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Russia is scrapping its ratification of a key nuclear test ban. Here's what that means

A Russian Yars ballistic missile mounted on a mobile launcher during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Red Square in 2018. Russia has refrained from testing its nuclear weapons since the 1990s.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
/
AP
A Russian Yars ballistic missile mounted on a mobile launcher during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade in Red Square in 2018. Russia has refrained from testing its nuclear weapons since the 1990s.

Russia is withdrawing its ratification of a landmark deal designed to prohibit nuclear testing. The Russian state duma carried out the first in a series of votes today that will lead to the de-ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Russia has said it remains committed to the treaty, but arms control advocates are worried that Russia's de-ratification is yet another step towards a renewed global nuclear arms race.

"We are in a bad place," says Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland. "We are not yet in a terrible place, but we are in a bad place."

Here's why Russia's latest move is so worrying.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would put an end to the testing of nuclear weapons

The treaty, which opened for signature in 1996, is designed to stop the testing of all nuclear weapons. Arms control experts believe that ending nuclear weapons tests is an important way to prevent future arms races because it keeps nations from developing new kinds of nuclear weapons for their militaries.

The treaty has not yet received enough signatures to enter into force, but it is considered a major reason why many nations — including the United States, Russia and China — have observed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing since the 1990s. Other nations who haven't signed onto the treaty, including India and Pakistan, have also refrained from testing.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has led to the creation of a global network of stations that can detect nuclear testing, even in Antarctica.
/ Copyright CTBTO Preparatory Commission
/
Copyright CTBTO Preparatory Commission
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has led to the creation of a global network of stations that can detect nuclear testing, even in Antarctica.

Additionally, the treaty led to the creation of an organization charged with watching the globe for nuclear tests. Based in Vienna, it runs a network of seismographs, hydrophones, and radionuclide detectors that is capable of picking up even small nuclear explosions anywhere on the planet. It has successfully detected North Korea's nuclear detonations, and given valuable insight into that nation's nuclear weapons program.

Russia signed up but says it is now having second thoughts

All but nine countries have signed the nuclear test ban treaty, but not every nation has "ratified" it — that is, fully agreed to be bound by its rules. Both the U.S. and China are signatories to the treaty, but they have yet to ratify it.

Russia ratified the treaty in 2000, but this week, the Russian State Duma, the lower chamber of the Federal Assembly, set to work repealing that ratification.

Russia has backed away from several Cold War-era nuclear treaties in recent years. Firstit violated a treaty that prohibited the development of intermediate-range nuclear missiles. More recently, it suspended its participation in the START agreement with the U.S., which limits the number of deployed nuclear weapons on each side.

In remarks made last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the reason for the de-ratification of the test ban treaty was part of its "tit-for-tat" relations with the U.S.

"There is this tendency in the last couple of years that Russia wants to have everything the U.S. has," says Andrey Baklitskiy, a senior researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, Switzerland.

But at the same time, Putin pointed out that Russia is developing new nuclear weapons, and that the nation may decide to test them.

"Specialists tend to argue that these are new kinds of weapons and we need to make sure that their special warheads are fail-free, so we need to test them," he said during an event on October 5. "I am not ready to tell you right now whether we need or do not need to carry out these tests."

Satellite imagery of Russia's nuclear test site shows "a ton of activity," according to Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. But Lewis and others say that doesn't mean a test is imminent.
/ Planet Labs PBC/Middlebury Institute
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Planet Labs PBC/Middlebury Institute
Satellite imagery of Russia's nuclear test site shows "a ton of activity," according to Jeffrey Lewis at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. But Lewis and others say that doesn't mean a test is imminent.

Russia's nuclear test site is abuzz with activity, and they're not alone

Russia has historically tested its nuclear weapons on a remote arctic archipelago called Novaya Zemlya.

Satellite imagery shows a great deal of renewed activity at the site, according to Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

"It is so busy at Novaya Zemlya, we are seeing so much construction," he says. Large new buildings are being erected in the main part of the site, and he says his group is also seeing repair and maintenance work at nuclear test tunnels all over the site.

Russia is not alone in that regard, Lewis says: China has also been hard at work modernizing its nuclear testing facilities at Lop Nur. And the U.S. has also upgraded its test facilities in Nevada in recent years, though the American government remains adamant that it is not planning a return to nuclear testing.

And in fact, activity doesn't always mean a nuclear test is happening. Baklitskiy says that there are many non-nuclear tests these nations do at their test sites in order to ensure their nuclear weapons are still operating correctly.

"You test the non-nuclear components because a nuclear bomb is a very complicated piece of machinery," he says.

Experts are unsure whether Russia will actually test a bomb soon, but they agree that things are headed in the wrong direction

Lewis says at least part of the motivation for withdrawing ratification from the CTBT and pondering tests is the War in Ukraine. "I think the way the Russians see it is that by withdrawing from these agreements, they're raising the nuclear temperature," he says. "And I think they hope that will somehow cause the Biden administration to slow or withdraw its support from Ukraine."

Lewis says he personally doesn't believe a Russian test is imminent — in part because winters at Novaya Zemlya are brutally cold. But come spring, he thinks the odds Russia will test are "probably 50/50."

Andrey Baklitskiy is more doubtful that Russia will actually conduct a nuclear test. For one thing, he says, Russia remains a signatory to the treaty just like the U.S.

"I'm pretty sure that had Russia wanted to go full out and test a nuclear device, it would have left the treaty [completely]," he says.

Moreover, he says, Russia has pledged to continue to operate international nuclear monitoring equipment that's been placed on its territory by the test ban treaty organization. Russia continues to operate 32 of the global test monitoring network's 321 monitoring stations — and many of Russia's stations are crucial for following developments in sensitive parts of the world like North Korea, China and Iran.

But Baklitskiy and Lewis both warn that the norms which have long limited nuclear weapons development are starting to fray.

"I think we're just in a really dangerous uncertain period, where things could really break badly for us," Lewis says.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.