Following the suspension of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) by the Trump administration under the pretext of Russia's alleged violation of the accords, the US has yet again levelled an accusation against Moscow claiming that it had breached the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
On 29 May, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, the director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), publicly suggested that Russia "probably" was not adhering to the nuclear testing moratorium and conducting tests with explosions above a subcritical yield.
In response to Ashley's statement, Lassina Zerbo, the head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), elaborated that the organisation was "pretty confident" that Russia had not conducted any militarily significant explosive tests, explaining that it would not have gone unnoticed by the CTBTO.
Nevertheless, on 14 June, the DIA released an official statement directly accusing Moscow of conducting nuclear weapons tests that "created nuclear yield". No evidence has ever been presented to support the allegations. The Russian Foreign Ministry has resolutely denied the accusations, dubbing them "a crude provocation".
Russia and the US, the main driving forces behind the agreement, inked the CTBT in 1996. Yet, while Moscow concluded the ratification of the agreement in 2000, Washington has yet to ratify it.
The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions, in all environments, for both civilian and military purposes.
To come into force the treaty requires all the powers possessing nuclear arms to ratify the deal. However, eight states, namely China, the DPRK, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States have yet to approve it. To date the treaty has been signed by 184 and ratified by 168 countries. As long as the agreement has not become effective, the nuclear testing moratorium remains legally non-binding.
Axing CTBT Will Pave the Way for US Testing of New Nuclear Arms
It is not the first time that the Trump administration has groundlessly accused Russia of allegedly violating an arms agreement. On 2 February 2019, the US administration announced the suspension of the INF Treaty until 2 August 2019, stressing that the deal would be ripped up unless Moscow "abides" by the deal. Russia resolutely denied Washington's allegations and halted its participation in the INF Treaty on 3 July 2019, in a symmetric response to the US' pull-out.
On 26 May 2019, three days before the DIA chief alleged that Russia had conducted nuclear tests, the Trump administration signalled that it would not decide until next year whether it would extend the New START Treaty concluded with Russia under Barack Obama in 2010.
The treaty, which is due to expire in 2021, sets certain limits on the number of nuclear warheads Russia and the United States can possess. Donald Trump has repeatedly criticised the deal dubbing it "one of several bad deals negotiated by the Obama administration" and claiming that it favoured Russia.
"Knowing [National Security Advisor John] Bolton's longstanding opposition to the CTBT and his opposition to extending the New START Treaty, this may be an effort by Bolton, [National Security Council Director Tim] Morrison, [Secretry of State Mike] Pompeo, and their allies in the Trump administration to show that Russia can't be trusted to comply with any nuclear treaties and the US should not extend the New START Treaty when it expires in 2021", presumes Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute.
According to Kuznick, the Trump administration's allegations against Russia are part of a broader "dangerous pattern" that started taking shape after Washington's exit from Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 under George W. Bush, and then continued with the withdrawal from the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and the suspension of the INF Treaty. The New START Treaty and the CTBT are coming up next, he warns.
"If that goes, we're back to the nuclear anarchy of the Cold War when in the 1980s, the world had nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons with a combined destructive capability of 1.5 million Hiroshima bombs", the professor says. "That will also make the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) a dead letter. If that happens, the life expectancy of our species will probably be very short".
Kuznick believes that "getting rid of the CTBT will facilitate testing of the new generation of nuclear weapons that the US is developing as outlined in Trump's February 2018 Nuclear Posture Review".
Having outlined that the US "remains committed to its efforts in support of the ultimate global elimination of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons", the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) has yet placed an emphasis on the development "low-yield" nuclear weapons and a "flexible" nuclear option, citing the world's "more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before".
US Exit from CTBT Cannot Be Ruled Out, but 'Abrupt' Pull-Out is 'Unlikely'
The Trump administration's nuclear doctrine has made it clear that the US will not pursue ratification of the CTBT in the future, says Saurav Jha, author of The Upside Down Book Of Nuclear Power and editor-in-chief of Delhi Defence Review, echoing Kuznick's concerns.
According to the author, "it cannot be ruled out that very peculiar US intelligence assessments suggestive of the treaty non-compliance by Russia (which has signed and ratified the CTBT) may end up being used to build a case for eventual US withdrawal from the same".
At the same time, Jha remarks that "the 2018 NPR did re-affirm support for the International Monitoring System and Vienna-based CTBT Organisation Preparatory Commission that are the substance of the verification regime for the CTBT" which indicates that Washington's abrupt pull-out from the treaty is "unlikely".
"The current status quo wherein all the nuclear-armed States in the world barring North Korea have adopted a moratorium on non-zero yield tests, arguably better serves the interests of the US which has conducted the most number of tests in the past and has the greatest amount of data at its disposal to aid the design and development of new nuclear weapons", the author says.
'Nuclear Weapons Are Here to Stay'
Taking a trip down memory lane, the scholars emphasise the importance of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), an international agreement whose aim is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. According to the UN, the treaty is regarded as "the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and an essential foundation for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament", as Article 6 of the agreement stipulates.
Judging from the Trump administration's nuclear doctrine, the US, one of the signatories of the 1968 NPT, does not yet seek to maintain bilateral and multilateral nuclear weaponry agreements that impose certain limits on a looming arms race.
"Yes, there have been noises about 'global zero'… but nuclear weapons are here to stay", says Saurav Jha. "Nuclear weapons do deter other nuclear weapons. They also put threshold limits on conventional escalation… Therefore, the chief way to ensure that the tragedies of the past are not repeated is continuous geopolitical dialogue that keeps the world away from zero-sum games and unilateral temptations".
In Reality, Russia, US Have Same Understanding
"The head of the Defence Intelligence Agency and the current team at the National Security Council incorrectly assert that Russia and the United States don’t share the same understanding of what the CTBT prohibits," Daryl G. Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association says.
"I reality, they do have the same understanding and Russian officials have stated this publicly on several occassions, as documented in two separate fact sheets published by the U.S. State Department in 2011."
"Russia and the United States at this point should meet to discuss how to resolve the U.S. accusations that Russia is engaged in activities not consistent with the zero-yield CTBT," Kimball says.
He also stresses that "the termination of the INF Treaty is a serious setback that complicates efforts to regulate and reduce the still massive and dangerous US and Russian nuclear arsenals, which are the world’s largest."