Another blow to arms control: Russia’s ‘de-ratification’ of the nuclear test ban treaty

In image from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Oct. 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia’s nuclear drills.
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Uncredited

On 18 October, Russia’s Duma voted to revoke the ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bans nuclear weapons tests and other nuclear explosions. Russia remains a signatory of the CTBT and therefore bound to its terms, and claims to align with other signatories which have not ratified the treaty, including the United States, China, Iran, Israel, and Egypt. Moscow has not signalled its intention to withdraw from the treaty and remains party to the CTBT Organisation (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission which monitors nuclear tests globally. Nonetheless, the decision to ‘de-ratify’ the CTBT sends a worrying signal to the rest of the world.

  • Firstly and most immediately, it weakens another major arms control agreement. Russia has already withdrawn from the 1989 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty and violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, leading to its demise. The START regime and the Chemical Weapons Convention remain intact for now, despite the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This unprecedented unravelling of major agreements threatens to further destabilise global peace and security.
  • Secondly, Russia’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty (which began with a “freeze”, then a violation, and finally a withdrawal) suggests that the ‘de-ratification’ of the CTBT could pave the way for much more radical moves. These could include Russia withdrawing its signature from the treaty, preparing a nuclear test, threatening to conduct one, or resuming nuclear testing altogether. Given Russia’s robust modernisation of its nuclear deterrent, any of these moves would alter nuclear stability and could trigger similar decisions by other nuclear states.
  • Thirdly, it marks another step in the long list of nuclear signalling that has made up Moscow’s nuclear intimidation strategy since February 2022. Moscow will continue to flaunt its nuclear weapons as a central part of its defence and security posture.

Lead by example

European countries should make clear in international forums, starting with the United Nations General Assembly, that this decision undermines a major multilateral treaty signed by 187 countries, including many in the global south. Europeans are in a better position than Washington to do so, as all European countries have ratified the CTBT and actively support the CTBTO. France and the United Kingdom are also now the only two nuclear weapon states in this position.

Alongside the EU and NATO countries, the three Western nuclear weapon states – the US, France, and the UK – should make clear that they believe in the virtue of deterrence and will continue to pursue the responsible nuclear policies that Russia is increasingly moving away from. They should stress that Russia’s decision has no sound political or strategic basis given that US policy has remained unchanged for 25 years and none of the 178 parties to the treaty has made a move that could justify such a step.

Finally, the EU should engage with the supporters of the CTBT and disarmament to ensure the preservation of the treaty and the future of arms control. Following recurring complaints about the lack of progress, this is an opportunity for supporters of nuclear disarmament to act on an immediate issue that rolls back previously agreed commitments by firmly condemning Russia’s move and calling for the entry into force of the CTBT, which remains the most efficient tool to prevent a resumption of nuclear testing.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Distinguished Policy Fellow

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