Russia performs subcritical nuclear test, drafts START-II law

Publish date: December 10, 1998

Written by: Igor Kudrik

Russia performed a subcritical nuclear bomb test, drafted a law on the START-II treaty and received high-ranking American officials to negotiate it, launched a Topol-M missile, increased the military budget, argued with NATO in Brussels - all on Wednesday, December 9. On the same day, the U.S. performed a subcritical nuclear test at the Nevada test site.

The U.S. performed a subcritical nuclear test at the Nevada test site on December 9. The test was echoed later the same day on Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic, where Russia conducted a similar test, calling theirs a ‘hydrodynamic experiment’. The U.S. will perform its next subcritical test later this winter. Russian officials have announced plans for more ‘hydrodynamic experiments’ in 1999.

"We have been performing hydrodynamic experiments since 1995," said Yuri Bespalko, press secretary of the Russian nuclear minister, to Bellona Web. "The fact that the U.S. performed its experiment on the same day is just a coincidence," added Bespalko.

The hydrodynamic experiments (or subcritical experiments) contain the ingredients of a nuclear bomb, but fizzle out without any thermonuclear blast and are not (supposed to be) accompanied by radioactive emissions. The tests are used for both improving old warheads and for developing new nuclear devices. These experiments do not violate the Test Ban Treaty, signed both by Russia and the U.S.

START-II law drafted
The Duma’s Committee for International Affairs drafted a law on ratification of the START-II agreement with earlier contributed amendments on Wednesday this week. Igor Ivanov, the Russian Foreign Minister, yesterday promised to the U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright in Brussels, that the agreement would be ratified in December. But the issue is still not even in the Duma’s official agenda for December. Also yesterday, a delegation of high-ranking American officials, headed by the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, arrived in Moscow for START talks.

On the other hand, the desperate communists and nationalists occupying the Lower House of the Russian parliament do not comprehend the advantages of the START agreements. Those benefits, however, have been recognised both by the government and the military.

START-II benefits
START-II may be more beneficial for Russia than for the U.S., both military and economically.

"The state in its present condition does not have the means to maintain the present quantitative level of several thousand warheads," said Yuri Maslyukov, the communist deputy prime minister at one of the press-conferences this autumn, when arguing for the ratification of the START-II treaty by the Russian State Duma. "The maximum we can hope for is a level of several hundred nuclear warheads by around 2007 to 2010," added Maslyukov.

According to Maslyukov, the government and the Duma should agree on a program that from 2000 would add at least 35-45 modern Topol-M missiles each year to Russia’s armoury and bring into service several new fourth generation Borey-class strategic nuclear-powered submarines. The former is already close to implementation. The Russian military announced on Wednesday that it had successfully test-launched one of its Topol-M ballistic missiles, reported Reuters. Shortly afterwards, the cash-strapped Russian military were promised increased military spending in 1999. Supposedly, it will now be 3.1 percent of the gross domestic product, compared with the 2.5 percent envisaged in an earlier draft.

Judging by Maslyukov’s statements, his idea is to get rid of the old nuclear stocks while investing money in the development of more sophisticated weaponry like Topol-M missiles. The funds to dismantle the ageing stocks will come from the U.S., given START-II ratification by the Russian State Duma.

"If START-II is ratified by the Duma (…) the increased number of weapons (…) would create an additional challenge. So we need to increase our efforts and not hobble them and cut them back," said Senator Carl Levin, after touring Ukraine and Russia in November together with Senator Richard Lugar, co-founder of the Co-operative Threat Reduction Programme. The programme has provided over $2 billion to the former Soviet states since 1991, to cope with the dismantlement of their ageing nuclear arsenals. The senators stressed that the premise for an increased funding is ratification of the START-II arms reduction treaty.

START treaties – a way to sophisticated nuclear weaponry
"The hydrodynamic experiment performed on Novaya Zemlya bore no purpose of upgrading our nuclear devices," stressed Yuri Bespalov, press secretary of the Russian nuclear minister. "Such experiments are used to verify the condition of the old weaponry stocks," he added.

That statement is quite dubious. Russia and the U.S. are working together at improving their nuclear stocks, being, at the same time, in full compliance with the requirements of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If everything goes smoothly, The two countries will reduce their stocks by 2000-2500 nuclear warheads by the year 2007. Provided the implementation of START-III, the stocks will be reduced to a few hundreds for each country. Those few hundreds will not have a quantitative, but a qualitative value. Who needs those enormous stocks of outdated nuclear weaponry, which in addition may fall into the wrong hands in Russia?

This development threatens the ratification by all countries of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Those on their way to create nuclear weaponry and watching the two big nuclear powers completing their nuclear programs while shielded by arms reduction treaties and signatures under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, may consider intensifying their programs.