Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 6

Russian commentators reacted with equanimity–and no small amount of cynicism–to reports published yesterday indicating that the United States may be preparing to resume nuclear weapons testing. They were responding in particular to a Washington Post report that stated the administration’s highly classified Nuclear Posture Review, which was presented yesterday to Congress, contains provisions calling for the Department of Energy (DOE) to shorten the amount of time it would take for the United States to resume nuclear testing at its Nevada test site. At present DOE would reportedly require two years to resume the testing. The Washington Post quoted sources saying that the department would like to reduce that period to one year or less, but that the nuclear testing program does not establish a definite time period (Washington Post, January 8).

The Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei described yesterday’s announcement as something of a sensation, suggesting that it meant the Bush administration is prepared to renounce a nuclear testing moratorium–declared by President George H.W. Bush in 1992–less than a month after indicating its intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Other Russian news sources reacted more matter-of-factly to the reports out of the United States, however. A commentator for the Kremlin-connected website, for example, said that the U.S. announcement would cause no great pain in Moscow. Indeed, Mark Urnov suggested that this was an issue that Russia and the United States could easily negotiate with each other: If “they resume testing, then we will resume testing,” he wrote.

Another commentary, moreover, said that Russian military leaders were hardly surprised by yesterday’s reports. According to Aleksandr Orlov, a top Russian Defense Ministry official had anticipated back in October of last year that the United States might move in the direction of renewed testing. Colonel General Igor Valdynkin had also suggested, yesterday’s commentary said, that according to his information the U.S. Department of Energy had already reduced the time needed to resume testing down to six months. Valdynkin was also quoted as saying that Moscow was prepared to resume its own nuclear testing program in the event that the United States proceeded down that path, and that efforts had been undertaken to prepare Russia’s own nuclear testing site, which is located on the far northern island of Novaya Zemlya. Indeed, Valdynkin had said that if any of the five recognized nuclear powers should decide to resume testing then Russia would consider breaking its own moratorium. Russia’s signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would be no obstacle, he added, because its provisions allow countries to withdraw from the pact in the event that they feel the security provided by their own nuclear stockpiles is unreliable.

But if initial Russian reactions to the U.S. reports yesterday were measured, that does mean they all took the explanations being offered by Washington at face value. Some did accept Washington’s rationale, namely, that with sharp reductions in nuclear weapons looming because of recent Russian-U.S. agreements, the United States now feels it is especially important to ensure the reliability of its nuclear stockpile. quoted some Russian experts in this context who concurred with those of their U.S. counterparts who have argued that current methods of testing nuclear weapons reliability are not fully satisfactory, and that a return to full testing may therefore be necessary.

But others suggested that talk of this sort is nothing but a smokescreen, and that the real reason Washington appears to be preparing the ground for renewed nuclear testing is, in fact, related to U.S. plans for the creation of a new generation of nuclear weapons–and to the U.S. missile defense program in particular. The Russian daily Izvestia, for example, focused on the missile defense issue, arguing that insurmountable problems in developing a workable a “hit-to-kill” interceptor is driving the Pentagon–as it earlier drove the Soviet Union–to the use of nuclear weapons as the only reliable means of intercepting incoming ballistic missiles. “Evidently,” the newspaper concluded, “in the United States they have decided to make use of Russia’s experience.” The newspaper also quoted specialists from Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry who said that there is no reason for the United States to resume nuclear weapons testing because so-called “subcritical” tests (which involve bringing small amounts of fissile material close to–but short of–criticality) and other laboratory procedures can be used to reliably test nuclear weapons (, January 8; Vremya Novostei, January 9;, January 8).

Russia’s reaction to yesterday’s Washington reports may be academic, because U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced yesterday that the Bush administration intends, for the time being at least, to continue its nuclear testing moratorium (Reuters, January 8). But the commotion over a resumption of nuclear weapons testing in the U.S. capital appears to reflect, at the least, the floating of a trial balloon by the Bush administration on the issue. Initial reactions suggest that Moscow might not be overly adverse to a U.S. resumption of testing, in part because there is probably some pressure from military circles in Russia for exactly the same thing at home. At the same time, however, a resumption of testing by the United States would provide Moscow with another opportunity, should it choose to take it, to tar Washington for unilateralism and for undermining strategic stability. A U.S. return to testing would also undoubtedly provoke an outcry in a number of other foreign capitals, including those of Washington’s closest allies.