Is Russia Preparing for a Nuclear Test?
Raising Tensions and Prompting Others to Follow Suit
Russia may be on the brink of conducting a nuclear test, a move that would undoubtedly escalate tensions with the West and potentially lead other world powers to resume testing as well. Last week, President Vladimir Putin suggested Russia’s parliament should consider withdrawing Moscow’s ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits tests involving nuclear explosions. This proposal has sparked concerns among Western security analysts, who now see a growing likelihood of a Russian test.
A Signal of Resolve and Fear
While Putin claims that Russia’s aim is only to mirror the United States’ position, experts believe a Russian nuclear test is highly probable. James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated, “A Russian nuclear test is clearly very much on the cards now.” Matthew Harries, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the RUSI think-tank in London, added that canceling Russia’s ratification would create a “legal and presentational framework for Russia to test if it wants to.”
Unlikely, but Not Impossible
Former Soviet and Russian diplomat Nikolai Sokov believes that a Russian nuclear test would mark a serious escalation towards using an atomic weapon. However, he does not expect Russia to test at this point. Sokov suggests that rescinding ratification would be a political step to address perceived imbalances and “level the field” with the United States. Nevertheless, Sokov acknowledges that an escalation is not impossible, particularly if the situation in Ukraine worsens for Putin.
The Nuclear Taboo and Russia’s Intentions
Russia has refrained from conducting nuclear tests since 1990 and ratified the CTBT in 2000. Although the treaty has not formally come into force due to the lack of ratification by major powers, it has effectively made nuclear testing taboo. Only North Korea has conducted a test involving a nuclear explosion this century. However, recent developments suggest that Russia may be reconsidering its stance.
A Statement of Intent and Defense Posture
Experts speculate that if Russia were to conduct a test, it would be a statement about the country’s intention to further develop its nuclear weapons. This move would highlight the growing importance of nuclear weapons in Russia’s defense posture, particularly as its conventional forces face challenges in Ukraine. President Putin has already emphasized the nuclear capabilities of the Burevestnik cruise missile and the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, stating that Russia would mass-produce and deploy them.
The Risk of Escalation
While experts do not believe Putin intends to use nuclear weapons, the risk of events spiraling out of control remains. Sokov warns that during a scenario where the Ukraine war turns against Putin, a Russian nuclear test could be used to force the adversary to reconsider the costs and benefits of further escalation. However, this strategy carries the danger of losing control, leading to unintended use of nuclear weapons.
A Global Concern
If Russia were to conduct a nuclear test, it is likely that the United States would follow suit. This could then prompt China, India, and Pakistan to do the same. The increased testing would signify a rise in nuclear risks, making the situation more precarious. It is a concerning prospect that highlights the need for continued efforts to prevent the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons.