In a landmark moment marking the closing chapters of the Cold War, Presidents Ronald Reagan of the United States and Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union concluded a 1985 summit in Geneva by issuing a joint statement declaring that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
That commitment paved the way for a series of historic agreements to reduce the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States, which together hold the vast majority of the world’s most destructive weapons, and to limit their spread globally.
Amid far more confrontational relations between Moscow and Washington, that architecture of disarmament and nonproliferation is now gradually being dismantled. On Thursday, President Vladimir V. Putin signed a law revoking Russia’s ratification of the global treaty banning nuclear testing.
In pushing through the de-ratification, Mr. Putin said that he wanted to “mirror” the American position. Although the United States signed the treaty in 1996, it has never been ratified.
Since the United States has never ratified the treaty, Russia’s move was more symbolic than practical. But it leaves only one significant nuclear weapons pact between Russia and the United States in place: the New START treaty.
What is the nuclear testing treaty?
The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, or CTBT, was an attempt under the umbrella of the United Nations to ban all nuclear tests. Adopted in 1996, it never came into effect because not enough key countries, including the United States, have ratified it. In Washington, efforts to ratify it have broken down repeatedly, largely along partisan lines, with Republican administrations arguing that despite a U.S. moratorium on new tests, future improvements or modifications in the nuclear arsenal might require them.
What does Russia’s decision mean?
Russia, in de-ratifying the treaty, removed another brick in the wall of formal arms control intended to limit proliferation. Though the move was mostly symbolic, it added to the recent sense of menace fostered by Mr. Putin and other hard-line Kremlin officials.
The hard-liners have been rattling the nuclear saber as a threat to others not to intervene in the Ukraine war, arguing that an atomic blast — in Ukraine, in Europe, or maybe in a test over Siberia — was a sure means to resurrect Western fear of Russian might. At a conference this year, Mr. Putin mentioned that Moscow had successfully tested a new nuclear-powered cruise missile with global reach. Russia trumpeted it as part of a newly robust arsenal of strategic nuclear weapons, though analysts widely believed it to be far from operational. It is unclear, however, whether Russia will resume tests of nuclear warheads.
What nuclear treaties are still in effect?
The New START is the only nuclear weapons deal between the United States and Russia. Although Mr. Putin announced last February that Russia was suspending its participation, Russia has thus far stuck to the treaty limits. Intended to institute verifiable limits on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, it caps the number of nuclear warheads on each side at 1,550. The treaty, which came into effect in 2011, expires in February 2026.
The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 and designed to eliminate an entire class of nuclear missiles, after accusing Russia of violating it. In addition, mutual inspections were suspended during the Covid pandemic and have never resumed. Both the disarmament objective and the verification process were considered groundbreaking.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, saying that limits on homeland missile defenses were hindering the country from protecting itself against “terrorists” and “rogue states.”
The cornerstone global nuclear agreement, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT. Meant to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, it went into effect in 1970 and was extended indefinitely.
A total of 191 countries have joined the treaty, although its reach remains imperfect. It does not restrict the original five nuclear states — the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain. Israel, Pakistan and India, which also have nuclear weapons, have never signed. Iran is a member, but North Korea withdrew. The spirit of the treaty — that even the original five nuclear states would make progress toward disarmament — has not been achieved.
Jack Begg contributed research.