Arms Control: Russia’s Potential Withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty

Russian nuclear weapons

The Russian Parliament is set to vote on whether to revoke Russia’s ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), following President Putin’s hint at resuming nuclear weapons testing after over three decades.

This move is seen as more geopolitical than nuclear weapon development, as Russia’s data from the 715 nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet Union and its robust program of modelling and testing without nuclear explosions suggest that it may not learn much from nuclear weapon tests.

Putin’s announcement of Russia’s withdrawal from the CTBT may stoke alarm among states supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russia’s illegal invasion. This follows Russia’s suspension of the New START in February and the transfer of non-strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus.

However, neither the announcement nor the withdrawal from CTBT would change the fundamental calculus of nuclear threat and risk, as they would not modify Russia’s incentives, nuclear doctrine, or force posture. The announcement weakens international stability and diminishes humanity’s prospects of avoiding a new nuclear arms race. The US cannot criticize Putin’s announcement or Russia’s withdrawal from CTBT, as it has not ratified the treaty and become a party to it in 27 years.

The US and Russia have been reportedly conducting sub-critical testing at their nuclear test site, Novaya Zemlya, in the Arctic, which could be preparation for future nuclear detonation. This weakening of arms control is concerning, as it is the last treaty limiting the nuclear arsenals of the two nations, which together possess almost 90% of all nuclear weapons.

Russia has suspended its participation in the treaty, which expires in 2026, and there are no current negotiations for a follow-on treaty. To establish new limits on nuclear deployments by 2026, preparations by both powers should be well underway. For strategic stability, Russia and the USA need to put aside their differences and reach a negotiating table.

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