Following reports of increased activity at nuclear test sites in the United States, Russia, and China over the last three years, Russia has now made the decision to de-ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Within weeks of President Putin’s reference to such a possibility during his remarks at the Valdai Club on 5 October 2023, the Russian Duma has unanimously passed the law to withdraw Moscow’s ratification of the CTBT. Russia has justified this move as a way of restoring parity with the United States, which has only signed but not ratified the treaty. However, what are the actual implications of Russia’s decision for the fate of the 27-year-old CTBT and the already fragile global non-proliferation and arms control regime? APLN has gathered perspectives from different country experts on this recent development.
Research Fellow at the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO RAS)
Russia’s de-ratification of the CTBT will not significantly change the status of the Treaty itself. This move is essentially a formality, while crucial cooperation with the CTBTO preparatory committee and the International Monitoring System will remain. The testing moratorium also remains in place, with Russian officials continuously emphasizing that Russia will not be the first to resume testing nuclear weapons. This situation bears some resemblance to the “Post-INF Moratorium.” The CTBT regime will likely remain as it is, but unfortunately, its full entry into force now seems even less probable.
To avoid further degradation of the anti-nuclear testing norm, it is crucial to examine why nuclear testing might be considered in the first place. There might be both political and technological reasons behind this. Political (or military-political) goals include escalation control, signalling, and the desire to “keep up” with peer nations. Technological goals may become increasingly relevant, as various countries are developing new warhead designs, pursuing new capabilities, and facing challenges in replacing parts for legacy devices.
The only way to prevent such trends from gaining traction is to address global security issues through mutual respect and willingness to compromise. It is only through such an approach that the role of nuclear weapons in international politics can be limited.
Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University
In an era of rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics, the CTBT stands as one of the most crucial multilateral nuclear diplomacy tools. It represents the collective aspirations of its signatories to put a complete stop to nuclear explosions, thus halting the qualitative and quantitative progress of nuclear arms. With its expansive monitoring system, the CTBT ensures that any nuclear test, anywhere in the world, does not go undetected.
The United States’ decision not to ratify the CTBT has been contentious and deeply unfortunate. Yet, Russia’s move to “mirror” this stance by de-ratifying the treaty introduces a new level of volatility with possible profound implications for the treaty itself and the world. While Russia may not immediately resume nuclear testing, the de-ratification signals to other nuclear weapons states that the constraints imposed by the CTBT are fluid. This could encourage nations that have been reticent to commit fully to the treaty or, worse, prompt some ratified states to reconsider their positions. This can be deeply unsettling.
Furthermore, Russia’s move adds to the fog of ambiguity in a geopolitical landscape already riddled with mistrust and competing narratives. Misperceptions are dangerous because when left unchecked, they can quickly escalate into tangible threats and potential conflicts — actions that might be seen domestically as assertive can be perceived internationally as aggressive. What should be done?
First and foremost, the international community must ensure that Russia’s act doesn’t initiate a domino effect. Nations supportive of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) must proactively emphasize the invaluable security benefits of a world without nuclear tests and underscore the potential diplomatic fallout of CTBT’s collapse.
Secondly, the P-5 must unequivocally affirm that, even if the CTBT hasn’t formally come into force, the existing moratorium on nuclear tests remains binding and will be respected. This affirmation will serve to underscore that nuclear restraint remains a shared commitment among the major nuclear powers.
Lastly, CTBT member states with additional human and financial resources should bolster the International Monitoring System. The certainty of detection serves as a potent deterrent, making countries think twice before either resuming or initiating nuclear tests.
A proactive, unified response is more crucial than ever to ensure that the vision of a world without nuclear testing remains within reach.
Professor of International Politics at the University of Leicester
The CTBT stands as one of the last pillars of an unravelling global architecture painstakingly built up over decades to manage the risks posed by nuclear weapons. While a decision to “un-ratify” the treaty won’t automatically sink the shared human interest in banning explosive nuclear testing, it does mark a very worrying development in a process that has seen the conspicuous and unwanted return of nuclear weapons to global politics. Norms against nuclear testing, an expectation of calm and careful language concerning nuclear statecraft, and, of course, taboos against the use of nuclear weapons in war, are powerful constructs that benefit everyone on the planet. Such guardrails take years of effort to establish and to become “normalised,” and require strong, concerted, global support now to ensure that they survive into the future. It is the duty of everyone to protect against complacency in our nuclear world, not least those directly in charge of nuclear weapons programmes, and maintaining norms of responsible nuclear behaviour is at the heart of this.
Research Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research
The decision by Russia to de-ratify the CTBT is regrettable and represents a major setback for international efforts to halt nuclear testing. It is all the more frustrating since, in recent years, many efforts have been made to universalize the Treaty. Ten new countries have ratified the CTBT since 2020. For countries with limited resources and staff, choosing to ratify the CTBT is a time-consuming investment that serves as a testament to their commitment to multilateralism in the field of arms control and non-proliferation. Russia’s decision to hold the CTBT hostage for purely bilateral reasons shows a clear disregard for the vast majority of the international community, which strongly supports an unconditional prohibition of nuclear testing.
In this context, it is imperative for all CTBT member states to claim ownership of the Treaty and proclaim loudly that the Treaty is not a bilateral mechanism. While the participation of major nuclear-weapon states is essential for its effectiveness, even without them, member states must support the global good that is the norm against testing. They need to demonstrate unity to exert as much pressure as possible against the resumption of nuclear testing.
Distinguished Fellow at the Council for Strategic and Defence Research, Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Afghanistan, France, and the Conference on Disarmament, and Special Envoy of the Prime Minister for Nuclear Non-Proliferation
The CTBT has been on shaky ground since 1996, and the changing geopolitical equations have made it even more fragile. That is why despite 187 signatories and 178 ratifications, it has failed to enter into force. The original flaw was that it did nothing to delegitimise nuclear weapons; it only prohibited nuclear explosive testing, thereby seeking to block a sixth country from emerging as a nuclear-weapon state and permitting the existing five to continue with zero-yield testing. The second flaw was that it identified 44 countries by name whose ratification was a precondition for its entry into force. These include all nine states with nuclear weapons; of these, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have not signed, while China, Israel and the United States have signed but not ratified. Only France, Russia, and the UK have signed and ratified. Russia’s warning that it would withdraw its ratification to be at par with the US (and China and Israel) only makes the CTBT’s entry into force an impossibility. The fallout of the CTBT negotiations is that since 1996, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which had successfully concluded treaties like the NPT, BWC, and CWC, has failed to initiate negotiations on any subject. While the Russian decision does not imply the beginning of nuclear explosive testing, it makes such tests more likely in the future, while simultaneously making the CTBT’s entry into force less likely.
At present, there exists only a norm against explosive testing that is at risk of eroding. In order to preserve and strengthen this norm, the CTBT needs to enter into force, a task that can only be achieved if the current parties join together to amend the provision relating to entry into force. While this may not bind countries that are outside the CTBT’s purview, once it enters into force, the CTBT will constitute customary international law, which has greater legal sanctity than a norm.
Executive Director at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad
Both houses of the Russian Parliament have unanimously passed resolutions calling for the revocation of Russia’s ratification of the CTBT. The decision will be formalized upon President Putin’s signature. However, Russia will remain a signatory to the treaty and under obligation not to take any action contrary to the treaty’s objectives. The treaty, opened for signature in 1996, has not yet entered into force due to the failure of eight named states among the required 44 whose signing and ratification were essential for the treaty’s entry into force. Notably, the United States and China have signed but failed to ratify the treaty. On the other hand, Russia, Britain, and France have both signed and ratified the treaty. The entry into force of the CTBT appears unlikely in the foreseeable future. Given the current precarious international security environment, major nuclear powers are enhancing both the quality and quantity of their respective arsenals as a hedging strategy. Russia and the US have accused each other of preparing to resume nuclear testing. Most recently, Russia has accused the US of conducting a nuclear test on 19 October 2023 in the Nevada desert. However, it is important to note that Russia’s decision to de-ratify the CTBT does not necessarily imply an immediate resumption of testing. This has been clarified by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, who stated that Russia will only consider testing in response to US testing. The norm established by the CTBT against nuclear testing has held thus far, and Russia’s action should be viewed as part of its nuclear signaling.
Image: State Duma, duma.gov.ru