Moscow Denies US Reports that Russia is Planning Nuclear Tests

Publish date: May 13, 2002

Written by: Charles Digges

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov has denied suggestions published in The New York Times that Moscow is planning nuclear tests on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya, Russian television quoted the Foreign Minister as saying.

The US House of Representatives on Saturday urged President George W. Bush to seek access to a Russian nuclear test site in the Arctic amid reports the Russians were preparing to resume testing.

“Unfortunately such statements often emerge from Congress for no reason at all,” Ivanov said in an interview aired late on Sunday on state controlled ORT television.

“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,” he added.

The New York Times reported that the call by the US House of Representatives was prompted by a recent intelligence briefing in Congress, which featured new data indicating that Russia was preparing to resume nuclear tests on the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya.

Nikolai Shingaryov, assistant to Russia’s deputy atomic energy minister, also strongly denied the US allegations in a telephone interview with Bellona Web Monday.

“The Atomic Ministry is not preparing for any kinds of nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya, and the American intelligence that was given to congress simply doesn’t correspond with reality,” he said.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based defence analyst, however, contradicted this. Citing several interviews he conducted with high ranking Russian government officials, Russia is indeed gearing up for testing on the island — and has been ever since the Bush administration released its Nuclear Posture Review earlier this spring.

The Nuclear Posture Review suggested it may be necessary for the United States to resume testing to make new nuclear weapons and to ensure the reliability of existing ones.

In a March article in Moskovsky Novosty, Felgenhauer quoted several anonymous government sources as saying Russia, too, would prepare for nuclear tests, but would not begin weapons testing until the Americans began testing first.

“Naturally, the government began preparing for major tests as soon as the US Posture Review came out,” said Felgenhauer in a telephone interview with Bellona Web. “But they won’t move until the Americans do.”

Neither the Kremlin press office nor Ministry of Defence would comment on the Felgenhauer’s assertions, although Russia has admitted conducting in 1999 a series of so-called “subcritical” nuclear experiments on Novaya Zemlya, which are not banned by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The information presented to Congress about possible preparations for major tests on Novaya Zemlya was contained in a report by the Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee, a panel that collects the views of many federal agencies on nuclear issues, the Times reported Sunday.

The assessment in the report described a pattern of technical activities on Novaya Zemlya — the Arctic equivalent of the US nuclear test range in the state of Nevada — that matched known Russian activities to prepare for past nuclear tests, the newspaper quoted officials as saying.

The intelligence report on Novaya Zemlya was included in a broader briefing to Congress on cooperative programs between the United States and Russia to reduce threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, a project that includes tracking Moscow’s compliance with a number of arms control agreements, including the test-ban treaty.

It was not immediately clear how large scale nuclear testing would affect US-Russian non-proliferation programs, which past aided in dismantling nuclear weapons covered under the START treaty and worked to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium stockpiles. Moscow officials for the US Department of Defence’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program referred “policy” questions to Washington. Officials there were unavailable for comment.

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, declined comment on the report of the alleged test, saying the Bush administration did not discuss intelligence matters, Reuters reported.

“We are concerned that we may not be able to know if any entity were testing in a way designed to avoid detection,” the spokesman added. “We expect Russia to abide by the testing moratorium that it has declared for itself.”

The Times report — noting US President George W. Bush was to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin this month to discuss a pact to cut their nuclear arsenals — said the lawmakers who attended the briefing had a range of reactions from scepticism to alarm.

It said some questioned whether the intelligence report was a tactic to help pave the way for Washington to resume nuclear testing, while others were so troubled by it they drafted legislation calling for access to Russian nuclear sites and allowing work on a new generation of US nuclear warheads.

The report comes less that two weeks before Bush is to fly to Moscow for a May 23-26 summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at which the US and Russia hope to sign new nuclear arms reduction treaty.