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Russian Roulette Over CTBT is Ominous

In the latest twist of the strategic ratchet, Russia has announced that it intends to revoke its ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTB1) and has given State Duma members till October 18 to study the option. The announcement, almost drowned out by the outbreak of Israel-Hamas hostilities, added that the revocation should not be taken to mean a resumption of nuclear testing: a day earlier, President Vladimir Putin, speaking in Sochi, had been much more ambiguous regarding that possibility saying he was "not ready to say now whether we really need or don't need to conduct tests".

At a technical level, the Russian revocation is unlikely to have a material impact on the future of the treaty. The CTBT currently has 187 State signatories and has been ratified by 178 of them. Yet 27 years after it opened for signature, the treaty is nowhere near entering into force. The stringent requirements of the treaty's Article XIV - fiercely debated during the negotiations - make its entry into force contingent upon its ratification by 44 States, all of which negotiated the text in the Conference on Disarmament and had nuclear power/research reactors.

This list, of course, includes the five NPT-recognised nuclear weapon States, all of whom signed on the first day itself; of these, the United States (US) and China are yet to ratify the treaty. India too was included in the list despite its clear statement that it had substantive differences with the final text; India's argument was disregarded by those determined to tighten the strategic net around the country, even at the cost of jeopardising the treaty. In the event, India did not sign the treaty, keeping its options open and exercising them by conducting nuclear tests in 1998. The preparatory commission set up for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) meets every two years in Vienna to encourage adherence to the treaty and work towards its entry into force; 13 such Article XIV conferences have been held over the last 27 years. Russia's revocation is ultimately destined to become one more talking point at the next conference.

Russia's stated reason for taking this step is reminiscent of superpower tit-for-tat: Russia would thus mirror the US position on the treaty - both would be signatories and not State parties. The step, while useful as a projected concession to domestic hardline demands, would in actuality be the least escalatory: After all, even signatories to a treaty are expected to adhere to a treaty's spirit and intent and not conduct nuclear tests.

Thus, de-ratification by itself need not be a strategic game-changer. It should rather be seen as one more instance of nuclear sabre-rattling following Putin's muscle-flexing announcements of the completed development and intended production of the Burevestnik cruise missile and the Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile. Calibrated nuclear threats have been part of the Russian lexicon of war in the face of a West-backed counter-offensive from Ukraine. The New Start agreement that limited strategic nuclear arsenals already stands suspended though both Russia and the US are sticking to the numerical limits placed by the Agreement; only the mutual inspections envisaged by the agreement are not taking place. Russian tactical nuclear weapons have been reportedly deployed in Belarus but they are not under Belarus control and the chances of their actual use are judged as minimal.

It would however be a different matter if the Russian revocation were to be actually followed up by a nuclear test. Though the CIBT is not in force, a global norm has developed - through treaty obligations or voluntary moratoria- against explosive nuclear testing. If there is a fresh test, this norm is unlikely to survive, besides dealing a body blow to the prospects of CTBT ever coming into force. Putin's associates have been known to call for such a test and increased activity has been reported from Novaya Zemlya, the Arctic testing site that last saw a nuclear test in 1990 under the erstwhile Soviet Union; increased activity has also been reported in recent times at the old US testing site in Nevada and the Chinese testing site in Xinjiang. There is, however, a comforting counter-argument: The focus now is more on better delivery systems and not on new weap ons that need testing.

None of this, however, is good news and a nuclear test is the last thing that the world needs in the present geo-political tinderbox. The lacklustre Ukraine counter-offensive despite heavy inflow of western armaments has shown that there is unlikely to be a quick fix to the Russia-Ukraine conflict; Russia's depth and inherent strength predicts a long war of attrition. Uncertainty also hovers over western support for Ukraine if the recent Republican revolt over Ukraine funding is anything to go by. Questions are already being raised if the US can or should sustain an expensive existentialist war in the absence of a clear strategic endgame. These questions are only going to get louder as the US moves towards elections. And then there is always the possibility that the world may suddenly lose interest: The Middle-east stands at the edge of an abyss and has fully grabbed US attention. Two US aircraft carrier strike groups are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean to support Israel and there are increasing calls to divert aid meant for Ukraine to Israel. Both Russia and Ukraine will be watching these developments closely.


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