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Putin could escalate with nuclear testing

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has put the world on notice that Russia might resume nuclear explosive testing. He may see this as bolstering his scare tactics over Ukraine by signaling a possible willingness to use nuclear weapons. While testing could also help Russia improve its nuclear arms, politics rather than technology are likely to drive any decision to test. 

In his Feb. 21 state of the nation address, Putin falsely claimed that some in Washington were considering breaking a three-decade-long moratorium on nuclear testing. This is ominous. A longstanding Kremlin tactic is to accuse others of doing what it plans to do.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR did an enormous amount of nuclear testing. Over four-plus decades, the USSR conducted 715 tests and the U.S., 1032. Soviet testing took place at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, and arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in Russia.

Early Soviet tests in the atmosphere wreaked untold health and environmental damage, especially at Semipalatinsk. A year after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Moscow and Washington concluded a Partial (or Limited) Test Ban Treaty. It pushed tests underground, reducing their harm. 

In 1990, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT) constrained nuclear test yields to 150 kilotons of TNT or less. The TTBT provided for path-breaking onsite inspections. As the USSR was collapsing in 1991, Russia declared a moratorium on nuclear testing (as did the U.S. in 1992). A multilateral Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature in 1996 but is not yet in force. 

Russia signed the CTBT that year, obliging it not to take actions that would undercut the treaty. Since then, however, the U.S. says Russia has conducted supercritical nuclear weapons tests. Moreover, uncertainty exists about activities at Novaya Zemlya. Some low-yield testing in underground cavities could be taking place but escaping long-distance seismic detection.

I was the last U.S. negotiator with the USSR on nuclear testing, at talks in Geneva to implement the TTBT. The top official there from the Soviet nuclear weapons establishment seethed with anger when President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to halt nuclear testing. The USSR’s last acknowledged test was in 1990 (the U.S., in 1992).

Putin has revived nuclear boasting from the Soviet era. In 1962, for example, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev bragged that missiles were being produced “like sausages.” In 2018, Putin showed a video of a simulated nuclear-propelled cruise missile hitting central Florida. 

More seriously, Putin says that if its territory is at risk, Russia will “use all means” at its disposal. But his warnings have not frightened Ukraine or the West into acceding to Russian aggression. 

A frustrated Putin might see nuclear testing as a next step up the escalatory ladder. He may think this would send a stronger signal of Russia’s willingness, if necessary, to unleash nuclear weapons in Ukraine. As in 2018, Putin could put on a show. He could invite international media to witness a test at Novaya Zemlya.

Russia’s nuclear weapons establishment might also want to resume testing, to help it assess any technical problems with existing nuclear weapons or possible new designs. 

Corrosion and aging, for example, could affect the safety, reliability and yield of nuclear weapons. Nuclear tests, however, might or might not be required. Technical issues can also be assessed through science-based simulationsnon-nuclear tests of electronics and high explosives, and sub-critical nuclear tests.

For over two decades, the U.S. determined that nuclear explosive testing was “not required“ to retain confidence in its stockpile of nuclear weapons. The Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review drew a similar conclusion but hedged a bit, as have previous administrations. There was “no current need“ for nuclear explosive tests, but as warhead system lifetimes were extended, certifications were “increasingly challenged.“ The U.S. has a “test readiness program“ if new explosive testing is ever required.

The condition of Russian nuclear weapons is unknown. Their components may have greater tolerances than some U.S. weapons, perhaps making them less vulnerable to certain problems. To the extent this is true, it might reduce Russia’s need to conduct nuclear tests.  

A resumption of nuclear explosive testing could set back progress on nonproliferation. In 1995, China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to pursue a permanent ban on such testing in order to achieve an “indefinite extension” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Last October President Biden said Putin was “not joking” about the use of weapons of mass destruction. “We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon,” he said, since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Any Russian resumption of nuclear testing could be a canary in the coal mine.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-USSR commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

Tags Cold War Cuban Missile Crisis Nuclear tests nuclear threat Russia Russia-Ukraine war Soviet Union USSR Vladimir Putin

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