Defense intel head: Russia 'probably' violating nuclear test ban treaty

The top U.S. defense intelligence officer on Wednesday publicly accused Russia of “probably” violating an international agreement banning nuclear testing.

“The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard,” Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said in remarks at the Hudson Institute.

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“Our understanding of nuclear weapon development leads us to believe Russia’s testing activities would help it to improve its nuclear weapons capabilities,” he added.

But when pressed by a reporter on the comment, Ashley said only that “we believe they have the capability to do it the way they are set up” without again saying Russia likely is doing the testing.

At issue is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a United Nations agreement negotiated in the 1990s to ban nuclear explosions. Not enough countries have ratified the treaty for it to enter into force, but world powers, including the United States and Russia, agreed to adhere to a ban on tests. The zero-yield standard in the agreement means any explosions, even those that produce a low yield, are prohibited.

Ashley said he “can’t really get into the details,” but said Russia has facilities where they have the ability to conduct explosions.

He added that “part of the concern” is Russia “is not willing to affirm they are adhering” to the zero-yield standard.

The U.S. accusation that Moscow could be violating its test ban commitment comes at a critical time for U.S.-Russian arms control.

The Trump administration is in the process of withdrawing from a Cold War-era treaty that banned the United States and Russia from having nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with certain ranges. U.S. officials dating back to the Obama administration have repeatedly accused Russia of violating that accord, known as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Meanwhile, a separate Obama-era treaty known as New START that caps the number of deployed nuclear warheads the United States and Russia are allowed is up for renewal in 2021. The Trump administration has indicated it wants to expand the scope of the treaty in order renew it, including folding in new weapons not covered by the deal and possibly including China.

Tim Morrison, senior director for weapons of mass destruction and biodefense on the National Security Council, said at the Hudson Institute on Wednesday that Trump will decide “next year” whether to extend New START.

Arms control advocates are worried the Trump administration is setting up negotiations on New START to fail, which would leave the world’s two biggest nuclear powers without treaty limitations on their arsenals for the first time in years.

Those advocates quickly criticized the administration Wednesday, saying Ashley presented no evidence to back up his accusation about the CTBT.

“The most effective way for the United States to enforce compliance with the zero-yield standard is for the Trump administration and the U.S. Senate to support ratification of the treaty and help to bring it into force, which would allow for intrusive, short-notice, on-site inspections to detect and deter any possible cheating,” the Arms Control Association said in a statement.

“In the meantime, if the U.S. has credible evidence that Russia is violating its CTBT commitments, it should propose, as allowed for in Articles V and VI of the treaty, mutual confidence building visits to the respective U.S. and Russian test sites by technical experts to address concerns about compliance,” the association added. 

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