The Kremlin Resumes Nuclear Testing in Escalation of War in Ukraine (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 172


On November 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the bill officially withdrawing Russia’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). Putin’s move is designed to restore parity in nuclear arms control commitments with the United States, which has never ratified the treaty. The document signed by Putin concerns ratification of the CTBT but does not imply the country’s full withdrawal from it (TASS, November 2). Russian State Duma deputies had prepared a draft law on this process, building upon the guidelines laid out by Putin in his speech to the Valdai Discussion Club on October 5 (see EDM, Part 1). The Duma officially approved the bill shortly after that (Kommersant, October 18). This is the latest in a series of moves that suggest Moscow may choose novel signaling rather than relying on the tenets of its traditional nuclear doctrine.

The explanatory note attached to the law asserts that it is necessary to revoke ratification to eliminate the imbalance between Russia and the United States (, October 13). In total, 439 deputies out of 450 signed the bill, a record result for voting on such documents in the State Duma. Sultan Khamzaev, a deputy in the Duma, explained that Russian lawmakers felt it necessary to demonstrate collective support for the president’s initiative (Kommersant, October 14).

The CTBT was designed to be a unique international legal instrument banning all types of nuclear testing. The treaty has yet to become a functioning mechanism because it has not been signed or ratified by eight of the CTBT’s Annex 2 states. This list contains 44 states with significant nuclear capabilities whose ratification of the CTBT was deemed necessary for the treaty to enter into force (, October 13). Of the eight states mentioned, three—India, North Korea, and Pakistan—have not signed the treaty, and five—the United States, China, Egypt, Israel, and Iran—have signed but not ratified it.

The Duma argues that the United States has taken the most destructive position on the issue. The deputies justified withdrawing Russia’s ratification on the fact that Washington has been saying for years that ratification of the CTBT does not have support in Congress. The explanatory note also contains an important clarification: the federal law on revoking ratification does not mean that Russia has fully withdrawn from the CTBT. This means that Moscow will continue interacting with the Preparatory Commission of the CTBT Organization (CTBTO) as before. In particular, the Kremlin will participate in data exchange through the treaty’s international monitoring system to verify compliance (, October 13).

Robert Floyd, head of the CTBTO, has high expectations for continuing cooperation with Moscow. According to him, Russia will have the second-largest number of stations (after the United States) of the 321 to be constructed for the monitoring system. Currently, 31 of these stations already exist in Russia. Soon, there will be 32 with the addition of the “Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk” Seismic Station AS92. Vladimir Yermakov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, claims that Moscow’s withdrawal of CTBT ratification does not mean Russia plans to conduct nuclear tests (Radio Sputnik, October 16).

Even so, revoking ratification opens up the possibility for the Kremlin to resume such testing in the near future. In August, as the first rumors about the withdrawal of ratification began to spread, Russian political scientist Dmitry Trenin suggested that de-ratification of the CTBT and the subsequent resumption of nuclear tests represent important rungs on the ladder of escalation with Ukraine. Trenin added that these developments are an element of Russia’s deterrence strategy against the United States, designed to convince Washington to stop supporting Ukraine (Kommersant, August 3). The Russian analyst published an article this summer warning Americans that they “could end up playing nuclear roulette.” According to that article, the trajectory of the war in Ukraine is leading to a direct nuclear clash between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (RIA Novosti, June 26).

The process to formalize Russia’s withdrawal of ratification has already stoked tensions between Moscow and Washington. A few hours after the State Duma approved the bill, the US Department of Energy conducted an underground test at the Nevada Test Site of a conventional explosive device to improve predictive algorithms and “detection techniques for low-yield nuclear device tests.” The test also included radioisotopes to test sensitive sensors (, October 18). Pavel Podvig, senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, believes that Moscow may perceive this action as an escalatory step and accuse the United States of resuming nuclear testing, though this was a subcritical test (The Bell, October 20).

The Kremlin is moving up the ladder of nuclear escalation with its decision. The resumption of nuclear tests serves as the first “demonstration” rung in increasing the scale of tactical nuclear weapons within the concept of “nuclear escalation for de-escalation” developed in the late 1990s. The “demonstration” rung requires launching nuclear strikes on desert territories (water sources) or on secondary enemy military facilities with a limited presence or no boots on the ground (Levshin, Nedinn, and Sosnovski, “On the Use of Nuclear Weapons to De-Escalate Hostilities,” Voennaya Mysl [Military Thought], 1999).

Some experts have speculated in the past on Russia’s potential process for testing and possibly using nuclear weapons during the war in Ukraine. James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes that testing would begin with an underground explosion in Russia itself, likely at Novaya Zemlya, and then an above-ground explosion on Russian territory. The next stage would include the live use of nuclear weapons. The possibilities named by Acton include an explosion over the Black Sea, a strike on a sparsely populated part of Ukraine, or a battlefield strike against Ukrainian forces (The Bell, October 26, 2022).

Nikolai Sokov, an expert at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, does not expect Russia to resume nuclear testing in the foreseeable future. He believes this decision is part of a broader review of Russia’s arms control commitments. In the event the United States and NATO become more involved in the war and threaten the survival of the Putin regime, Sokov does not rule out that Russia could escalate the situation further with the threat of a nuclear strike. Under such conditions, the nuclear analyst believes that the resumption of nuclear tests in Russia is possible (, October 18).

Russia has been moving slowly but steadily up the ladder of nuclear escalation with its war against Ukraine. The suspension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, reported positioning of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, mining of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and de-ratification of the CTBT suggest that the Kremlin is considering a different path for nuclear escalation. This alternative approach may lead to skipping or combining the rungs that have traditionally characterized Russian nuclear doctrine.