which was later adopted by consensus by the United Nations General Assembly3. Russia voiced support for this proclamation in principle, but did not seem to think that it would actually come to fruition4. This changed after Russia developed a deeper regard for nuclear weapons in its national security stances following the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo5. For its own security, Russia sought flexibility for deploying nuclear weapons and privately tried to dissuade its allies in Central Asia from continuing with this agenda. It is reported that at an NPT review conference, “ a Russian diplomat said privately, 'We object to Kazakhstan taking part in the Central Asian nuclear-free zone”6 This stance changed the following year at the Moscow Nuclear Security Conference. Both deputy Foregin Minister Igor Ivanov and director of Russian Ministry's Security and Disarmament Department Sergei Kislyak vocalized support for the CANWFZ, since it not only fit in with Russia’s nonproliferation and disarmament policy, but also provided additional nuclear security for Russia in consideration to the West. The fear at the time was NATO’s possible expansion to the East7, which would severely imbalance the geopolitical sphere of the area. 

Despite getting the support of Russia, as well as China, there was a strong opposition of the CANWFZ from the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. This had primarily to do with Article 12 of the Treaty, which states, “This Treaty does not affect the rights and obligations of the Parties under other international treaties which they may have concluded prior to the date of the entry into force of this Treaty”8. Regardless of the fact that this is a common characteristic in treaties, it was strongly opposed due to fears that Russia, under Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty (CST), would deploy nuclear weapons in Central Asia. The CST was born as a parallel to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in response to the deteriorating CIS Armed Forces9. The intention was to have an equivalent full-scale military-political alliance in the East to balance out the growing expansion of the West. Although being a point of contention in this regard, the CST has aided in growing the nonproliferation regime. In the 1990s, Kazakhstan was repellent to the idea of giving up its 1,040  nuclear weapons and designating itself as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State under the NPT, considering it had nuclear weapons testing in the city of Semipalatinsk within the time-frame to be a legitimate nuclear weapons state10. It was only after gaining security assurances from Russia and its regional neighbors that Kazakhstan agreed to relinquish its nuclear weapons and join the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.  Article 12 in the CANWFZ is imperative for the Central Asian Republics, for they need assurances that they can call upon their CSTO allies to come to their aid and defense if attacked or threatened. This article is also valuable to Russia because it preserves its influence over the region and supplies an equalizing effect on NATO, thereby solidifying the geopolitical sphere to a degree.

Russia’s main priority in reference to the CANWFZ is that it (1) wants to preserve power in the region by securing the CSTO, and (2) wants to bolster regional security. The Wests’ demands to abolish Article 12 from the treaty contends both of these priorities. Without a NWFZ in Central Asia, the West would have more opportunities to penetrate Central Asia. After the 9/11 Attacks, the United States “became much more active in Central Asia, deploying military forces at bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in support of its ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Russia accepted this increased US role in the region, and in turn the Central Asian states became less dependent on Russia and less subject to Russian pressure”11. With a continuous, factious rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there was an opportunity for the United States to make certain alliances with Uzbekistan that would further its power and influence in the region, thereby additionally minimizing Russia’s. Therefore, it is imperative to Russia that Article 12 remains intact to secure its influence and assure its security. Likewise, if the Central Asian states decided to exclude Article 12, it can then guarantee that it would lead to an emotional response from Russia as well as the loss of its support. If Article 12 was removed, it would lead to the collapse or weakening of the CSTO. If the CSTO members decided to re-address their obligations and rule-out a possibility for deployment of nuclear weapons under Article 4, it would then most certainly lead to conflict between Central Asian states that would leak into their relations with the West. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan would most likely back the regional leader, Russia, whereas Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, who usually remained removed from this cluster, would seek the Wests’ backing. This would assuredly result in an even larger political divide in Central Asia than the singular dispute of Article 12. The ambiguity of the treaty greatly outweighs the certain aggravation of political tensions.

The theoretical idea of Russia deploying nuclear weapons in Central Asia is extremely unrealistic for various reasons. First, Russia would be undermining its own stance seeing as it has censured the United States for deploying nuclear weapons in Europe. For its own national security, Russia requires these weapons to be returned to the United States, and the chances of this happening greatly dwindles if Russia deploys its own, in fact it may escalate the situation. This would also further disrupt Russia’s reputation seeing as, “regardless of the motivation behind it, the proposal [for deploying nuclear weapons] would be interpreted as a hostile move in the context of trying to gain influence in Central Asia”12. If Russia were to deploy nuclear weapons, it would have to be in reaction to a very extreme scenario that greatly risked international security, however “in practicality any scenario nuclear deterrence of such external threat aiming at Central Asia can be done from Russian territory”13, so what would Russia gain from such an action? It is within Russia’s interest to establish this nuclear weapon free zone and ensure that Central Asia is free from nuclear weapons under another state’s control. To guarantee this, Central Asia must remain free of all nuclear weapons from all states, including Russia itself.

In continuation, there are many legal safeguards to doubt Russia’s legal - and theoretical - ability to deploy weapons in Central Asia. NWFZs are a mechanism of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which states in Article 1, “Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices” Even in defense of its allies under the CSTO, Russia would be violating one of the core beliefs of the NPT14. It is also unlikely that Central Asian states would ask or allow Russian nuclear weapons within its territories, seeing as Article 1 of the CANWFZ states that the states in the region promise, “(d) not to allow in its territory: (i) The production, acquisition, stationing, storage or use of any nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device”15. The countries within this region agreed that when handling this provision that would refer to Article 30 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. This indicates that, “when a treaty specifies that it is not to be considered incompatible with an earlier treaty dealing with the same subject matter, the earlier treaty applies only to the extent that its provisions are compatible with those of the later treaty”16. It should be noted that the CANWFZ is meant to strengthen the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. To ask for Russia’s nuclear support would go against the basis of this legally-binding treaty.  Although the first paragraph of Article 12 is over dispute, the second paragraph articulates that, “The Parties shall take all necessary measures for effective implementation of the purposes and objectives of this Treaty in accordance with the main principles contained therein”17, by that, ruling out the happenstance of nuclear weapons in the future. Although the ambiguous language of the treaty raises legitimate concerns, it does not give the United States the grounding to reject this treaty. In fact, for NWFZs to gain U.S. support, they must reflect seven basic principles, one of them being “the establishment of the zone should not disturb existing security arrangements to the detriment of regional and international security or otherwise abridge the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense guaranteed in the UN charter”18. It seems that this code does not incorporate situations that go against the United State’s self-interests abroad.

Despite representing the power struggle between the United States and Russia, the CANWFZ incorporates many advantages for the nonproliferation and disarmament regime. This treaty is a pioneer for further progression in the obligations of NWFZs. It is the only one that contains legally binding IAEA safeguards and Additional Protocols, as well as follows guidelines for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This will give the IAEA a greater ability to ensure that peaceful uses of nuclear energy are not being used for military purposes. The CANWFZ is also the only NWFZ treaty that addresses environmental damage caused by uranium legacy sites from Soviet nuclear testing. The Central Asian countries vow to rehabilitate the areas that hold this legacy and put further significance on this by signing the CANWFZ in Semipalatinsk, a former testing site. Although receiving criticism on this issue, Russia does not hold guilt over the USSR activities, since “the activities pursued at the Semipalatinsk test range cannot be ascribed solely to Russia and therefore Russia does not bear sole responsibility for it”19. The CANWFZ is extremely advantageous primarily due to its location.  Central Asia is surrounded by legitimate and illegitimate nuclear states, those being Russia, China, Pakistan, and India. Having a NWFZ in this area greatly impacts the further development of nuclear trafficking and terrorism. From 1993-2004, there were 181 instances of illegal nuclear exports in Central Asia20. Now with added security measures and an effort to stabilize the region, Central Asia may have the support to aid law enforcement in counteracting these instances. 

Serving as a powerful example of global nonproliferation efforts, the Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone triumphed despite political power struggles. The landmark, first NWFZ in the northern hemisphere, treaty proves that nonproliferation and disarmament measures are still on the path towards progression. As former possessors of nuclear weapons and testing sites, the Central Asian republics greatly contributed to global security. By 2008, each of the five republics had signed and ratified the CANWFZ, thereby signifying a positive step in attaining nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation. Russia shared its support as Sergey Lavrov, on behalf of the Russian Federation, stated in 2009 that, “Nuclear-weapon-free zones contribute to strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime, achieving peace and security regionally and globally. We welcome the completion of the ratification process by all participants of the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty, which has ensured its entry into force”21 Despite supporting this effort, Russia, as well as the other P5 members, did not sign and ratify the CANWFZ for many years to come. In 2011, the Obama showed its support of NWFZ by submitting protocols to the African Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (ANWFZ) and the South-Pacific Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SPNWFZ) to the U.S. Senate for ratification22. During this, President Obama declared his ambitions to sign the CANWFZ protocols as soon as possible. Despite these ambitions, movement on this issue moved slowly, much to the disappointment to the Central Asian states. These states were active in the international political scene to communicate the importance of this NWFZ in the mission of nuclear disarmament and proliferation and on May 4, 2014, upon the precipice of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, each P5 countries signed the protocols of the CANWFZ23. Just the next year France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and China ratified the CANWFZ, however the United States still has not done so. Although the Obama administration showed its support for NWFZ, there has been no movement in the Senate on behalf of the CANWFZ, as well as the ANWFZ and SPNWFZ. Where does this hesitancy come from? It seems that arms control and treaty ratification have fallen down the priority list, a fatalistic move that contributes to the inaction of other treaties, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This problem is also exacerbated by the divide between the legislative branch and the executive branch, thus it is unlikely that the CANWFZ will be ratified by the United States in the coming years. To achieve this ratification in the future, there will need to be an institutional renovation of priorities and communication between branches. One suggestion that periodically floats around Capitol Hill, is the idea of reassembling the Senate Arms Control Observer Group24, which in 1985 “ created an official role for senators to join U.S. delegations as they negotiated arms control treaties”25. Considering the state of the nonproliferation regime and the rise of tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation, the recreation of this Group would be crucial in establishing a better platform for arms control talks and treaty ratification.


[1] Safranchuk, Ivan. “The Russian Position on the Creation of a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Central Asia.” Yardeny Kontrol , PIR Center , 1998, www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/10/13668688240.pdf.

[2] Ibid.  

[3] Parrish , Scott, and William Potter. “Central Asian States Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Despite US Opposition.” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, CNS, 5 Sept. 2006, www.nonproliferation.org/central-asian-states-establish-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-despite-us-opposition/.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Safranchuk, Ivan. “The Russian Position on the Creation of a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Central Asia.” Yardeny Kontrol, PIR Center , 1998, www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/10/13668688240.pdf.

[7] Ibid. 

[8] “TREATY ON A NUCLEAR-WEAPON-FREE ZONE IN CENTRAL ASIA .” CANWFZ , www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/9/13668650520.pdf.

[9] Соков, Николай. “БЕЗЪЯДЕРНАЯ ЗОНА В ЦЕНТРАЛЬНОЙ АЗИИ: КАК ЗАПОЛУЧИТЬ ПЯТЕРКУ?” PIR Center , ИНДЕКС БЕЗОПАСНОСТИ № 3 (86), Том 14, www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/0/13412222920.pdf.

[10] Ibragimova, Galia. “Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone: Greater Security for the Region?” RIAC , 24 July 2015, russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/central-asian-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-greater-security-for-/.

[11] Parrish , Scott, and William Potter. “Central Asian States Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Despite US Opposition.” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, CNS, 5 Sept. 2006, www.nonproliferation.org/central-asian-states-establish-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-despite-us-opposition/. 

[12] Соков, Николай. “БЕЗЪЯДЕРНАЯ ЗОНА В ЦЕНТРАЛЬНОЙ АЗИИ: КАК ЗАПОЛУЧИТЬ ПЯТЕРКУ?” PIR Center , ИНДЕКС БЕЗОПАСНОСТИ № 3 (86), Том 14, www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/0/13412222920.pdf.

[13] Ibid. 

[14] “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).” Text of the Treaty , United Nations , https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/tex.

[15] “TREATY ON A NUCLEAR-WEAPON-FREE ZONE IN CENTRAL ASIA .” CANWFZ , www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/9/13668650520.pdf.

[16] Dhanapala, Jayantha. “NWFZS and Extended Nuclear Deterrence: Squaring the Circle?” Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability , 10 May 2012, nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/nwfzs-and-extended-nuclear-deterrence-squaring-the-circle/#xiii.

[17] Соков, Николай. “БЕЗЪЯДЕРНАЯ ЗОНА В ЦЕНТРАЛЬНОЙ АЗИИ: КАК ЗАПОЛУЧИТЬ ПЯТЕРКУ?” PIR Center , ИНДЕКС БЕЗОПАСНОСТИ № 3 (86), Том 14, www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/0/13412222920.pdf.

[18] Parrish , Scott, and William Potter. “Central Asian States Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Despite US Opposition.” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies , CNS, 5 Sept. 2006, www.nonproliferation.org/central-asian-states-establish-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-despite-us-opposition/.

[19] Safranchuk, Ivan. “The Russian Position on the Creation of a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Central Asia.” Yardeny Kontrol , PIR Center , 1998, www.pircenter.org/media/content/files/10/13668688240.pdf.

[20] Ibragimova, Galia. “Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone: Greater Security for the Region?” RIAC , 24 July 2015, russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/central-asian-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-greater-security-for-/. 

[21] “MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION.” Address by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov at Plenary Meeting of Conference on Disarmament, Geneva, March 7, 2009 , Sergey Lavrov, 2009, media.nti.org/pdfs/32_3.pdf.

[22] “Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone (CANWFZ).” Nuclear Threat Initiative - Ten Years of Building a Safer World, NTI, 19 Mar. 2019, www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/central-asia-nuclear-weapon-free-zone-canwz/.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Scheinman, Adam M. “Low-Hanging Fruit: Ratify Protocols for Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 30 July 2018, thebulletin.org/2018/06/low-hanging-fruit-ratify-protocols-for-nuclear-weapon-free-zones/.

[25] Colten, Katie. “The Evolution of the Senate Arms Control Observer Group.” Federation Of American Scientists , 5 June 2014, fas.org/pir-pubs/evolution-senate-arms-control-observer-group/. 

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