May 30, 2020
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Doubts Mushroom

Russians are in a dilemma over India's refusal to sign the CTBT

Doubts Mushroom

INDIA'S decision not to sign a global nuclear test ban treaty has left Russia at the crossroads. Moscow has seen animated discussions during the month-long break after the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva ended in a deadlock late June. The dilemma, Russian diplomats say, is what stand to adopt if the next round of talks, starting on July 29, fail.

Russia reiterated its adherence to the global test ban at the Moscow nuclear safety summit this April—when the Big Seven issued a joint statement, pledging to stop all nuclear weapons tests by September 1996. The commitment was made despite criticism from nationalist opponents of the government, who blamed President Boris Yeltsin for "kowtowing to the West". At Geneva again, Russia joined Britain, China, France and the US in a firm rejection of India's call for a rethink on the CTBT's draft terms.

And on July 24, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and US Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced at Jakarta that the two countries would oppose further debate on the "compromise draft" proposed by Jaap Ramaker, Dutch chairman of the conference. Primakov said they arrived at the decision "although it (the draft) does not fully satisfy both sides".

So far there's no indication that Russia may be on the verge of a surprise turnaround. But the possibility of Russia placing its own reservations on the table should not be discounted. This scenario can emerge, a well-placed source in the Russian Foreign Ministry's disarmament department told Outlook, if India's refusal to sign to the proposed draft sets off a chain of reappraisals by the nuclear powers.

Therefore, as the 18-month conference of 61 nations enters its final stage, it could well become the moment of truth for nuclear policymakers in Russia—and India.

 Some Russian experts reject India's timetable as well as its demand to scrap laboratory tests by computer simulation. Says Valery Schukin, member of the Russian delegation to Geneva: "These are negotiating tactics. It's impossible to eliminate all nuclear arsenals in 10 years. The practical thing would be to ask for drastic reduction of nuclear weapons in 10 years." As for laboratory tests, Russian technology is lagging far behind America. Experts from Chelya-binsk-70, a leading national nuclear research centre, claim computer-simulated tests are impossible in today's Russia.

But why is Moscow insisting on signing the CTBT as it is and what could lead to a change in its position? "Nobody will say that India can be a threat to Russia. But if China turns back following India's rejection, that would be an unwanted development for us. If China goes back on its promise to halt all nuclear tests, this would challenge Russia's security in Asia-Pacific," points out Sergei Solodovnik of the Moscow Institute of International Relations. Says Vladimir Orlov, editor-in-chief of Yaderny Kontrol (Nuclear Control) magazine: "Russia's main task is to persuade India not to rock the boat and to join the CTBT. However, if these efforts fail, Moscow may have no choice but to reconsider its position in its national security interests."

 Who will decide the issue? For long, there's been a tug-of-war between Russia's power elite—political and military-industrial lobbies have been split on the test ban issue. While the government, especially the foreign ministry, seeking rapprochement with the West, firmly backed Russia's self-imposed 1990 test moratorium, the powerful military-industrial complex opposed it.

Contradictory statements from government officials show there is no consensus. Russia's Atomic Energy Minister Viktor Mikhailov says the CTBT is more of a gain. Specialists from nuclear centres counter this, arguing they won't be able to maintain the Russian nuclear arsenal's combat-readiness without nuclear tests. Say Vladimir Belousov and Yuri Silkin, experts from the Russian Defence Ministry's Central Physics Institute: "Tests are needed not to build new nuclear missiles but to maintain existing ones. For this, four or five nuclear explosions with an overall power not exceeding 100 kilotons would be enough to satisfy the needs of all nuclear club members."

 However, it's not only scientists who advocate nuclear tests in Russia. Vladimir Klimenko, chief of staff of Yeltsin's national security aide, suggests in an article in Yaderny Kontrol that nuclear-blast technology could serve as a reliable tool to destroy the atomic industry's used nuclear fuel and waste. It can also be used to eliminate nuclear weapons as it can aid scientific studies. Atomic Energy Ministry spokesman Georgy Kaurov argues that the "Russian position on a ban on peaceful nuclear tests would be later reconsidered". But according to Grigory Berdennikov, Russia's ambassador at Geneva, Russia "is ready to impose a ban on peaceful explosions as well".

 On the whole, since opponents of the ban still don't have enough lobbying power to change Russia's official position, they are looking for an excuse to renew their efforts. Whether the Geneva conference offers them that chance remains to be seen.


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