Kazakhstan-Russia co-op on “biosecurity”, potential geopolitical backlash

Kazakhstan develops western trade along with closer ties with its neighbors. Photo by Asian Development Bank.

Kazakhstan’s expanding western trade simultaneous with its growing Russia-Tehran cooperation

 Kazakh-Russian cooperation on biosecurity adds to list of growing regional security concerns  

By Rachel Brooks

Commentary 

May 27, 2021 

Kazakhstan has seen a migratory influx of ethnic Kazakhs leaving Turkmenistan, Radio Free Europe reports. Hundreds of Kazakhs are leaving the country, due to poverty and corruption, in hopes of a better life in their ancestral homeland of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is an important trade partner of Central Asia, a major trade partner of Kyrgyzstan Kazakhstan has also recently opened a trade house in Azerbaijan and has mull talks of opening a railway with Azerbaijan. The nation likewise has advanced in western economics, recently approved to sell via Amazon, and China continues to invest in “Bitcoin farms” in the area. 

Yet, ethnic Kazakhs displaced by the intense politics of the regime face the perils of forced immigration in a region where international security is in jeopardy. Radio Free Europe reported that three ethnic Kazakhs fleeing Xianjing Province in northwestern China were denied citizenship by Kazakhstan due to entering the country illegally. The three Kazakhs resided in Kazakhstan on temporary refugee status after crossing the China-Kazakh border.  

Kazakhstan caught up in China-Tehran trade increase

Kazakhstan, as a nation on the border of China, is an ethnic homeland caught in the middle of economic powers. Kazakhstan’s government is set to target $1b in annual non-oil trade with Iran with the potential to boost to $5b, wrote Tehran Times. China and the Islamic Republic of Iran are increasing their relationship due in part to the political signals from the United States of relaxed sanctions upon the Islamic Republic and an easing of western maximum pressure campaigns from the United States-Europe joint diplomatic efforts. As the west approaches Iran to renegotiate the failed JCPOA nuclear agreement, China is poised to advance its interests in Iran, as competition attracts China’s business executives, and as the risks of sanctions upon China itself lessen. This was noted by a former prisoner of the Iranian regime in a recent Republic Underground expert panel, who explained the reverse psychology of the western rapprochement attempts. 

Kazakh and Russian “biosecurity” collaboration 

The relationship that Kazakhstan has with Russia sees an increased scientific collaboration, stated the Russian-government media agency TASS. Russia and Kazakhstan have agreed to increase their partnership on ensuring “biological security threats” in the “post-Soviet states,” with the two nations “seeing eye to eye” on what these threats entail. Biological security refers to the research against the spread of contagions. 

In May of 2020, Kazakhstan developed a biosafety level lab, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Cooperative Threat Reduction program. This drew criticism from China and Russia with both states questioning why the Kazakh nation needed a biosafety level. The U.S. Department of Defense’s Cooperative Threat Reduction plan has partnered to reduce the risk of Weapons of Mass Destruction and naturally occurring diseases worldwide wrote the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. 

Dr. Richard Pilch, Director of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, stated that the US-funded lab in Kazakhstan “reduced natural disease and laboratory accident risks.” Kazakhstan opened the lab’s doors to its neighbors in Russia and China, and the United States, the World Health Organization, and other “international stakeholders” expressed hope that it would open the doors of a “new era of collaboration.”

“Kazakhstan, Russia, and China must work together to prevent, detect, and respond to the infectious disease threats that endanger the region,” wrote the Middlebury Institute. 

“Such partnership is critical not only to enable early warning and management of public health emergencies of international concern but also to improve the global community’s understanding of these biological agents and enable the development of targeted countermeasures that serve the greater good. Most importantly, it is critical to establishing transparency and trust. As Kazakhstan opens the CRL’s doors to its neighbors, the United States, WHO, and other international stakeholders can only hope that a new era of much-needed collaboration is born,” wrote Andrew Weber, Senior Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risksas was published by the Middlebury Institute. Weber served as the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs under the Obama Administration.

The United States has continued to develop labs in Kazakhstan since the Obama administration. In 2013, National Geographic announced the development of a “high-tech lab” that has been funded by the United States to “prevent plague outbreaks.” The high-tech lab called Central Reference Laboratory (CRL) was developed with funds from the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. It was funded as a biosecurity laboratory at $102 million and was set to open in 2015 in the region of Almaty, Kazakhstan. The lab was originally developed to research bubonic plague, wrote Popular Science. 

Smithsonian Magazine likewise stated that the lab was developed under the Obama administration to “get Kazakh scientists off the streets” proverbially and prevent them from making biological weapons. 

Kazakh, a country on the border of China may be drawn into the lab-genesis investigation of COVID-19 

At the same time, the United States, under the Biden administration, renews its probe investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden has stated that the United States must “raise specific questions for China” and that U.S. intelligence must “redouble their efforts.” A wider investigation into the potential origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in China will lead to inquiry on whether the disease had a zoological genesis or whether it was spawned from a lab, ABC News stated on May 26.

As a nation that the United States has heavily invested in for biological hazards research, Kazakhstan is not exempt from the wider and broader scope of interests in a U.S. query into the origins of COVID-19 and corresponding weaponizable biohazards. 

Kazakhstan drew political fire during the earlier days of the COVID-19 outbreak as the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan, in July 2020, claimed that Kazakhstan was the scene of an “unknown pneumonia” outbreak potentially deadlier than COVID-19. Kazakhstan denied these statements, wrote the BBC. 

Again, as politics intensify over the origins of COVID-19, China may yet drag Kazakhstan into a renewed wave of inquiry. In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that China had diverted western inquiry into COVID-19’s origins to other countries, reporting that China had diverted attention “possibly to a U.S. military laboratory.” China’s inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 could create a geopolitical issue if China diverts investigations to Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan responds in a similar fashion that it did to the Chinese embassy claim regarding “pneumonia.” 

As the United States intelligence probes China for the answers on the origins of COVID-19, the world may likewise turn its sights on the United States regional security policy and call for accountability in the Kazakhstan theater of biosecurity interests, including U.S. accountability for Russia and China’s cooperation contingencies in this field.