Central Asia’s new status as a “nuclear-free zone” poses interesting strategic questions for the three nuclear weapons powers – the U.S., China and Russia – with security interests in the region.

Visitors walk past an SS-18 SATAN intercontinental ballistic missile at the Strategic Missile Forces museum near Pervomaysk, some 300 km (186 miles) south of Kiev, August 22, 2011. Photo: Reuters

At the Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), held in New York from April 27–May 22, Russia and China declared that they had ratified the Protocol to the Treaty on the Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ).

In addition, U.S. President Barack Obama submitted the protocol to the U.S. Senate for ratification, something that the parliaments of Britain and France have already done. The security assurances given to the Central Asian republics by four of the five nuclear-weapon states were among the few areas of consensus reached by the countries.

The Protocol to the CANWFZ Treaty obliges the five nuclear powers to respect the nuclear-free status of the zone, not to use nuclear weapons in it, and not to threaten Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with the use of nuclear weapons. On ratifying the protocol, Russia, Britain and France did not insist on its amendment.

But in May 2014, when the protocol was signed at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the NPT Review Conference, the three countries made interpretive statements to avoid ambiguity in construing the document. This ironed out the discrepancies over certain provisions, which remain unaddressed. China signed the treaty without reservation.

In the United States, interpretive statements on ratification of such treaties are generally made by the Senate. That is likely to be the case with the Protocol to the CANWFZ Treaty. In 2011 the Protocols to the Treaties on the Denuclearization of Africa (Treaty of Pelindaba) and the Establishment of a Nuclear-Free Zone in the South Pacific (Treaty of Rarotonga) were submitted to the Senate for ratification, but remain unratified to this day.

According to Monterey Nonproliferation Strategy Group expert Gaukhar Mukhatzhanov, the same fate awaits the Protocol to the CANWFZ Treaty.

“When it was announced that the protocol had been sent to the US Senate, I jokingly tweeted: ‘Rest in Senate.’ The Senate has become a place where agreements go, if not to die, then at least to loiter. This is especially true of commitments on nuclear issues, which the current body of senators does not consider a priority,” he explained to the publication Nuclear Control.

“The tardiness of the Americans in ratifying the protocols on the establishment of nuclear-free zones in various regions of the world is largely because they do not like international instruments that limit their ability to use force,” says PIR Center expert Andrei Baklitsky.

Fearing that Moscow could strengthen its hand in Central Asia when the international military operation in Afghanistan winds up and its own involvement in regional affairs diminishes, Washington could cite its main complaints against the CANWFZ Treaty, which pertain directly to Russia’s military presence in Central Asia. That could put the Senate’s ratification of the protocol on ice for an indefinite period.

A nuclear-free Central Asia, in the shadow of CSTO

When in the mid-1990s the Central Asian countries took the initiative to create a nuclear-free zone in the region, the nuclear powers were supportive, but it was not long before France, Britain and the United States raised objections.

The main grievance of the “nuclear troika” was in connection with Article 12 of the CANWFZ Treaty, which asserted the primacy of previously signed agreements over the provisions on the establishment of the zone. The troika feared that the Central Asian states’ membership of a military organization with Russia (i.e. CSTO) would allow Russian nuclear weapons to remain on their territory.

The United States insisted that Article 12 be removed from the text of the agreement, which was unacceptable for Russia and the Central Asian countries themselves. For Moscow, the article is necessary to maintain its influence in the region. Moreover, it equalizes the capabilities of Russia and NATO, which could potentially strengthen its presence in the region through its military bases in Central Asia.

The Central Asian republics’ preoccupation with preserving Article 12 of the Treaty stems from the fact that, in varying degrees, they all look to Moscow for support, including military aid.

Following the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force, which for many years has acted as a security buffer in the region, Central Asia requires a compensatory policy, which implies the consolidation of another military organization in the region. The security buffer is now the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), despite the Central Asian republics’ differing views of the organization,” says Abdugani Mamadazimov, chairman of the Association of Political Scientists of Tajikistan.

He notes that in 2015, as chair of the CSTO, Tajikistan will seek to strengthen the organization’s Central Asian vector.

Security in exchange for denuclearization

The significance for Central Asia of Russian military support, in case of security threats, is illustrated by the story of Kazakhstan’s renunciation of its nuclear status.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan was left with 1,040 nuclear warheads. The Kazakh authorities expected to maintain the country’s nuclear status and did not take the CANWFZ idea seriously,” says Nuria Kutnaeva, an independent Kyrgyz expert, in a monograph entitled “Problems and prospects of developing a Central Asian nuclear weapon free zone.”

Only in the wake of the Tashkent summit in May 1992, at which six countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) signed the Collective Security Treaty, did Kazakhstan agree to sign the NPT as a non-nuclear state.

“The defense agreement, which the CIS countries signed in Tashkent on May 15, provided the guarantees that Kazakhstan sought for its own security,” said the country’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In other words, the signing of the Collective Security Treaty was a major factor in convincing Kazakhstan to renounce its nuclear status. Nazarbayev remarked back then that he was “even willing to consider the issue of allowing Moscow to site nuclear missiles in the country, since Kazakhstan presently considers Russia as a political and military ally.”

A cordon sanitaire against the dangerous atom

The criticism of certain provisions did not prevent the Central Asian republics from signing the CANWFZ Treaty in Semipalatinsk (now Semei), Kazakhstan, in 2006, and then ratifying it in their respective parliaments in 2009. This officially marked the region’s nuclear-free status, and made clear that the importance of the zone outweighs all grievances.

The Central Asian countries find themselves sandwiched between recognized (Russia and China) and unrecognized (India and Pakistan) nuclear powers. Central Asia also borders Iran, which is suspected of developing a nuclear weapon. Illicit trafficking of nuclear materials poses another risk to the region.

“According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in the period 1993-2004 there were 181 documented cases of illicit export of nuclear materials out of Central Asia,” writes Kutnaeva.

Yet another risk for Central Asia is linked to the ongoing threat of terrorism. Given that nuclear materials are sold on the black market, they could ultimately fall into the hands of terrorist groups, whose destructive intentions are diverse. It is plain to see that the CANWFZ Treaty has become a kind of cordon sanitaire to protect the region against nuclear unrest, the potential plans of neighboring nuclear states to site nuclear weapons in the vicinity, and the threat posed by terrorist groups seeking to acquire nuclear materials.

A zone like no other

The nuclear-free zone in Central Asia is unlike any other in many aspects: the CANWFZ is the first such zone in the northern hemisphere; never before has a NWFZ been created in a region (Kazakhstan) that previously sited nuclear weapons; it is the first such treaty to refer to the problem of “uranium tailings” — a toxic byproduct of uranium mining that affects nearly all countries in the region; and it highlights the importance of compensation for environmental damage caused by previous nuclear testing in the region.

If the CANWFZ succeeds, it might just spur initiatives for the establishment of NWFZs in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere.