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Putin withdraws Russia from nuclear testing ban, raises alarm

By Jake Beardslee · November 3, 2023

In brief…

  • Putin signs law exiting CTBT amid tensions with West
  • Move comes after Russia simulated nuclear strikes in military drill
  • U.S. signed but never ratified treaty; China and others never joined
  • Russia says it will respect testing moratorium unless U.S. tests first
Russia's withdrawal from a key nuclear treaty reflects growing nuclear tensions amid the war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation on Thursday formally withdrawing Russia from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The treaty, originally signed in 1996 and ratified in 2000, prohibits all nuclear explosions for both civilian and military purposes.

Russia’s withdrawal comes amid rising tensions with Western powers over the war in Ukraine. Russian officials have portrayed the move as an attempt to equalize the playing field, since the United States signed but never ratified the CTBT. Other nuclear powers like China, Israel, Iran, and North Korea also never finalized their commitments under the treaty.

Putin oversaw a military drill last month that simulated a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to a nuclear attack on Russia. The exercise involved multiple practice launches of ballistic and cruise missiles. Russian state television broadcast footage of Putin directing the drill via video conference with military officials.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Moscow will abide by a moratorium on nuclear testing as long as the U.S. does not conduct tests first. The Kremlin expressed concern about nuclear experimentation conducted by the United States in late October. The U.S. tests utilized chemicals and radioactive isotopes to test new computer models for predicting nuclear explosions.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has refrained from conducting any nuclear weapons tests. The last time Russia tested a nuclear device was in 1990 when it was still part of the Soviet Union. The United States carried out its final nuclear test in 1992. In the 21st century, North Korea remains the only country that has gone ahead with a nuclear explosion test. All other nuclear powers have abstained from nuclear testing over the past three decades.

Both houses of Russia’s parliament voted to exit the CTBT in October. Thursday’s decree by Putin finalized the process. The withdrawal underscores Russia’s increasingly aggressive nuclear posturing as the war in Ukraine drags on.