By and by, the pillars of global arms control, particularly the agreements between Moscow and Washington, seem to be crumbling. On October 18, the Duma, the lower House of the Russian Parliament, unanimously passed a bill that revoked the nation’s ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” anywhere in the world.
Now the Bill will go to the upper House of the Russian Parliament, where the passage is a formality since it has been introduced following President Vladimir Putin’s decision on October 5 to cancel the CTBT’s ratification.
Washington and Moscow have always accused one another of trying to cheat on various Arms Control measures. That resulted in the collapse of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) in 2019, and the Treaty on Open Skies in 2021.
Prospects of further extension of the New START that limits their respective number of nuclear weapons till 2026 have also been jeopardized, with Russia and the US stopping inspectors from visiting one another, as stipulated in the New START.
Against this background, Russia’s planned revocation of the CTBT’s ratification is not good news. It does not necessarily mean that Russia will conduct nuclear tests now.
Post-Soviet Russia has never carried out a nuclear test. The Soviet Union last tested in 1990, and the United States in 1992. But such a possibility cannot be ruled out categorically in the future.
If the official explanation of Russian leaders and officials is any indication, Russia’s goal is to achieve parity with the United States in its nuclear capabilities. If the United States resumes tests, Russia will do so.
Vladimir Yermakov, head of the Russian foreign ministry’s non-proliferation and arms control department, had said: “Withdrawing the ratification by no means undermines our constructive approach to the CTBT and does not mean that our country intends to resume nuclear tests,” adding “Russia would stick to a testing moratorium it declared in 1992. Russia would only conduct a test if the United States did so first”.
According to Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian Foreign Ministry official and arms control expert, “I think that 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 ‘We’re not interested in arms control more than other countries.'”
It is significant to note here that Russian decision to reconsider its ratification of the CTBT came in the wake of the US Congress releasing earlier this month “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States,” a lengthy report full of policy recommendations about America’s nuclear weapons.
According to this report, nuclear diplomacy is failing, and the US needs to deter a nuclear war with both Russia and China at the same time. “US strategy should no longer treat China’s nuclear forces as a ‘lesser included’ threat.”
Therefore, “the nuclear force structure constructs can no longer assume that the nuclear forces necessary to deter or counter the Russian nuclear threat will be sufficient to deter or counter the Chinese nuclear threat simultaneously. Nuclear force sizing and composition must account for the possibility of combined aggression from Russia and China. Therefore, the United States needs a nuclear posture capable of simultaneously deterring both”, the report added.
Accepting a Pentagon forecast that China’s rapid nuclear arsenal expansion likely will give it 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, confronting the United States with a second major nuclear-armed rival for the first time, the 145-page report said that as the Chinese and Russian threats would become acute in the 2027-2035 timeframe, “decisions need to be made now in order for the nation to be prepared.”
It added that the Pentagon is modernizing America’s nuclear forces so slowly that it’s a security risk. “US strategic force requirements were set more than a decade ago and anticipated a significantly more benign threat environment than the one the United States now faces,” the report said.
“Therefore, the United States requires an updated strategic posture to address the projected security environment. This is an urgent task that has yet to be acknowledged,” it added.
Since the CTBT was opened for signature in September 1996, ten nuclear tests have been conducted by three of its non-members: India conducted two tests in 1998, followed by Pakistan doing two tests the same year, and North Korea testing six times since in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017.
So far, the CTBT has been signed by 187 nations. Somalia is the latest to do so on September 8 and ratified by 178. Among those who have signed but not ratified are Egypt, Israel, China, and the United States. But they all have abided by the terms of the Treaty of not exploding nuclear devices. The American Senate refused to ratify, citing concerns about verifying other countries. And now Russia will join the ranks.
As mentioned above, among the nuclear weapon powers that have not signed the CTBT are India, Pakistan, and North Korea. India’s reasons for not signing the CTBT are essentially three.
One, India’s traditional opposition to nuclear weapons-related treaties like the NPT and CTBT is that these treaties are meaningless if there is no time-bound commitment towards universal nuclear disarmament or a world without nuclear weapons.
Two, the CTBT is a peculiar treaty that does not leave any option for sovereign nations whether to be a party to it or not. Even the United Nations Charter does not compel a country to be a member of the World Organization.
But under CTBT’s Article XIV, it will not enter into force until it has been signed and ratified by 44 states listed by name in Annex 2. These states include the five original nuclear weapon states — United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China — as well as India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.
Viewed thus, it is really odd that a sovereign country like India is asked to take responsibility for the non-operationalization of a Treaty like CTBT, of which it is not a member in the first place.
Three, though India otherwise has observed the spirit of the CTBT by not exploding any nuclear device after 1998, and its nuclear posture is a very transparent one with promises like No First Use of nuclear weapons, the quality and quantity of its nuclear arsenal have to take into account the prevailing security environment of the country, an idea akin to the aforesaid US Congressional Report.
In fact, many years ago, former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman P. K. Iyengar, who had played an important role in India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974, had told this writer that India’s stated goal of developing a credible nuclear deterrent could not be achieved without further testing.
He was not convinced that our nuclear tests in 1998 gave us enough data to develop a credible nuclear weapon system, having accuracy and safety. So, imagine a situation where the Indian soldiers are given untested weapons. One dreads such a prospect unless the government, in a transparent national debate, comes out with convincing assurances that the country has in its possession credible weaponized nuclear deterrence, he had said.
Even other experts have argued that of the five devices India tested on May 11 and 13, 1998, three sub-kiloton tests were not good enough for battlefield use. They also are not impressed with India’s claim that its nuclear tests had a thermonuclear device with a yield of 42 kT. Because they think that for any credibility, India’s thermonuclear weapon should have a yield in the 100-kT to 1-MT range if it wants to maintain any sort of balance with China.
“Despite the common belief that one atomic weapon is enough to destroy a city, in actuality, a 10-kT weapon will destroy about nine sq km of an urban area. While this yield would be quite enough for a medium-sized city like Hiroshima, with a population of about one-quarter million and a built-up area of about 18 sq km, large modern cities typically have populations of 5 to 10 million and built-up areas of 500 to 1,000 sq km or more.
“A small Indian retaliatory force of, say, ten 10-kT weapons would barely be enough to disable even one large Chinese city, bearing in mind that not every square kilometer of a city must be destroyed before it stops functioning. However, a 1-MT weapon will destroy an area at least 20 times larger than that of a 10-kT one.
“Approximately 20 Chinese multi-megaton weapons would be enough to disable every Indian city with a population of more than one million”, argues Gregory S. Jones of the RAND Corporation.
This debate over whether India needs more tests or not is likely to be more rigorous now, given the changing thinking of both the US and Russia over the CTBT. CTBT Organization Executive Secretary Dr. Robert Floyd said in Vienna in June 2023 that CTBT is said to be not addressing several core concerns raised by India.
“We are very keen to have a dialogue with India about the CTBT. It is something I would dearly love to have. India can explain its position to me clearly, and then we can look at how to move forward from there”.
However, it is going to be a challenging task now that Russia is withdrawing from the CTBT, and the US does not show any promise of ratifying the treaty after signing it 27 years ago.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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