By John Erath
On October 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia would consider revoking its ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and turned the matter over to the Duma for further action. This step has caused concern that Russia may resume explosive testing of nuclear weapons and break the effective moratorium on such tests among the major nuclear powers that has stood for three decades. Were the Kremlin to decide to do so, it would spark concern over a renewed arms race, especially if other governments were to follow suit.
Why is Russia taking steps as though it were considering resuming nuclear testing? Not because its nuclear arsenal needs to be tested. For over thirty years, Russia has (as has the United States) been able to maintain assurances of the safety and reliability of its nuclear weapons through a combination of simulations, sub-critical experiments and data from previous tests. With the experience of over 700 Soviet tests during the Cold War, Russia should be well versed on the effects of nuclear explosions.
So why then? As with most of what is emanating from the Kremlin these days, the answer lies with Ukraine. Although its summer counteroffensive has resulted in only limited success, the fact that Ukraine was able to go on offense and recover even a small area of heavily defended territory against the much larger Russian forces bodes poorly for Russian prospects in a war that Putin has called a “sacred” fight. The Russian leadership has made two choices that limit its policy options. First, it has defined its war of aggression as essential to national interests. Second, Moscow has opted to portray Western assistance as the critical factor in the lack of Russian success. These two factors dictate that Putin must use whatever means may be at his disposal to compel NATO and other governments supporting Ukraine to curtail their assistance. Given the poor performance of Russian conventional forces, Moscow relies more than ever on its nuclear forces to salvage some semblance of military success.
Previous threats that assistance to Ukraine could lead Russia to employ nuclear weapons had only partial success in restraining Western governments. Moscow knows that the moratorium on nuclear testing is important in many NATO capitals and hopes that it can gain leverage. Putin is also aware that some in Washington have suggested that the U.S. might test again and that this would be unpopular in Europe, therefore the issue of nuclear testing could be the long-sought means of dividing NATO.
The answer for the Biden administration, and other NATO governments, is not to overreact. Any suggestion that nuclear testing should resume is a serious matter and should be met with firm assurances that there is no reason for any such step. Raising fears of nuclear war and unconstrained arms races would play into Putin’s hand and reinforce the behavior that Western leaders should discourage. The worst response would be to imply that, should Russia conduct a nuclear test, the U.S. would follow suit. Instead, the Biden administration should resubmit the CTBT to the Senate for ratification, even though current politics rule out a favorable vote. Taking this step would underline the difference between the U.S. and Russia and signal that further attempts at nuclear blackmail will not succeed.