- Armament and disarmament
- Conflict, peace and security
- Peace and development
The State Duma, the Russian Parliament, will vote this week whether to revoke Russia’s ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). This follows a statement at the Valdai Discussion Club on 5 October in which President Vladimir Putin hinted that Russia might resume testing nuclear weapons after more than three decades, for the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
This unhelpful move seems to have more to do with geopolitical signalling than with nuclear weapon development. It is questionable whether Russia could learn much of significance from test explosions of nuclear weapons, given the data accumulated from the 715 nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet Union from its first in 1949 to its last in October 1990, and Russia’s robust programme of modelling and testing without nuclear explosions since then.
As with Russia’s suspension of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) in February, President Putin’s intention here may be to generate alarm and uncertainty among states supporting Ukraine in its defence against Russia’s illegal invasion. Similar motives appear to lie behind other statements made by Russian officials over the past 18 months, as well as the Russian decision to transfer non-strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus over the summer of this year. However, neither the announcement nor actual withdrawal from the CTBT would change the fundamental calculus of nuclear threat and risk because they would not modify Russia’s incentives, nuclear doctrine or force posture. The same can even be said of a nuclear weapon test, despite its heavy significance as a political symbol and the risk of environmental effects.
The latest announcement is another blow to the already precarious international arms control architecture by the leader of a nuclear weapon state. As such, it weakens international stability and diminishes humanity’s prospects of avoiding a new nuclear arms race. In this instance, it is difficult for the United States to go far in criticizing Putin’s announcement and Russia’s potential withdrawal from the CTBT since the USA has itself failed to ratify the treaty and become a party to it in the 27 years since first signing.
Even with regard to arms control, however, the significance of the move should not be overstated. While there is plentiful activity at the Russian nuclear test site of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic, there are reports of comparable activity at the USA’s Nevada National Security Site during the past five years. The work at Novaya Zemlya may include maintenance and readiness for further so-called sub-critical testing (weapon tests that deliberately do not produce a nuclear explosion). It may be preparation for a future nuclear detonation but that is not inevitable.
Even so, the further weakening of arms control is unwelcome. The most urgent issue in arms control is the fate of New START. Russia has suspended its participation in the treaty, which expires in 2026. It is the last treaty limiting the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the USA, which together possess almost 90 per cent of all nuclear weapons. There are no current negotiations for a follow-on treaty and, for new limits on nuclear deployments to be in place by 2026, preparations by the two powers should be well under way by now. For the sake of strategic stability, Russia and the USA need to put aside their differences and get to the negotiating table.