US allegations are not backed up by any evidence

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Berdennikov on the resumption of nuclear tests

Kommersant, #103/П, June 15, 2020, p. 4

According to media in the United States, US officials are discussing the possibility of resuming nuclear tests. The main reason for this change is that, according to Washington, Moscow and Beijing are secretly violating the moratorium on such tests. Since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted in 1996, only North Korea has conducted nuclear explosions. Even though the CTBT has not yet entered into force (as it has not been ratified by eight countries, including the United States), all countries except North Korea claim that they adhere to the moratorium on tests. The head of the Russian delegation at the CTBT negotiations, former Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Berdennikov, discussed with Kommersant correspondent Yelena Chernenko whether or not the United States has reason to suspect Russia of violating the agreements.

- Does the United States have any reason to suspect Russia of trying to circumvent the moratorium?

- If you stick to the “highly likely” approach, you can come up with anything. Under the CTBT, “each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control.” It took more than three years to negotiate and agree upon this clause took.

Even though the CTBT has not yet come into effect, an international monitoring mechanism has already been created. It includes seismic, radionuclide, sonar, and infrasound stations, certified laboratories with the appropriate means of communication, as well as an international processing center to analyze data received from those stations and laboratories. In addition, the agreement stipulates an on-site inspection system. If one of the parties suspects that another party has carried out a nuclear explosion and is trying to hide it, the party with suspicions may request an on-site inspection.

Even ultra-small explosions of less than a kilogram of material can be detected. Such tests could hypothetically be carried out in mines or tunnels, but they could also be conducted in explosion‑proof test chambers. Detecting such nuclear tests is only possible with inspection and sampling. The Treaty enables its participants to conduct an inspection anywhere. But, of course, only after it takes effect.

If the United States has doubts or suspicions about other countries, it should ratify the CTBT instead of renewing tests. If the remaining seven of the 44 countries (36 have already ratified the Treaty) were to follow this example – and the Treaty’s destiny depends on this – the United States will be able to relieve its concerns through on‑site inspection provisions.

The CTBT was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1996. The United States signed the Treaty, but, unlike Russia, has not yet ratified it. Seven other countries from the so-called Annex 2 refuse to sign or ratify the CTBT: Egypt, Israel, India, Iran, China, Pakistan, and North Korea. For this reason, the Treaty has never entered into force. Former US President Barack Obama, a Democrat, repeatedly promised to ratify the CTBT in Congress, but he was unable to break Republican resistance. Republicans said a legally binding ban would weaken the country's nuclear potential, as the US would follow it honestly, while its rivals would cheat. Under President Donald Trump, a Republican, the US Nuclear Policy Review includes a passage implying that there will be no ratification of the CTBT.

- Could Russia have conducted any other explosions that attracted US attention?

- If we are talking about ultra-low-power explosions, then we must take into account that there are two kinds: hydrodynamic and hydro-nuclear blasts. Hydrodynamic explosions are purely chemical. If a radioactive substance is present in the explosive device but is not involved in the explosion itself, there is no chain reaction. Such explosions are not banned. Chemical explosions cannot be prohibited, as this would affect all conventional ammunition and civilian blasting work.

A chain reaction does take place in hydro-nuclear explosions, however, and these are prohibited by the Treaty. But, in order to understand whether or not a hydro-nuclear explosion has been conducted, as I said, you have to take a sample directly at the site of the event that raises concerns.

- Russia cannot let the Americans in without the Treaty, can it?

- Let them in and allow sampling? Of course not. That is out of the question. No one will ever do that without the CTBT in force. First off, the information that could be obtained is too sensitive. Second, allowing such an inspection would mean that the other side would obtain practically everything that it could obtain under the Treaty without undertaking any obligations. Why would they then ratify the CTBT? That would mean the end of the Treaty.

The United States, judging by publications in the media, is now building a new, even more powerful and advanced facility in Nevada to expand (experimental - Kommersant) activities. I haven’t heard anything to indicate that they would be letting anyone in there.

Grigory Berdennikov was Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (1992–1993, 1999–2001); Ambassador-at-Large (2010–2015) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During his diplomatic career, Berdennikov took part in the largest and most significant negotiations and events in the field of non‑proliferation and arms control. He headed the Russian delegation at the CTBT negotiations.

- An April review on arms control by the State Department says that the United States has reason to believe that Russia carried out low‑power explosions with energy release during a nuclear reaction.

- It is impossible to draw such conclusions without inspection, without taking samples. Their accusations are not supported and cannot be supported by any evidence. We are talking about the laws of physics. Without access to the location, no one will ever know what kind of explosion it was or whether there was a chain reaction, and so on.

- Can you tell me about the “zero power” that the US says Russia violated?

- Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “zero power” in the Treaty. But it clearly states that all nuclear explosions are prohibited, as I have already explained. That covers all nuclear explosions, even very low-power ones, but it does not apply to chemical explosions.

- You mentioned a new US facility in Nevada. It has been reported that there will be “subcritical tests” with plutonium in a tunnel 300 meters underground by 2025. Would this not be considered a violation of the CTBT?

- I think it would. I personally think that they are blaming us in order to justify their own actions and plans. This is a multi-billion-dollar project.

- US authorities say they need it to guarantee the preservation and reliability of their aging nuclear arsenals.

- That is a skillful way to justify one’s actions. During the negotiations on the CTBT, we repeatedly stated that the treaty should not interfere with maintaining the reliability and security of our nuclear weapons. We are not going to endanger our nuclear arsenal. It must be kept in safe and secure conditions. No one argued with this idea. And before closing the negotiations, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France made parallel statements that they reserve the right to withdraw from the CTBT if, during its implementation, circumstances arise that call into question the possibility of maintaining their nuclear arsenals in a safe and reliable state.

However, amidst recent reports stating that the White House has discussed the possibility of the United States conducting a nuclear test explosion, as you mentioned, one cannot help but think that the facility being built in Nevada may be focused not only on maintaining the safety and reliability of existing nuclear weapons, but also on developing new ones.

- What does this mean in real-world terms?

- It means that the facility will be able to conduct not only hydrodynamic, but also hydro-nuclear explosions, which are prohibited by the Treaty. That is why it is so important that the CTBT enter into force as soon as possible.

- As a second argument for the need to resume nuclear testing, the media has quoted unnamed members of the US administration as saying that this would be a good way to put pressure on China. Supposedly, it would be a way to make China sit down at the table to negotiate arms control with the United States and Russia.

- That is hardly a realistic plan. If the United States really wants to convince China to enter into negotiations, why not talk to British and French NATO allies, so that they can bring Beijing a proposal to start arms control negotiations in full force? China would certainly consider it, given the willingness to agree on arms control on the part of the United Kingdom and France. These two countries are still out of negotiations and take the same position as China. All three say that they will not participate in the negotiations until Russia and the United States, which together hold more than 90% of the world's nuclear arsenal, reduce their warheads to the hundreds. If, four of the five nuclear countries show interest and readiness for multilateral negotiations, this will put serious pressure on China. But the United States is demanding that Russia persuade China while pointedly leaving its allies out of the picture. Why on earth should Beijing agree to anything in such conditions?

The United States wants to cause trouble between Russia and China while also demonstrating loyalty to its NATO colleagues. A cunning plan, perhaps, but entirely transparent.

- If, as Russian authorities assume, the United States is gearing up to withdraw its signature from the CTBT, will it cease to be bound by a moratorium on nuclear tests?

- Of course. After all, nuclear testing is prohibited under the Treaty. This means that all countries that have signed it cannot, in accordance with the law of international treaties, perform actions that are contrary to its provisions. Even if they have not ratified it and the Treaty itself has not yet entered into force. Revoking its signature exempts the country from such obligations.

- If the United States withdraws its signature from the CTBT, what will be the practical implications for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)?

- It will be very bad. It would be an obvious erosion of the NPT. Article VI of this treaty sets as primary goal the end of the nuclear arms race and speaks of negotiations on nuclear disarmament within the framework of general and complete disarmament. The preamble of the NPT directly supports the goal of a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. The resumption of nuclear testing will be a movement in the opposite direction.

- Could other countries follow the example of the United States?

- I cannot exclude that. It is quite possible.

- And Russia? The Russian Foreign Ministry recently announced that Russia would observe the moratorium on nuclear tests as long as other countries adhere to it.

- If the United States resumes testing, then, in my opinion, it will be necessary to talk very seriously with our military and nuclear specialists about whether they also need such tests. If there is a need, of course, then it must be done. In general, we should not have - this is my deep conviction - any obligations restricting our capabilities in this area other than those that the United States has and complies with. Otherwise, how can we speak of parity?

Kommersantthanks the Center for Energy and Security Studies for helping organize the interview.

Source: Kommersant

Grigory Berdennikov is a member of the International Advisory Council of the Luxembourg Forum