The Russian State Duma, which is the lower house of parliament, voted unanimously on October 18, 2023, to revoke the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The goal of the treaty is to prohibit all nuclear testing, conducted by any state, anywhere. There are 178 ratifications and 187 signatures. When the CTBT was made available for signature on September 24, 1996, Russia did so. The treaty was approved in 2000. Although ratifying a treaty means implementing the same international duties into the domestic laws of the state, signing a treaty binds the signatory politically.
On 6 October, 2023 President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia will revoke its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to put the nation on equal footing with the United States. Speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, stated that the bill’s explanatory note specifically attributes the power imbalance that is “unacceptable in the current international situation” to the United States’ failure to ratify the treaty. “We have been waiting for the United States to ratify this Treaty for twenty-three years, but Washington did not do it because of its double standards and irresponsible attitude towards global security issues.”
Early in the Cold War, the dangers of nuclear testing became clear. It took over 50 years and several tries after the first nuclear test until the CTBT was established in 1996, banning all nuclear testing worldwide, because of pressing worries about deterrence and conflict. By the time the CTBT was brought up for signature at the UN General Assembly, more than 2,000 nuclear tests had already been carried out. The treaty has been pending for 27 years, awaiting ratification by 8 of the 44 governments that need to do so for it to enter into force, meaning it will become legally obligatory on all member states.
Out of these eight states, three—North Korea, India, and Pakistan—have not signed the treaty, while five—China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the US—have signed but have not yet ratified it. The presence of nuclear power plants or research reactors in these 44 states throughout the 1994–96 CTBT negotiations makes their involvement in the treaty crucial to its success. International law is largely voluntary and cannot be imposed upon states due to the complex interplay between state sovereignty. For this reason, even if CTBT is ratified, non-members will not be bound by it. The CTBT Organization kept developing its nuclear test detection and monitoring capabilities while it awaited the CTBT’s ratification. CTBT has contributed to the global consensus that nuclear testing is unacceptable. North Korea is the only nation to have conducted nuclear tests in the twenty-first century.
Since the USA has not ratified the CTBT and has not become a party to it in the 27 years since it was initially signed, the US can’t criticize Putin’s declaration and Russia’s possible withdrawal from the treaty. Russia is still a party to both the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and CTBT, which mandates that nations must follow the conditions of any treaties they sign, whether or not they have been ratified. Russia claims that the decision to withdraw from the CTBT does not represent a declaration of intent to conduct its first nuclear test since 1990 and that it will not conduct a test until the US does. However, the action would give it legal cover to test if it desires, and some analysts of security believe that a Russian test is more possible. Putin might be holding onto the testing option in case things in Ukraine drastically deteriorate and he can use it as a dramatic warning to the West to back off. The Russian president has said publicly that he is not yet ready to determine the need for a test.
Nuclear countries believe that if they start testing again, their competitors will follow accordingly. China and Russia would resume testing if the United States does. International treaties, such as the TPNW and the CTBT, are essential to preventing the restart of nuclear testing, which has damaged people’s health and spread persistent radioactive contamination. All nations who have not yet ratified the CTBT and the TPNW should do so immediately. An arms race appears to be preparing again. Previously led by the US and Russia, it appears that others would be eager to join this time. If the taboo against nuclear testing is broken, it will probably have an impact on other aspects of the nuclear non-proliferation regime after the US-Russia bilateral arms control arrangement collapsed. This time, it may take a more multilateral form.
Nazia Sheikh is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies, AJK. Her research area is Arms control and disarmament