From treaty to tension: Russia's CTBT withdrawal explored

From treaty to tension: Russia's CTBT withdrawal explored


13 | 01 | 2024


Russian departure from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty transcends basic arms control concerns; it affects essential foundations of global security

In the image

President Vladimir Putin at Valdai, October 2023 [Kremlin]

In the ever-evolving and complex realm of nuclear proliferation, Russia's recent withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)[1] marks a serious turning point in the attempt to restrain the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. It raises serious concerns over the future of nuclear arms control and the possibility of a resumption of the nuclear arms race.

From their creation in the mid-twentieth century, these devastating weapons, capable of inflicting immeasurable destruction, have loomed like a dark shadow over the world's landscape. The presence of nuclear weapons has significantly changed how countries interact globally, creating widespread agitation among societies, governments, and the international community.

The specter of nuclear war has become an inescapable reality of our modern world. A conflict that could eradicate entire cities and reshape the planet in an instant, as happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945,[2] is a constant reminder of the destructive power of such weapons.

This essay first introduces the legal framework of the nuclear weapons ban treaties and their relevance up to the present day. It then delves into the motivations for Russia's withdrawal, exploring the complex interplay of political, military, and strategic factors that have shaped this decision. It examines the geopolitical and geostrategic implications of this withdrawal for the future of nuclear arms control, analyzing the potential consequences for global security and nuclear proliferation. Finally, it presents some potential scenarios, envisioning the possible trajectories that the international landscape may take in light of these events.

Legal context of nuclear test ban treaties

In the aftermath of World War II, the world witnessed what nuclear weapons were capable of doing, at a potentially huge scale, not only destroying entire cities but leaving both short- and long-term consequences, affecting people's health and contaminating the environment. The understanding of the immense destructive power of these weapons, in addition to raising awareness among humanity, promoted international efforts to stop their proliferation and prevent their use. The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are two significant agreements that have established the legal boundaries for nuclear testing. Their aim is to limit the spread of these destructive weapons and safeguard global peace.

The Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (PTBT),[3] also known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), was signed in Moscow on August 5, 1963. Emerging from the tense climate of the Cold War, the PTBT was a pioneering step towards nuclear test limitations: it prohibited nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater, allowing only for underground testing. Although this treaty does not prohibit all forms of nuclear testing, it signifies a remarkable advancement in the control of nuclear arms; it mitigates the immediate risk of an armed conflict and establishes a benchmark for future restrictions.

Building on the foundation established by the PTBT, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT),[4]signed in 1996, sought to impose a comprehensive ban on all nuclear detonations, including those conducted underground as well. The CTBT, which came into being after the Cold War, is a significant agreement: it reflects a global understanding of the need to stop nuclear testing and prevent the creation of new and more destructive nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, the implementation of the CTBT has been deferred due to the non-ratification of the treaty by some key nuclear-armed nations, including the United States.

It is more than evident that both PTBT and CTBT are treaties that represent the international community’s efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and protect global security and peace. Although they are not legally binding on states that have not ratified them, these treaties have set a strong precedent against nuclear testing. This has influenced the behavior of states and shaped the global strategy toward nuclear arms control.

The legal context of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty provides a framework for understanding and addressing the complexities and possibilities in the field of nuclear disarmament. These agreements stand as symbols of the global community’s commitment to a world free from the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Examining nuclear warheads and its secrecy's impact

After establishing the legal context surrounding nuclear test ban treaties, the focus now shifts towards the current state of nuclear warheads,[5] mirroring the complexities and challenges faced in nuclear disarmament efforts today. There are currently nine countries known to possess nuclear weapons: Russia, the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. These nine countries collectively have approximately 12,500 nuclear warheads, as of early-2023. Russia has the largest confirmed nuclear arsenal, with 5,889 nuclear warheads, followed by the United States with 5,244 warheads.[6] The possession of nuclear weapons by these countries poses significant risks due to their destructive power, with a single nuclear warhead capable of causing mass casualties and long-lasting humanitarian and environmental consequences.

Discussing nuclear warheads and their undisclosed quantities is crucial to understanding the ramifications of Russia's withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The secrecy surrounding nuclear arsenals presents a challenge to understanding the true scope of global nuclear capabilities, influencing geopolitical dynamics and arms control negotiations.

Russia's withdrawal from the CTBT accentuates the importance of this issue. The lack of transparency[7]regarding nuclear arsenals complicates efforts to achieve the proper control of arms around the world. The absence of a general ban on nuclear testing, combined with undisclosed information on warhead quantities, increases uncertainties about the intentions and capabilities of nuclear powers. This opacity makes it difficult to verify compliance with disarmament agreements and fuels skepticism about commitments to reduce nuclear weapons.


Russia's CTBT withdrawal: What drove the decision?

The decision of Russia to withdraw from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on November 2nd[8], has triggered concern across the international community, casting doubts over the future of nuclear disarmament and raising fears of a possible resurgence of a nuclear arms competition. To comprehend the gravity of this move truly and fully, it is crucial to investigate what were the motives behind Russia's decision, encompass its extensive consequences, and consider potential strategies for the future.

First of all, it is important to understand that Russia's withdrawal from the CTBT is not a sole matter of abandoning a treaty; rather, it is a multifaceted choice influenced by a variety of factors, each contributing to the formation of Russia's position. The United States’ failure to ratify the treaty stands out as one of the main and longstanding drivers of this decision.[9]

Even though it signed the CTBT in 1996, the US Senate never ratified it; and this, undoubtedly, increased Russia's skepticism about how committed the United States is to nuclear disarmament. As it is well known, this arms race that began during the Cold War had the United States and Russia as its main enemy actors. At that time, having a significantly larger number of nuclear weapons than other states was a sign of power in the global sphere. However, as we can observe, these international tensions persist up to this day. If Russia perceives that the United States isn't fully committed to the nuclear test ban, it will be unwilling to commit as well. Certainly, the perceived lack of commitment from a major nuclear power like the US has significantly influenced Russia's decision to withdraw from the treaty.

In line with the ongoing tensions between the two nations, Russia also expresses concerns about the ongoing modernization of the American nuclear arsenal. The Russian Federation perceives this as a potential threat to its security and interprets it as a possible resurgence of the arms race. Consequently, Russia’s decision to withdraw from the treaty could be seen as a strategic move to maintain its standing in the global landscape and protect its “security” by enhancing its nuclear capabilities. Moreover, by challenging the CTBT, Russia projects its power and influence in the global discourse on nuclear issues. It is a direct indication that Russia is willing and able to play an important role in shaping the future of nuclear arms control.

Rising tensions: Russia's Bulava test and the nuclear reactor race

The recent test of Russia's Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) has sparked widespread concern within the international community, coinciding with ongoing global apprehensions about a possible resurgence of an arms race. Conducted on November 5th—two days after its withdrawal—,[10] this provocative act has significantly amplified apprehensions regarding Russia's intentions and the looming specter of renewed nuclear tensions. The implications of this test extend far beyond the immediate demonstration of military capabilities; it delves into the heart of global efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Bulava ICBM test vividly illustrates Russia's persistent efforts to modernize and enhance its nuclear arsenal, signaling a clear departure from the path of disarmament and non-proliferation. More than just a display of what its military might be, this event serves as a stark reminder of the immense and destructive power these weapons hold. What intensifies the gravity of this situation is the direct contradiction it poses to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), an international agreement that has effectively limited nuclear testing for over two decades. Russia's action undermines the very essence and purpose of the treaty, posing a direct challenge to the global order established to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms.

The Bulava test, seemingly designed to assert Russia's nuclear superiority and influence on the global stage, sends worrying signals about the fragile state of global nuclear security.  It serves as a wake-up call, emphasizing the critical need for immediate and concerted diplomatic intervention.

Building upon the gravity of Russia's recent Bulava ICBM test, the discussion now turns toward an additional facet of nuclear concerns: the state of nuclear reactors. According to data from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA),[11] Russia is currently leading the global construction of nuclear reactors, with 23 reactors under construction. China is also a major player in nuclear reactor development, with three Chinese companies building 22 reactors primarily within China. The United States, which was once a leader in nuclear energy, is currently lagging with only a few new reactors under construction. What does this imply?

This shift in the distribution of reactor construction is consistent with the broader debate on global nuclear dynamics and its strategic implications. It accentuates a transformation in the nuclear panorama, in which nations such as Russia and China are actively investing in and advancing their nuclear capabilities.[12] The increase in reactor construction by Russia and China signifies their continued dedication to nuclear energy development, which could increase their influence in global energy markets and shape their geopolitical positioning.

Moreover, this shift also reflects changes in national nuclear energy priorities and policies. It raises considerations about the future direction of nuclear technology and its geopolitical implications. As certain nations expand their nuclear capabilities, this may influence their geopolitical influence, strategic alliances, and global energy dynamics. This changing landscape raises debates about the impact of such developments on global security, nuclear proliferation concerns, and the broader geopolitical balance.

Examining China, US, and India bilateral dynamics

To address the multifaceted terrain of geopolitics and geostrategy, we must embrace Russia's relations with other nuclear powers. Understanding this is imperative, as these bilateral interactions shape the outline of global strategic stability, influence arms control negotiations, and influence the discourse on nuclear deterrence.

As we have repeatedly said, bilateral relations between Russia and the United States are a mixture of doubt, competition, and mutual deterrence. The two superpowers have a notable nuclear arsenal, which causes an increase in tensions between both states and the threat it poses at a global level.

With Russia's departure from the CTBT, these relations have been even more affected, increasing mutual suspicions and raising the scenario of a renewed arms race. On the one hand, the United States expresses concern about the actions taken by Russia,[13] arguing that they pose a threat to global security and stability. On the other hand, the Russian Federation disagrees and accuses the United States of being the one promoting an atmosphere of tension by not having ratified the CTBT and by modernizing its nuclear weapons[14].

Both states have been in constant opposition for years, and recent events serve as a reflection of this ongoing hostility. Can this tension find a peaceful resolution, or are we on the brink of a new arms race? The answer to this question is uncertain, but what is sure is that the need for dialogue, nuclear disarmament, and cooperation has never been more critical.

On the other hand, the dynamics of Russia's nuclear interactions with other nuclear-armed nations are intricate, though less confrontational than those with the United States. A key player in geopolitical relations is China, with whom Russia has been cultivating a strategic alliance. This relationship has been driven by mutual apprehensions regarding US global supremacy and a collective ambition to counter Western influence.

However, there is a subtle rivalry, particularly evident in regions such as Central Asia and the Arctic. These areas, rich in resources and strategic advantages, have become scenes of power disputes between Russia and China.[15] This complex interplay of cooperation and competition creates complexity in Russia's nuclear relations.

In the booming growth of India, it is worth mentioning how it interacts with Russia. The partnership between both states in nuclear technology and strategic collaboration is long and multifaceted. Beyond nuclear ties, the two nations share a strong strategic partnership that encompasses defense cooperation. India's acquisition of advanced technology, including the S-400 missile defense systems[16], exemplifies the depth of this collaboration, strengthening India's strategic capabilities.

Geopolitically, India and Russia agree on counterbalancing world powers and preserving strategic autonomy. However, India's evolving relations, especially closer ties with the US and diversifying partnerships, introduce complexities into their historic alliance. In a changing geopolitical landscape, India's increasing commitments and evolving security concerns require a recalibration of its strategic partnerships, posing challenges to the traditional India-Russia bond in the nuclear and strategic spheres.

Global security and nuclear proliferation

In March 2023, the United Nations declared that the risk of a nuclear weapon being used is “currently higher than at any time since the depths of the Cold War.”[17] This statement highlights the urgency of the situation and the need for immediate action to mitigate the growing risks associated with nuclear armament and proliferation. The UN assessment reflects a convergence of factors contributing to an unprecedented level of nuclear risk. The withdrawal of Russia from the CTBT not only calls into question the credibility of existing arms control agreements but also sets a disturbing precedent for other nations to reconsider their commitments to nuclear non-proliferation.

Geopolitical tensions and strategic posturing between nuclear-armed states have contributed to a climate of increased insecurity. Worsening relations between Russia and Western powers, aggravated by conflicts such as the Ukrainian crisis, amplify the risks of miscalculation and unintended escalation, which could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, various experts and officials, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, expressed worry that Russia's actions might encourage other countries to seek nuclear weapons for defense, given the perceived failure of non-nuclear deterrence.[18] Concerns about the security of non-nuclear states confronting nuclear powers could prompt a reevaluation of their non-nuclear status. Moreover, the belief that Russia's display of nuclear capabilities deterred NATO intervention could encourage other nuclear-armed nations, such as North Korea, to maintain their arsenals.

This essay has been addressing the implications of Russia’s withdrawal from the CTBT, yet the preservation of global stability remains perpetually compromised. The absence of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty heightens the risk of misinterpretation. Without a treaty to confirm nuclear detonations, nations might wrongly associate non-nuclear incidents with nuclear tests, potentially triggering military responses. The international community confronts a challenging mission to uphold worldwide strategic stability. This entails reinforcing the existing arms control structures and actively seeking an all-encompassing, pursuing a comprehensive and verifiable agreement for global nuclear disarmament.

Russia’s withdrawal from treaties establishes a hazardous precedent for future arms control. When nations possess the freedom to exit from agreements at will, the task of negotiating and maintaining impactful arms control measures becomes significantly more arduous. This challenge is accentuated by NATO’s suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty in response to Russia’s withdrawal,[19] signifying NATO's belief that adhering to the treaty, while Russia does not, is unsustainable. Russia's decision stemmed from apprehensions regarding NATO's involvement in the Ukraine conflict and the potential inclusion of Sweden in the alliance. Consequently, this action grants NATO increased flexibility in strategizing, deployments, and exercises, thereby bolstering its deterrence and defense capabilities.

Moreover, Russia's actions might be perceived as a strategic maneuver to deter Western powers, especially given the ongoing support provided to Ukraine. Influence on Competition and Conflict also plays a pivotal role. Nuclear arsenals have constrained conflicts between major powers, dissuading confrontations due to the fear of nuclear escalation. Instances like Russia's Ukraine invasion and the India-Pakistan conflict illustrate how possessing nuclear weapons averted direct clashes,[20] leading instead to indirect measures like sanctions. However, these weapons haven't eliminated competition; they've merely transformed their nature, altering the dynamics of dominance exertion in the presence of nuclear arsenals.

The evolving security environment poses multifaceted challenges due to expanding arsenals and states leveraging nuclear capabilities for political gains. This complexity extends beyond major powers like the US, Russia, and China to interactions among emerging nuclear states such as India and Pakistan. Negotiating this environment necessitates mitigating uncertainties through measures like nuclear modernization, arms control agreements, and damage-limiting capabilities like active missile defense. This underscores the critical need to navigate a complex security landscape influenced by both traditional and emerging nuclear powers.

In addition to this, as previously noted when comparing the number of nuclear arsenals, undisclosed nuclear warheads, and Russia's withdrawal from the CTBT collectively contribute to global insecurity. It raises concerns about the possible resurgence of nuclear tensions and arms races between nations. Lack of transparency exacerbates mistrust and complicates efforts to foster stability and mutual trust among nuclear-armed states.

Exploring future scenarios and crafting conclusions

As the world grapples with the consequences of Russia's actions, it is imperative to envisage possible scenarios to understand the multifaceted challenges that may arise. Therefore, this study develops three potential trajectories that could unfold following Russia's withdrawal from the CTBT, offering insight into the complexities, uncertainties, and far-reaching implications for global nuclear dynamics.

One potential scenario would be the resumption of nuclear testing worldwide. As previously mentioned, Russia's departure from the CTBT triggers a domino effect, emboldening several nations to reconsider their commitments to nuclear testing moratoriums. In this scenario, multiple countries, including nuclear powers like the US, North Korea, India, and those aspiring to possess nuclear capabilities, would choose to conduct nuclear tests to assert their military prowess or validate the reliability of their arsenals. This resurgence has triggered widespread condemnation and diplomatic backlash, eliciting strong opposition from nations deeply committed to disarmament and non-proliferation.

The re-emergence of nuclear tests has significantly undermined trust in established arms control mechanisms, casting doubts on the credibility of international commitments to nuclear disarmament. Heightened nuclear testing activities have escalated geopolitical tensions, amplifying concerns about potential arms races and destabilizing regions susceptible to conflicts. These consequences highlight the immediate challenges posed by the resumption of nuclear testing, emphasizing the urgent need for concerted diplomatic efforts to safeguard global stability and prevent further proliferation risks.

In contrast, another scenario develops as a result of increased nuclear competition following disengagement. The major powers embarked on extensive nuclear modernization programs, investing heavily in advanced delivery systems, miniaturization of warheads, and improved missile defenses. At the same time, non-nuclear states, feeling vulnerable amid changing geopolitical dynamics, contemplate revisiting their non-proliferation commitments, potentially encouraging greater nuclear ambitions. This trajectory strains diplomatic relations between nations, obstructs constructive dialogue, and complicates negotiations on arms control agreements. Moreover, the burgeoning arms race amplifies global instability, fueling concerns that accidental conflicts could escalate into nuclear confrontations and exacerbate socio-economic disparities due to the considerable financial commitments required for nuclear advances.

Finally, there is one last worrying scenario where a deep-rooted resistance among nations arises, discouraging any meaningful engagement in negotiating future arms control agreements. The global consequences of Russia's departure cast a shadow over the willingness of nuclear-armed states to engage in diplomatic efforts to promote arms control agreements. Russia's move serves as a catalyst, intensifying mistrust and animosity among nuclear-capable nations. As tensions escalate and suspicions deepen, the collective sentiment among these states shifts towards a posture of self-preservation, discouraging any substantive efforts towards collaboration in disarmament discussions.

Regardless of the possible scenarios, there is one thing that is undeniable: the withdrawal of Russia from the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) marks a pivotal moment in the landscape of global nuclear security. This action presents multifaceted challenges and far-reaching implications that transcend the immediate context, casting a shadow on the progress made in the realm of nonproliferation and disarmament. The CTBT hailed as a cornerstone for advancing global peace and stability, garnered unparalleled support across nations and established a potential powerful norm against nuclear testing. Its creation of an international monitoring system lent credence to states, fostering trust and enabling commitments to a voluntary moratorium on testing. Although it never entered into force, its principles had the potential to build trust and cooperation to curb nuclear proliferation.

Russia's departure from the treaty transcends basic arms control concerns; it resonates through the complex web of international relations, affecting diplomatic talks, strategic stability, and the fundamental foundations of global security. This move sets a concerning precedent, potentially prompting other nations to reconsider their dedication to arms control agreements, thus further unsettling the delicate balance of global security structures.

In navigating the complexities and challenges arising from Russia's departure from the CTBT, concerted efforts toward renewed dialogue, strengthened cooperation, and collective commitment to nuclear nonproliferation become paramount. The path ahead demands an unwavering dedication to upholding the values of global security, anchoring them on the principles of diplomacy, cooperation, and the pursuit of a safer world for generations to come.


[1] "Russian President Putin Signs Bill Revoking Nuclear Test Ban Treaty". Sputnik India, November 3, 2023

[2] Chinchilla Adell, Monica. "El legado de los ensayos nucleares entre el desarollo científico y el desastre humanitairo”. The Conversation. August 28, 2023.

[3] Mastny, Vojtech. “The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: A Missed Opportunity for Détente?” Journal of Cold War Studies 10, no. 1 (2008): 3–25. doi:10.1162/jcws.2008.10.1.3.

[4] Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1998: 4-26

[5] Davenport, Kelsey. "Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance". Arms Control Association, June, 2023.

[6]  Kristensen, Hans, Matt Korda, Eliana Johns y Kate Kohn. "Status of World Nuclear Forces - Federation of American Scientists". Federation of American Scientists, March 31, 2023.

[7] Kristensen, Hans y Matt Korda. "After Trump Secrecy, Biden Administration Restores US Nuclear Weapons Transparency - Federation of American Scientists". Federation of American Scientists, June 10,  2021.

[8] "Putin revokes Russia’s ratification of nuclear test ban treaty". Al Jazeera, November 2, 2023.

[9] Kuchta, Angelique R. "A Closer Look: The U.S. Senate 's Failure to Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty". " Penn State International Law Review 9, n.º 2 (2001): 31.

[10] Faulconbridge, Guy. "Russian nuclear submarine test launches Bulava intercontinental missile". Reuters, 5 de noviembre de 2023.

[11] "PRIS - Country Details". The Power Reactor Information System (PRIS) - Home Page.

[12] Hadley, Greg. "DOD’s New China Report Details CCP’s Growing Military Arsenal". Air and Spaces Forces Magazine, 2023.

[13] "Russia’s Planned Withdrawal of Its CTBT Ratification - United States Department of State". United States Department of Stat. ,November 2, 2023.

[14] Osborn, Andrew. "Russia accuses US of nuclear testing site activity, says it won't test unless US does". Reuters, 10 de octubre de 2023.

[15] Blasco, Emili. J. “Central Asia: A history of dispute between Russia and China. Rieview Global Affairs and Strategic Studies, Universidad de Navarra. 8 de junio de 2022.

[16] Arif, Shaza. “India’s Acquisition of the S-400 Air Defense System Implications and Options for Pakistan”, Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs. 2021.

[17] "Risk of Nuclear Weapons Use Higher Than at Any Time Since Cold War, Disarmament Affairs Chief Warns Security Council | UN Press". UN Press | Meetings Coverage and Press Releases. March 31, 2023.

[18] Bugos, Shannon y Mohammadreza Giveh. "Russia Withdraws Ratification of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty | Arms Control Association". Arms Control Association | The authoritative source on arms control since 1971, November 16, 2023.

[19] "North Atlantic Council statement on the Allied response to Russia's withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe". NATO.  November 7, 2023.

[20] For some dissenting opinions regarding the nuclear basis of the India-Pakistan conflict, see Tarapore, Arzan. “Conditional restraint: Why the India-Pakistan Kargil War is not a case of nuclear deterrence”, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, November 8, 2023, available at: