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U.S. military intelligence steps up accusation against Russia over nuclear testing

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov  has described the U.S. allegations over nuclear testing as delusional.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has described the U.S. allegations over nuclear testing as delusional. (Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The U.S. military intelligence agency stepped up its accusations against Russia over low-yield nuclear testing on Thursday, saying that the country has conducted nuclear weapons tests that resulted in nuclear yield.

The new statement from the Defense Intelligence Agency amounted to a more direct accusation against Russia, compared to hedged comments about Russian nuclear testing that DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr. made in a speech in Washington in late May.

“The U.S. Government, including the Intelligence Community, has assessed that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons tests that have created nuclear yield,” the DIA statement released Thursday said. The agency didn’t give any details about the alleged tests or release any evidence backing the accusation.

Previously, the agency’s director said that Russia “probably” was not adhering to the “zero-yield” standard the United States applies for nuclear testing. He suggested that Russia was probably conducting tests with explosions above a subcritical yield as part of its development of a suite of more-sophisticated nuclear weapons.

Russia has vehemently rejected Washington’s accusations, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov describing them as delusional.

“We consider claims that Russia may be conducting very low-yield nuclear tests as a crude provocation,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the DIA first aired the allegations. “This accusation is absolutely groundless and is no more than another attempt to smear Russia’s image.”

DIA’s latest accusation came a day after Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea L. Thompson met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in Prague to discuss arms control. 

The meeting didn’t result in any significant decisions. After the meeting, Thompson said in a message on Twitter that she raised a range of issues on which the United States would like to engage in a more constructive dialogue with Russia. 

During the meeting, Ryabkov said he reiterated the unacceptability of Washington’s accusations regarding alleged Russian nuclear testing and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, or the CTBT, a 1996 agreement that prohibits nuclear explosions.

“We said that we are in full and absolute compliance with the agreement, ratified by Moscow, and in full compliance with our unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing,” Ryabkov said, according to the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.   

The DIA’s original accusations in late May came after the Wall Street Journal reported that a new U.S. intelligence assessment found Russia “likely” has tested nuclear weapons with very low yields at Novaya Zemlya, a collection of islands in the Arctic Circle. 

It wasn’t clear how that intelligence assessment — which deemed the Russian tests likely — squared with the DIA’s statement on Thursday, which stated flat out that Russia had conducted such tests. It also wasn’t clear whether the DIA was making its statements based on new intelligence or a reinterpretation of past information. 

In addition to provoking a rebuke from Russia, the U.S. government’s accusations about Russian low-yield testing have prompted skepticism among some disarmament advocates. 

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said its regular open-source monitoring of Novaya Zemlya hadn’t detected any alarming activity. 

In a statement late last month, the center’s Eurasia program director, Sarah Bidgood, said that absent new evidence that Russia is conducting low-yield tests, it appears that U.S. officials are rehashing past allegations about Russian test violations “in order to support the narrative that Russia is an unreliable partner in arms control, with whom verification does not work.” 

Bidgood said the accusations could be an effort by U.S. officials to lay the groundwork for a decision not pursue an extension of the 2010 New START accord with Russia, which expires in early 2021. 

The accusations by the DIA come as top Republicans criticize the CTBT. In a March letter to the White House, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), John Cornyn (Tex.) and James Lankford (Okla.) asked President Trump whether he would consider “unsigning” the CTBT and called the pact a “deeply flawed treaty that purports to ban all nuclear weapons tests.”

The senators expressed concern that efforts around the world to bring the CTBT into force rest on “false premises” about what was agreed to, which in turn have “given rise to wishful thinking about Russian and Chinese compliance with the treaty.”

Both Russia and the United States have signed the CTBT, but the pact hasn’t come into force, because a number of countries, including the United States, haven’t ratified it. Russia ratified the treaty in 2000. The U.S. Senate did not consent to its ratification.

What exact standard the CTBT sets for nuclear testing is a point of contention. U.S. opponents of the treaty point out that the pact doesn’t define a nuclear test. They say that while the United States adheres to a strict zero-yield interpretation, other countries could claim to be abiding by the treaty but still be conducting tests that Washington would consider off-limits. 

A White House memo from 1997, reviewed by The Washington Post, said that the United States decided at the outset of the CTBT negotiations that it was “unnecessary, and probably problematic, to seek to include a definition in the Treaty text of a ‘nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion’ for the purposes of specifying in technical terms what is prohibited by the Treaty.”

Instead, according to the memo, the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia exchanged letters on Sept. 23, 1996, confirming an oral understanding they reached earlier that year about what activities would still be allowed under the CTBT. The list was illustrative but not exhaustive, raising the possibility that other activities could be permitted under certain interpretations.

A senior Trump administration official said that as a result, the CTBT doesn’t expressly stipulate a zero-yield standard because of the lack of clarity, opening the door for Russia and China to conduct tests, while the United States, Britain and France adhere to a stricter interpretation.

“If we’re going to continue to hold ourselves to a zero-yield standard, and they’re not, that’s a problem,” the official said. 

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, disagreed that the United States and Russia are operating under different interpretations of what type of nuclear test explosions are banned by the treaty. 

“Both countries agree that all nuclear test explosions are banned by the treaty,” Kimball said. He said the United States, if it has real concerns about secretive Russian testing, should propose mutual confidence-building visits allowed for under the treaty. He said the articles of the treaty pertaining to those visits can be invoked even though the agreement hasn’t come into force. 

A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington pointed out that Russia stated its interpretation of nuclear testing in a 2017 article co-written by Ryabkov. The article, published jointly in the Russian newspaper Kommersant and the American magazine the Diplomat and posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website, notes that the CTBT prohibits any nuclear weapon test explosion “anywhere on Earth, whatever the yield.”