Maintaining Status Quo or Resuming Testing: Russia’s Plans to Revoke Ratification of CTBT

Recently, in October 2023, Russian officials unveiled the country’s plans to revoke its ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). This treaty was opened for signature in 1996, and today, it is signed by 187 nations and ratified by 178. This treaty, in principle, bans all nuclear explosions, whether they are for military or peaceful purposes. This step is significant, keeping into consideration the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and will possibly aggravate tensions between Russia and the West.  

Earlier this month, Mikhail Ulyanov, who is Russia’s envoy to CTBT, said that his country will revoke ratification of this treaty. This move was denounced by the United States (US), which called it a step in order to disrupt existing ‘global norms’ against nuclear tests. Following Ulyanov’s statement, the Russian Duma unanimously approved the de-ratification bill with a total of 412 votes in favor and no vote against it. This Article will discuss two main arguments which showcase Russian intentions behind this revocation. On one side, some analysts claim that revocation shows Russian intentions to maintain the status quo with the US. Contrary to this argument, some suggest that this step is a clear indication of Russian plans to resume testing. If Russia resumes nuclear testing, it’ll push the world into a new era of arms race between major powers who stopped testing soon after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union(USSR).  

The first argument suggests that the revocation of CTBT is mainly aimed at maintaining parity with the US, which hasn’t ratified the treaty yet. Firstly, when the Russian representative announced the de-ratification on X (former Twitter), he clearly stated that “the aim is to be on equal footing with the US who signed the Treaty, but didn’t ratify it.” This clearly indicates that the US is not bound by this treaty, even though it hasn’t conducted any tests since 1992. As per the Russian officials, this shows the ‘hypocritical’ mindset of the US, which hasn’t ratified the treaty but is expecting other countries to stand by the global norms and principles. In another statement, top Russian lawmaker Vyacheslav Volodin said: “For 23 years, we have been waiting for the United States to ratify this treaty, But Washington, because of its double standards, its irresponsible attitude to global security issues, has not done so”. Secondly, this can also indicate Russia’s signaling to the US that Russia is not willing to be bound by any treaty, which it believes is unfair. Revocation can also serve as a negotiation chip for Russia with the US on other regional and global security issues.  

The second argument suggests that Russia intends to resume nuclear testing after revoking ratification of CTBT. Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, many Russian officials gave mixed signals towards the use of nuclear weapons, prompting alarm in the West. Russian nuclear doctrine states that a country will use its nuclear weapons if there is a ‘.’ From mobilizing its nuclear forces soon after the conflict to deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in June 2023, there is increasing fear in the Western hemisphere about the resumption of nuclear testing. Earlier this year, Russia also pulled out from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which aimed at limiting the deployment of warheads by both sides. Many policymakers in the US termed this move as a “Slippery slope” towards resuming testing. But contradictory to all these suppositions, Russian officials have not made any statement about the resumption of nuclear testing. Ulyanov, in his statement, said, “Revocation doesn’t mean the intention to resume nuclear tests.” In another statement, he clarified, “We simply revoke our ratification of the CTBT. All other aspects of our participation in the Treaty will remain unchanged. In particular, we will continue to transmit and receive the relevant data.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, in his statement, held that Russia will ensure its readiness to resume testing activities, but it will do so only if the US decides to resume testing. While addressing Russian news agencies, he told them that “the resumption in practical terms is (only) possible after the relevant tests are carried out by the United States.” Russian officials, in their statements, show no intention to resume nuclear testing after the de-ratification of CTBT.

However, these developments have instigated fear in the West about possible Russian pressure over supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russian forces. US State Department spokesperson condemned this move and stated that “wielding arms control and irresponsible nuclear rhetoric in a failing attempt to coerce other states.” Russia tested weapons last time in 1990, and subsequently, the US did, and the US did in 1992. 

Since the inception of CTBT, ten nuclear tests have been conducted; India conducted two tests in 1998, followed by Pakistan, which also conducted two tests. At the beginning of the 21st century , North Korean ambitions further threatened the arms control regime as it conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017, as per UN reports. In 2020, under the Trump administration, authorities in Washington discussed the possibility of resumption of nuclear testing for the first time after 1992, but the moratorium stayed in place. As per the statements from Moscow, it has no plans to resume testing unless the US does, which is good news as the US has no plans(apparently) to resume testing. 

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, tensions between Moscow and Washington have increased while China on the sidelines is seeking to bolster its nuclear arsenal, which is eroding the credibility of such regimes. Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey recently publicized satellite images that show the increased activity at testing sites of the US, Russia, and China. Such developments question the credibility of such regimes. If all three major nuclear powers have conducted their tests, then what can possibly motivate them to resume testing? All three countries have different reasons for the resumption of nuclear testing. Firstly, China has conducted around 45 tests compared to the US and Russia, which have conducted 1030 and 715 tests, respectively. Another reason would be the technology factor, as all these tests were conducted during the latter half of the 20th century. But, with the dawn of the 21st century, various technological innovations have raised the need for testing. 

Overall, the global security landscape remains fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. The slow erosion of international arms control regimes alongside ongoing tensions between major nuclear powers and the development of critical technologies in this domain is casting a shadow on the future of nuclear testing. The CTBT, which was aimed at global norms on nuclear testing, is losing its credibility. The future of CTBT and global security architecture is greatly dependent on the decisions of major powers.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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