Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2023-11)
Revocation of Russia's ratification of the CTBT: Objectives and implications

Hirofumi Tosaki (Director, Center for Disarmament, Science and Technology, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
Shigeru Osugi (Research Fellow, Center for Disarmament, Science and Technology, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide comments and policy-oriented analyses of significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

Passage and approval of the law to revoke ratification

On November 2, 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on revoking ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). In his address to the Federal Assembly in February, Putin announced a suspension on implementing the US-Russia New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and stated, "If the US conducts [nuclear] tests, we will also conduct them", implying a possible resumption of nuclear explosion tests. In October, President Putin stated that Russia had both signed and ratified the CTBT while the US had not ratified it, and that it was theoretically possible for the Russian parliament to revoke its ratification. In response, Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin said on October 6, "[t]he situation in the world has changed. Washington and Brussels have unleashed a war against our country. Today's challenges require new solutions." He also suggested quickly considering the need to de-ratify the CTBT. The Russian Duma (on October 18) and the Federal Assembly (on October 25) unanimously passed the law to revoke its ratification.

Rationales and objectives for de-ratification

In his social media, CTBT Special Envoy Mikhail Ulyanov stated that Russia, in withdrawing its ratification of the CTBT, "aims to be on an equal footing with the US, which signed the treaty but did not ratify it. The revocation doesn't mean the intention to resume nuclear tests." President Putin and other senior governmental and parliamentary officials have reiterated similar statements. Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the Vienna Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, thus analyzes: "[Russia's] withdrawal of ratification is a strictly political step -- leveling status with the US...the main motive is the perception that 'Russia tried too hard in the past and made too many concessions' and now '[w]e're not interested in arms control more than other countries.'"

It also seems that Moscow wants to shift the blame for the difficult situation surrounding nuclear issues onto Washington and to arouse criticism of the US, exemplified by Duma Chairman Volodin's statement that the revocation of ratification was a legitimate response to the "cheating and cynicism" of the US and its failure to ratify the treaty over the years, and that "what is happening in the world today is the exclusive fault of the United States." This is likely an attempt by Russia to push the argument that, while the US is vocal in promoting nuclear arms control, it is in fact the main culprit in hindering it, noting it was the US that withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, that hindered the smooth implementation of New START and that has yet to ratify the CTBT. Russia has objected to claims that US actions surrounding the INF Treaty and New START are due to Russia's non-compliance.

Revoking Russia's ratification of the CTBT may also be intended to warn and intimidate Ukraine as well as Western states supporting Ukraine by reminding them that a worsening situation from Russia's perspective in the war in Ukraine could lead to further nuclear escalation via the resumption of nuclear testing. The CTBT recognizes the right of States Parties to withdraw from the Treaty if 'extraordinary events' related to the Treaty jeopardize their 'supreme interests' (Article IX.2.). Although the revocation of ratification by Russia does not mean a 'withdrawal' from the Treaty because the CTBT has not yet entered into force, Russia's resumption of nuclear testing would indicate a substantive withdrawal from the Treaty as well as Russia's recognition of the situation surrounding the Russian-Ukrainian war as an "extraordinary event."

In this connection, it is not clear to what extent Russia is willing to withdraw its nuclear test moratorium, in place since 1991, and resume nuclear testing. For the time being at least, Russia is repeatedly asserting that it has no intention of resuming nuclear testing unless the US does. Moreover, Russia remains a signatory to the CTBT even after de-ratification. Under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the signatories are obliged to ensure that they refrain from acts that would defeat the objects and purposes of the treaty (Article 18). At the same time, however, Russia would likely consider conducting a demonstrative nuclear test to be a key step in "escalating to de-escalate." Analyses of satellite imagery have also revealed that Russia has been carrying out various construction work at the nuclear test site in the Novaya Zemlya Island in the Arctic Ocean, including work on what appears to be a tunnel for nuclear tests, although the exact purpose is unclear. Furthermore, on October 5, President Putin remarked that some technical experts had suggested the need for nuclear tests (although he added that he had not reached a conclusion on whether it was necessary to conduct nuclear tests). It cannot be ruled out that Russia wants to resume nuclear explosion tests not only for political purposes but also for technical purposes, such as developing new types of nuclear warheads to be carried on its new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear-propelled long-range nuclear torpedoes, and assessing the reliability and safety of existing nuclear warheads.

As mentioned above, Russia has stated that it would not resume nuclear testing "unless the United States conducts nuclear tests." The US, for its part, has maintained a moratorium on nuclear tests and is unlikely to conduct any ahead of Russia. Meanwhile, on October 10, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that Russia had received indications that the US was preparing for nuclear testing. It should also be noted that the Russian media, in reporting that the Russian government had monitored the high-yield chemical explosion carried out at the Nevada Test Site by the US on October 18, distorted the test's actual purpose of improving the US' ability to detect possible low-yield nuclear tests taking place anywhere in the world and thereby strengthening the CTBT verification and monitoring regime.

The United States has suggested in recent years that Russia (and China) may have conducted nuclear tests with yields, contrary to the common recognition that the CTBT prohibits nuclear detonation above "zero yield." It has also been pointed out that Russia may attempt to conduct (or continue to conduct) low-yield nuclear tests in a manner not detected by the extremely sensitive CTBT monitoring network--previously informally targeted to detect explosions of one kiloton or more--as well as that Russia conducts nuclear testing as it has done in the past in violation of other arms control treaties and denies having conducted tests even when confronted with convincing evidence of the same.

Implications of de-ratification

The CTBT has 187 signatories and 178 ratifiers (as of the end of October 2023). All states that have announced their possession of nuclear weapons, except North Korea, have declared a moratorium on nuclear testing. Revoking ratification of the CTBT by Russia--which should bear a great responsibility for the nuclear order as a country possessing one of the world's largest nuclear forces alongside the US, as a nuclear-weapon state under the NPT, and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council--is an even stronger sign of the ongoing deterioration of the nuclear arms control regime since the mid-2010s at a time when such a ban on nuclear explosion tests has almost become, so to speak, an international norm. It is also concerning that a substantial reduction in its commitment to the CTBT by, for instance, suspending data transmission from monitoring stations located in Russia and established under the CTBT to the International Data Centre in Vienna, by suspending the operation and maintenance of such monitoring stations or by refusing to pay its assessed contributions could have certain impacts on the monitoring of nuclear tests and the administration of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission.

If the revocation of Russia's ratification of the CTBT is a step towards further nuclear escalation against Western countries, there are also concerns about increased nuclear risks. While having expressed strong apprehensions about Russia's threats to use nuclear weapons since its invasion of Ukraine, Western countries consider the actual use of nuclear weapons to be unlikely, at least until Russia is close to a decisive defeat, and believe Russia's primary aim is to caution Western countries on their support for Ukraine. Western countries have therefore carefully but incrementally expanded their support for Ukraine. Should Russia regard de-ratification as an intimidation tactic of a higher order than usual but the Western countries nevertheless treat it as a typical bluff, exceeding a red line set by Russia could lead to further nuclear escalation by Russia. From the perspective of nuclear coercion, the objectives and redline of Russia's de-ratification are ambiguous, potentially giving rise to the risk of miscalculations and misconceptions.

If Russia carries out a nuclear test, it is not unlikely that other states will follow suit. North Korea, among others, has reportedly been ready to conduct nuclear tests since May 2022. While North Korea might have refrained from conducting nuclear testing for political reasons to date, Pyongyang, which has been strengthening its strategic ties with Moscow as indicated by their bilateral summit in September 2023, may consider the resumption of Russia's nuclear testing a green light for its own testing, especially given that Russia has explicitly indicated that it may provide North Korea with rocket technology prohibited under the UN Security Council resolutions stipulating sanctions against North Korea. China, which has been rapidly expanding its nuclear capability, as well as India and Pakistan, which have not conducted nuclear tests since 1998, may also have some interest in resuming nuclear testing.

The reaction of the international community to Russia's actions could also affect future developments involving the CTBT as well as the nuclear arms control and disarmament regimes. Considering the fact that not a few non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS), including those supporting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, have avoided overtly denouncing Russia's nuclear threats in the Russo-Ukrainian war, it is quite plausible that some NNWS will not criticize Russia for de-ratifying the CTBT or even carrying out nuclear testing. If the international community fails to unanimously condemn Russia, the international norm against nuclear tests could be weakened. The power of the international community to persuade the nuclear weapon states to reinvigorate nuclear arms control and disarmament could also be diminished.

Reaffirming political and technical commitments

In response to the revocation of Russia's ratification of the CTBT, both political and technical commitments need to be reaffirmed to prevent further deterioration of the circumstances surrounding the CTBT and nuclear arms control and disarmament.

On the political front, Russia should clearly reaffirm that it will continue to comply with the moratorium on nuclear testing and its obligations as a signatory to the CTBT. A commitment by Russia not to resort to nuclear testing or other responses contrary to the CTBT as a means of nuclear intimidation and/or nuclear escalation would also help reduce nuclear risks and maintain the nuclear arms control and disarmament regimes. One option could be to issue a joint statement calling for the above-mentioned commitment from all nuclear-weapon states, including Russia, at the UN General Assembly or the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), with the participation of as many states as possible.

On the technical side, it is important to continue developing and maintaining the CTBT monitoring network and enhancing the skills of monitoring experts; the CTBT monitoring network must be functional when the Treaty enters into force (Article IV.1.). Approximately 90% of the network is completed and operational at present, but nearly half of the monitoring facilities in China, for example, have still not been certified by the Provisional Technical Secretariat of the CTBTO Preparatory Commission. CTBT signatories and ratifiers are continuously required to make every effort to maintain and manage the monitoring facilities to ensure that nuclear detonations, such as those from Russian nuclear tests, are detected as reliably as possible. The CTBT also stipulates that the nature of the detected event (e.g., whether it was a natural earthquake or man-made event) is to be determined by the State Parties. Efforts are thus also required to maintain and improve the analytical capabilities of the monitoring experts in each state so that they can respond quickly and consistently to nuclear tests.

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