For more than a year, world powers focused attention on the Russia-Ukraine war. Hamas’ October 7 barbarian attack on Israel hurriedly shifted world attention from Ukraine to the Middle East. The pot continues to boil. However, the East European conflict seems to be losing the potential to become a flashpoint for WW III.
In the aftermath of the Russian-Ukrainian logjam, the Central Asian region is gradually emerging, an area where the energy and strategic interests of world powers are likely to culminate in a deep and prolonged era of commercial rivalry and maybe even confrontation.
The former Soviet Union considered the Republic of Kazakhstan of much importance when it conducted nuclear tests in Semiplatansk-2. It had caused severe environmental disaster to the republic. It was important not only for its vast land mass but also for its rich mineral resources like uranium and hydrocarbon deposits.
In 1991, Kazakhstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union, albeit reluctantly. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was concerned about the spread of cancer to the local population because of nuclear testing radiation.
He got engaged in rapid denuclearization with help from the United States. Over the years, Kazakhstan cooperated with Russia in returning all 1,400 active nuclear warheads as it took a leading role in declaring the Central Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone. In 2017, Kazakhstan voted for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and ratified it in 2021.
With 12 percent of the world’s uranium resources and production of about 21,00 tU in 2021, Kazakhstan became the world’s leading uranium producer, with almost 28 percent of world production.
In 2019, Kazakhstan produced 43% of the world’s uranium. Samruk Kazyna initially managed the Kazakh nuclear wealth fund. In 2018, it was taken over by Kazatomprom, with 15% of its shares placed on the Astana International Exchange and the Lonon Stock Exchange.
Newly formed Kazatomprom has created links with Russia, China, and Japan and holds a significant share in the international company Westinghouse. It was sold in 2017. Canadian and French companies are granted licenses for uranium mining and other aspects of the fuel cycle.
An MOU signed between the nuclear agencies of Kazakstan and Russia in 2014 stipulated the construction of a nuclear power plant using VVER reactors with a capacity of up to 1200 Mw. In the summer of 2012 and then in early 2013, an agreement was signed between the National Nuclear Centre (NNC of Kazakhstan) and Japanese Power Atomic Company (JPAC) relating to the design, construction, and cooperation of the Kazakhstan high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTR).
China’s uranium supply agreement between Kazatomprom and China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group (CGNPC) was first signed in 2006, followed by subsequent agreements. The latest, signed in 2021, meant China would receive uranium concentrate.
In 2009, Kazatomprom signed an agreement with Nuclear Power Corporation India Limited to supply 2100 tonnes of uranium to India with the condition that they undertake a feasibility study on building Indian PHWR reactors in Kazakhstan. Then, in 2015, in an agreement with the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, Kazatomprom committed to supply 5,000 tU to India from 2015 to 2019.
Kazakhstan has uranium supply agreements with the US, South Korea, Iran, and Canada, as well as some private MNCs. This brief overview of Kazakhstan’s international nuclear program shows its importance and relevance to the world powers and their strategies for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
France Takes The Lead
Among the European countries, France has taken the lead in upgrading the uranium deal with Kazakhstan. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Kazakhstan on November 1.
He is likely to visit Uzbekistan also after concluding his talks with President Kassym-Jomrat Tokayev. The visit highlights the region’s increasing importance to Europe’s supply of nuclear and fossil fuels.
Journalists are speculating about the purpose of the French President’s visit to the Central Asian Republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Analysts are disposed to link the visit to the military coup in the West African country of Niger. France is concerned that the coup would jeopardize Nigerian uranium supplies to France’s vital nuclear industry.
With the Ukrainian war, Russia’s oil exports to the EU have fallen owing to sanctions imposed on Moscow. Kazakhstan has emerged as the third-largest petroleum supplier to the EU. France traditionally imported most of its uranium from mines operated by the French companies in Niger.
France relies on nuclear energy to produce more than 60 percent of its electricity requirement. Kazakhstan expects France to transfer the technical know-how to develop its domestic nuclear power and supply trained engineers.
Under this arrangement, the French-owned EDF is building Kazakhstan’s first nuclear power plant. French universities are likely to establish branches in Kazakhstan.
Russia’s Cooling Relations With CARs
Of late, political analysts have noticed irritants surfacing in Russian-Central Asian relations. Russian influence dominated Central Asia for over a century, beginning with the “Great Game” of Lord Curzon.
Among other reasons, the Ukrainian war has almost served as a watershed in these relations. Russian influence is diminishing. Military cooperation between the two entities has ended, and Russia’s world power status has been scrutinized.
The etiquette observed by the Central Asian Republics should not be mistaken. Only recently, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denounced attempts to “pull neighbors, friends and allies away from Moscow.”
Aside from a prospect of cooling relations between Moscow and Central Asian capitals, a new development is noted that does not support the health of Kazakhstan-EU bonhomie.
Warnings from the US and EU emanate that Russia is bypassing sanctions as it is importing goods from the West via Central Asian Republics. Among the imports are DJI drones and Western-built microchips, imported via Russian-owned subsidiaries in Kazakhstan.
Russia uses these in the war against Ukraine. Given depleting war supplies from the US and the West and Putin’s intention of stretching the war against Ukraine indefinitely, President Zelensky of Ukraine feels the inevitable.
China has invested in more than 100 BRI projects in Central Asia. France or the EU cannot match China’s financial clout. Maybe Macron hopes to wean away some of the CARs from Russia, but the question remains whether France and the EU can dislodge China from the Central Asian commercial arena.
The more important question is whether France will be willing to transact uranium business with Kazakstan on the latter’s terms. France is not a country that would trivialize her international commitments of extraordinary sensitivity.