How to Get Away with a Nuclear Test

On Thursday, September 28, Mikhail Kovalchuk, a close adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin, suggested Russia should test “at least” one nuclear weapon at the former nuclear testing site, Novaya Zemlya. A week before Kovalchuk’s statement, CNN released satellite imagery to reveal the expansion of Novaya Zemlya facilities over the past three years to include a new building, along with expansions at former test sites in China and the United States.

Kovalchuk’s statement comes amid rising tensions on the ground in Ukraine, with Ukrainian forces attempting to breach Russian defensive lines. Talk of nuclear testing and threats of escalation are part of an ongoing Russian effort to manipulate nuclear risks and deter Western intervention in Ukraine. On October 5, Putin hinted that he might withdraw ratification of the CTBT. If Russia does return to nuclear testing, Putin will have assumed that the international community will be silent or divided on the issue—essentially, he would be betting that Russia can get away with it. But a return to nuclear testing, a well-recognized taboo, could backfire for Moscow.