Russia has just taken the first steps towards leaving the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty, a 1990s-era treaty that bans the testing of nuclear weapons. The news that Russia is leaving yet another nuclear treaty came days after the U.S. Congress issued a report on America’s nuclear weapons that said America needed to expand its nuclear forces and spend more money on nukes to counter the growing threat of Russia and China.
On Tuesday, the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, voted unanimously to pull out of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The news came 12 days after Putin announced that Russia had successfully test fired a new nuclear weapon and threatened to leave the CTBT. Last week, Russia accused the U.S. of preparing to conduct new nuclear tests in Nevada and said that Moscow would not resume nuclear testing unless Washington did.Regardless of Russia’s actions, the CTBT is technically not in force. It was first adopted by the United Nations in 1996 and was signed by 71 countries, including five of the nuclear-capable states. To date, 187 countries have signed it and 178 have ratified it, including Russia. The U.S. signed the treaty, but never ratified it, meaning it never actually entered into force.“Our vote is an answer to the U.S.A.—to their crass approach to their duties to maintain global security,” Vyacheslav Volodin—a member of the Russian Security Council, told the Duma, according to Reuters. “And what we will do next—whether we remain a party to the treaty or not, we will not tell them. We must think about global security, the safety of our citizens and act in their interests.”Experts see Russia’s move to leave the CTBT as part of a troubling trend. “Although Russian officials have been careful not to threaten to resume nuclear testing, I think there are people in Russia who want to resume nuclear testing and I am very worried that they are gaining momentum internally. I don’t think Russia will test this year, but I don’t like where this is headed,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies on the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Faculty, told Motherboard.Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said Russia’s possible withdrawal from the treaty is a bad sign “that would be the most unfortunate and could all-too-quickly return the world to the worst days of the latter half of the Cold War, where there were no significant legal constraints on underground nuclear testing. Will Russia also insist on withdrawing from the 1974 Threshold Ban Treaty, which limits underground tests to 150 kilotons? More nuclear testing and more nuclear weapons will not make any country safer.”According to Lewis, the treaty was meant to discourage countries from designing new nuclear weapons. If you can’t test them, you may as well not build them. “A resumption of testing will restart the cycle of designing and deploying new nuclear weapons systems, which means large amounts of money will flood back into nuclear weapons complexes around the world,” he said. “Nuclear testing is a key driver of arms racing.”After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world’s nuclear powers rethought their arsenals. The U.S. and Russia began to dismantle weapons and a large-scale nuclear drawdown went forward. But the last decade has seen a growing tension between the U.S. and Russia and, with it, a resumption of nuclear tensions.The U.S. is spending billions of dollars modernizing its nuclear forces and developing new kinds of nuclear weapons. Congress wants to spend more, faster, and add more nuclear weapons to the stockpile. Earlier this month it released 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 the report, nuclear diplomacy is failing and the U.S. needs to deter a nuclear war with both Russia and China at the same time. Current estimates say that the U.S. and Russia have around 5,000 nukes each. China has around 400, but it’s building more. “U.S. strategy should no longer treat China’s nuclear forces as a ‘lesser included’ threat,” the Congressional report said. “Therefore, 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 also said that the Pentagon is modernizing America’s nuclear forces so slowly that it’s a security risk. It also noted that the programs were designed at a time when Russia and China were doing far less nuclear posturing. “U.S. 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.”So what is Congress’ answer to the problem? Spend more money and embrace new technologies. Additional measures beyond the planned modernization of strategic delivery vehicles and warheads may include either or both qualitative and quantitative adjustments in the U.S. strategic posture,” it said. Advancements in emerging technologies could pose new risks, but also new opportunities to defend, survive, and prevail. If the United States effectively adapts and employs these technologies, they could contribute to the survivability and effectiveness of U.S. nuclear forces. Of particular note are hypersonic delivery vehicles, quantum computing, generative AI, and autonomous vehicles.”And what about diplomacy? The report said the U.S. should keep it up, but isn’t hopeful. “Formal arms control agreements are unlikely in the near future,” it said. “Therefore, the United States should concentrate its efforts on reducing risk in other ways, both on its own, and when achievable, in cooperation with Russia or China.”