Russian withdrawal another blow for for nuclear arms reduction

A radionuclide particulate station of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is seen on the roof of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Picture: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

A radionuclide particulate station of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is seen on the roof of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Picture: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Published Nov 12, 2023


David Monyae

The post-Cold War order is slowly but surely coming undone. This is attributable to the deteriorating relations between two of the world’s great powers: Russia and the United States who acted as guarantors of the global order.

One of the central planks of this order is the suite of international arms control treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missiles, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to mention a few.

These treaties were signed by the world’s great powers (particularly the United States and Russia) to avoid the arms race that characterised the Cold War era and to ensure strategic global stability.

However, of late there have been a series of developments that are chipping at the plank on which the post-Cold War order sits. Not least among these is the aggressive eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), North Korea’s missile-testing antics and Russia’s withdrawal first from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed by the US and Russia in 2011 to cut down their stockpiles of strategic offensive arms such as nuclear warheads, and lately from the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The Russian President, Vladmir Putin, signed the law de-ratifying the CTBT on November 2. The CTBT was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996. Its terms included banning any nuclear weapons test or explosion and setting up a verification regime complete with an international monitoring system and an arsenal of confidence building measures.

Apparently, officials in Moscow argue that this step was taken to bring Russia in line with the US which is a signatory to the treaty but never ratified it. Russia stressed that it would remain a signatory to the treaty and it does not harbour any intentions to resume nuclear testing or violate the transparency measures that underpin the treaty.

Notwithstanding these assurances, being a signatory to a treaty does not carry the same restraints and obligations as when having ratified it. The latter action means that it is domestic legislation and Russia would have been violating its own laws to conduct nuclear testing.

Ratifying a treaty is a signal given by a state party to indicate its consent to be bound by the treaty. On the other hand, signing a treaty is simply an expression of an intention to comply with its terms which is not necessarily binding.

Thus, Russia’s de-ratification of the CTBT means that the world’s two biggest nuclear powers, Russia and the United States, are not bound by the treaty anymore which tremendously undermines the international nuclear arms reduction regime which has been a vital element of the global security architecture.

What this means is that the actions of the two powers will be determined by what they think the other is doing. Without any transparent lines of communication such as those provided under the auspices of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation, it is very easy to plunge the world into another era of a nuclear arms race like that witnessed during the Cold War era when the world was tinkering on the blink of a nuclear war.

This is because neither superpower will know what the other is up to so the best strategy would be to stack up as much arms as possible or, even worse, to launch a pre-emptive strike. The weakening of the CTBT Organisation as a result of the absence of the US and Russia from its membership will further undermine its ability to monitor nuclear tests and explosions around the world.

Absent a hard and fast commitment from the world’s two biggest nuclear powers to refrain from a nuclear arms race, a global proliferation of nuclear arms is likely to ensue with more countries, especially China, India, North Korea, and Iran, building their own nuclear arsenal thus plunging the world into an even more dangerous situation. The prevailing atmosphere of distrust and polarisation between Russia and the US is rapidly eroding one multilateral platform after another.

With bilateral relations between the two countries effectively frozen, multilateral institutions have provided a vital channel of communication and an opportunity to maintain global stability. With the United Nations unable to play any meaningful role in a polarised geopolitical environment, countries with capacity like China and India and the European Union (EU) should step up and play a more creative and proactive role to avert the breakdown of the global security architecture.

It is encouraging that China has shown its willingness to take responsibility through the Global Security Initiative (GSI) proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2022.

Its insistence on the indivisibility of global security and its embrace and acknowledgment of a multipolar world order offers a valuable opportunity to address the crumbling global security architecture.

However, the current US-China tensions will make it difficult for Beijing to rally global support for its otherwise plausible global security strategy.

*Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL