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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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Russian withdrawal from CTBT doesn’t mean nuclear testing is imminent

Nov 06, 2023

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Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist

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On Thursday, Nov. 2, Russia formally withdrew from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), the global agreement prohibiting nations from testing nuclear weapons. Russia’s decision to withdraw from the treaty follows its own public threats to use nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine, despite the fact that no nation on Earth has used a nuclear weapon in war since 1945.

Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan explains what this development means and why it is (and isn’t) important. Zeihan asserts that Russia has its own reasons to refrain from tests even outside of the CTBT and says the CTBT was never as effective as the United Nations had hoped it would be in the first place, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Excerpted from Peter’s Nov. 6 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

If you were hoping to start your week off with some cheery news – it might be best to skip this video. Russia has stepped away from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, so we have plenty to discuss today.

My initial concerns aren’t about a return to nuclear testing but rather a much darker scenario – that control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal may be compromised. We’ve already seen failures and cracks throughout the Russian military, but have those vulnerabilities made it to the nuclear program?

If Putin hits the shiny red button and nukes take off, we know how that ends…but what happens if Putin hits that button and nothing happens? I’d prefer to keep that can of worms shut, but we’re nearing a reality where that might not be possible.

Hey everybody, Peter Zane here coming to you from the California coast and it is the second of November. And the big news today is the Russians have withdrawn from something called the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which aims to ban all tests in all forms of all sorts, all types of nuclear weapons. It’s a little bit different from most of the arms control agreements that exist in the world, most of the effective ones are bilateral treaties between the United States and the Soviets slash Russians that have dealt with nuclear ceilings and the numbers of weapons and their stations and the dispositions and sometimes even down to conventional weapons. And most of this proliferation just meet most of this Non Proliferation regime is in danger right now, because the Russians have stopped enforcing, or if simply pulled out of treaty after treaty, probably the Americans follow suit. The CTBT never entered into force, however, because it was a multilateral effort, unlike all of the Cold War treaties, where Moscow and Washington sat down across a table from another to hash out the details, sometimes with London, or Beijing or Paris in tow. the CTBT was always a multilateral effort that involved over 100 countries. And so when it was first adopted by the UN General Assembly back in the 90s, the hope was that we had entered into a fundamentally new era, where everyone would agree that nuclear war is perhaps not something we should aim for. Because it came from the UN GA because it wasn’t negotiated primarily by the nuclear powers, the nuclear powers, for the most part, have not abided by it. It’s not that there’s been a huge amount of testing. But all the other powers have decided to what’s the most polite way to say this, pretend the treaty doesn’t exist. So countries like the United States and China have signed it. Same with Indian Pakistan, but they’ve never ratified it. The Brits and the French have signed and ratified but with a couple of exemptions in there. And now the Russians have basically joined the Americans and the Chinese and the Indians and the Israelis and everything and basically saying that we’re not going to by this by this at all. Now, it doesn’t mean that a return to nuclear testing is imminent. In fact, there’s an open question of whether or not the Russians can even do a quality nuclear test any longer. They’ve had a number of instances in the last three years where they’ve tested some of their ballistic missiles. And they’ve discovered that a lot of them just don’t work anymore. And remember that if you’re going to test something that the world can see, you’re going to be be that piece of hardware, because you don’t want to look like a fool if it doesn’t work. And the Russians on multiple occasions have looked like fools when it doesn’t work. So the real risk here isn’t so much that the Russians are going to test the risk is whether or not their command and control over the nuclear arsenal is actually intact. Because we have seen that the defense minister Shogo has basically even in the height of the war in Ukraine, continue to steal from the military hand over fist and you hope you hope that he’s not stealing, particularly interesting components from say, the nuclear program, but the guy really has no ethics and no sense of patriotism. So you really can’t rule that out. The nightmare scenario for me remains is what happens if Putin hits the big candy like red button, and nothing happens. And we now have seen on multiple occasions that American intelligence has penetrated so far into Moscow, that we’re basically nobody knowing what Putin has for lunch before he even wakes up in the morning. And in that sort of admire, what do you do when somebody tries to kill half a billion people but fails?

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