Opinion: Putin loosens lid on nuclear tests as Russia steps back from test ban treaty

Russia’s recent decision to repeal its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has raised fears of the return of a nuclear arms race. While Moscow has said it does not intend to resume nuclear weapon tests, its decision erodes an already crumbling nuclear arms control regime.
The treaty requires parties “not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion”. Adopted in 1996 to halt the regular tests being conducted by the nuclear powers to assess the performance and safety of their weapons, the treaty aims to reduce radioactive contamination and mitigate a nuclear arms race.
Including Russia, 178 countries signed and ratified the treaty. But it has yet to enter into force as it is missing the ratification of six countries that have signed (China, the United States, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and now Russia) and three others – North Korea, India and Pakistan – that have not even signed it.

According to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, signatory states are bound to observe treaty provisions even if it has not come into force. Since 1998, all nuclear powers, except North Korea, have maintained a moratorium on nuclear testing.

To ensure the performance and safety of their nuclear arsenals without conducting full-scale nuclear tests, countries rely on powerful computer simulations combined with laboratory-scale tests on their nuclear weapons. While these substitute methods allow for a satisfactory level of confidence in the reliability of nuclear weapons, from a purely technical perspective, full-scale nuclear tests will always provide a better assessment.

Moscow’s decision to repeal its ratification of the nuclear test ban treaty invites doubts about its true intentions, against the context of a rising confrontation with the West. Is Russia preparing to resume full-scale nuclear tests to get an edge in the coming nuclear arms race?
Russian RS-24 Yars ballistic missiles roll through Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow on June 24, 2020. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that Russia could use “all available means” to protect its territory, a clear reference to the country’s nuclear arsenal. Photo: AP
Russia says it merely wants to bring its position in line with the US, which has signed but not ratified the treaty. The decision, however, needs to be first understood within the context of its war in Ukraine.
Russia has sustained a nuclear rhetoric aimed at deterring Western powers from supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself. From President Vladimir Putin’s veiled nuclear threats and testing of a new nuclear-powered cruise missile, to the most recent nuclear strike drill, Russia’s “deratification” can be seen as the latest addition to its efforts to scare the West.
But Moscow is also concerned about long-term trends. The US is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a nuclear arsenal modernisation programme that Russia is unlikely to be able to match. Wary of the rising nuclear tensions between the US and China, Russia may prefer not to be hindered by its ratification of the test ban treaty should the other two resume nuclear tests.
It remains very unlikely that Moscow would resume full-scale nuclear tests on its own. What we should be concerned about is how this decision removes another safeguard on the fragile balance between the three nuclear powers.


Russia launches missile drills to test its ability to deliver ‘massive’ retaliatory nuclear strike

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The nuclear test ban treaty and associated moratoriums have not won unanimous support in nuclear weapon states. In the US, Republican officials have often voiced their opposition to the test ban treaty and, in 1999, a Republican-controlled Senate rejected its ratification.
More recently, the US has cast doubts on the integrity of the status quo when it raised suspicions that Russia and China might be violating their own nuclear-testing moratorium.

These accusations dealt with certain types of laboratory-scale nuclear experiments called very low-yield tests, which the three nuclear powers regularly conduct. The US suspects Russia and China conducted very low-yield tests that breached the agreed threshold above which a test becomes “illegal”.


China steps up pace in new nuclear arms race with US and Russia

China steps up pace in new nuclear arms race with US and Russia

This situation is all the more flammable as there are no verification protocols to confirm or disprove these accusations. Mutual suspicion around breaches of the nuclear test moratorium with very-low yield tests could easily turn into a race to resume full-scale nuclear tests. Some Republican voices in the US reportedly called for such a resumption after the accusations were made.
The rise of China as a nuclear power also makes the balance around the nuclear test moratorium more precarious. While Beijing has historically adopted a less belligerent approach to nuclear weapons, it now seems on course to match US nuclear capabilities.

China’s construction of nuclear missile silos and dramatic increase in nuclear weapons from what the Pentagon estimated as “a low 200s” in 2020, to more than 500 this year, attests to its eagerness to catch up with the US and Russia.

Ukraine war: how China can stop nuclear Armageddon

But China is confronted with a unique problem in this quest. While the US and Russia have conducted 1,030 and 715 nuclear weapon tests respectively in the decades before their moratorium, China has conducted only 45. With an expanding nuclear arsenal and possibly new weapon designs, China would gain the most from a resumption of full-scale nuclear tests.

One cannot be so sure any more that China, so far the most restrained of the three nuclear powers, will act as a stabilising force if renunciation of the nuclear test moratorium is in the air.

The Biden administration recently offered voluntary transparency initiatives around the verification of very low-yield tests, extending an arm for collaboration to Russia and China. And this past week, the US and China held their first nuclear talks in years.

The three nuclear powers must build on these initiatives to prioritise communication and avoid misunderstandings that could undo the 20-year halt on toxic and unnecessary nuclear tests.

Julien de Troullioud de Lanversin is an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Public Policy

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