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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 65, July - August 2002

US Concern over Russia Testing as Congress Considers Test Readiness, New Weapons

On May 12, the New York Times reported that senior administration officials had briefed members of Congress on, to quote the article, "disturbing intelligence indicating that Russia is preparing to resume nuclear tests" at its Novaya Zemlya site in the Arctic. The same day, Sean McCormack, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, would only comment that "we are concerned that we may not be able to know if any entity were in a way designed to avoid detection, and we expect Russia to abide by the testing moratorium it has declared for itself."

There was some speculation from Democrats and independent observers that the story was designed to cast doubt over the adequacy of the CTBT's verification regime, while also suggesting the need for the US to be able to resume testing in a speedy fashion. The Times article quoted Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, as suggesting: "The Bush administration appears to be slowly but steadily moving in the direction of removing the obstacles preventing a resumption of US testing and developing a rationale for resuming testing... While it is clear that this administration has no interest in seeking ratification [of the CTBT], it must be careful not to provoke other nuclear states and further alienate allies who support the test ban treaty."

On May 11, the House of Representatives adopted an amendment to the FY2003 National Defense Authorization Act mandating exchange visits between the Novaya Zemlya and US Nevada test sites, and also permitting US research and conceptual design work on new nuclear warheads. The amendment was introduced by Republican Representative Curt Weldon immediately after he had attended the confidential briefings warning of possible Russian tests.

After the vote, carried massively (362-53), Weldon stated: "There may be something going on in Russia that we don't understand, that may trouble us, and they may feel the same about something that we're doing on our side. It's best to counter that, and not recreate feelings that existed in the Cold War but take this opportunity to engage. ... [Y]ou have to understand that there are those in Russia, as well as in this country, who would like to return to the Cold War." With regard to the amendment's encouragement of new design work, Weldon argued: "No President should have their hands tied by outdated laws that stifle research and development into new technologies that will safeguard us in the future. The fact is, our adversaries are developing chemical and biological weapons that pose a significant threat to America and our allies."

The $383 billion Defense Authorization Act passed by the House on May 10, prior to the rushed adoption of the Weldon amendment, included a provision, forwarded by the House Armed Services on May 3, that the Energy Department shorten from 2-3 years to 12 months the period of time required to resume testing in Nevada.

On May 12, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov responded to the speculation about his country's possible plans to conduct nuclear tests by observing: "Unfortunately, such ungrounded statements are made from time to time in various committees in the US Congress. We express our surprise. This is another piece of information which will force us to raise another query. There are still people in the United States who think in the categories of the Cold War. ... Russia is demanding that the US administration clarify the reason for such declarations, if we are to have new strategic relations based on mutual trust and respect". A more fulsome Russian response was provided in a May 17 Foreign Ministry statement:

"Moscow has taken note of the fact that the issue of resuming nuclear tests was again touched upon in the course of the debate in the US Congress on the US administration's budgetary request. The debate took place against the background of reports distributed by the American intelligence community about some kind of work on the Russian test range on Novaya Zemlya that may allegedly signify preparation for resuming nuclear tests. The putting about of this kind of information has already yielded a result: the House of Representatives promptly adopted an amendment by Representative Weldon lifting the ban on the development of new nuclear weapons said to be needed to counter the potential of chemical and biological mass destruction weapons that the 'adversaries of America' are trying to create. In other words, the first step has been taken toward approval of the US administration's plans to reactivate the nuclear test programme. As often happened in the past, for starters, attention is directed toward 'suspicious' activities in Russia.

In this connection we would like to note the following. Russia, which has ratified all the international agreements on real reductions of nuclear weapons, as well as the CTBT, strictly adheres to the obligations it has assumed, including the obligation not to carry out a nuclear weapons test explosion or any other nuclear explosion. Simultaneously, under the federal law On Ratification of the Treaty on the Comprehensive Ban of Nuclear Tests the Treaty is being implemented, among other things, on the basis of maintaining the readiness of the Central Test Range of the Russian Federation and its use to conduct works [such as subcritical tests] that are not banned under the Treaty. The circulating reports about alleged work conducted by Russia on Novaya Zemlya to prepare for the resumption of nuclear tests is totally at odds with reality. The circulation of such ungrounded accusations against Russia represents an attempt to divert the attention of the international community from the US refusal to ratify the CTBT and the actual plans of the Pentagon to create a new generation of nuclear weapons which may require nuclear tests. This is what worries everyone in the world."

Note: on April 15, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer characterised US opposition to the test ban as counterproductive for its own security. Visiting a new hydrophone station in Western Australia designed to form part of the CTBT's International Monitoring System (IMS), Downer argued: "The terrible attacks on September 11 have brought home to everybody how crucial it is that we do everything we can to stop weapons such as these falling into the wrong hands, and underline to us just how relevant a ban on nuclear tests is".

Reports: Downer hits US on nukes, News Limited (http://www.news.com.au), April 16; US testing - House Committee calls for one-year preparation, Global Security Newswire, May 6; House Oks test sites exchange visits, Associated Press, May 11; US says Russia is preparing nuclear tests, New York Times, May 12; Ivanov denies Russia planning nuclear tests in Arctic, Agence France Presse, May 12; Russia denies report that it plans to resume nuclear testing in the Arctic, Associated Press, May 12; Transcript of an interview by RF Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov granted to ORT television, May 12, 2002, Russian Foreign Ministry transcript; US expects Russia to abide by testing moratorium, Reuters, May 12; On US congress debate on the issue of resuming nuclear tests, Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 1001-17-05-2002, May 17.

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