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OPINION

Let the sky fall. Nuclear blackmail as Putin's final gambit for securing a gainful exit from the ongoing war

In the midst of intense conflict in Ukraine, Russia's withdrawal from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the unveiling of the enigmatic missile called “Burevestnik” (translated to English as “Stormy Petrel”; NATO reporting name: SSC-X-9 Skyfall) is no more than Putin's endeavor to bolster his position in the anticipated ceasefire negotiations. Military analyst Pavel Luzin opines that the Russian leadership, in doing so, aspires to present this ceasefire as a triumph on the battlefield to their own populace. 

Moscow's signature remains on the treaty

CTBT was inked by Russia in 1996 and formally ratified in 2000. Over the course of its existence, the CTBT garnered signatures from 187 nations, yet only 178 saw fit to ratify it. What's intriguing is that, despite the treaty not being in effect, all signatory states have dutifully observed its provisions. Its entry into force has remained elusive primarily due to the non-ratification by the United States and China, two of the world's five recognized nuclear powers. Now, Russia has aligned itself with this group.

As a result, among the official nuclear-armed states that both signed and ratified the CTBT, only the United Kingdom and France maintain their commitment. Notably, Moscow's rationale for rescinding its ratification of the treaty, citing the absence of U.S. ratification without similar reservations about China, could be seen as a form of diplomatic posturing.

Moscow cited the absence of U.S. ratification without similar reservations about China as its rationale for rescinding the ratification of the treaty

Among the unofficial nuclear-armed states, including Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, only Israel has signed the CTBT, although it has not ratified it. The other three nations haven't even signed the treaty. Nonetheless, beyond the mere fact that all signatory states have adhered to the CTBT, there exists the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna. This organization coordinates the operations of a global network of seismic and radionuclide monitoring stations, ensuring that no one conducts actual nuclear tests. Notably, out of several hundred such stations worldwide, 32 are situated on Russian territory.

From all of this, it becomes evident that Russia's withdrawal of its ratification of the CTBT does not automatically grant it the ability to resume nuclear testing. Despite the hawkish stance of certain Russian experts and propagandists, the fact remains that the last nuclear test was conducted in the Soviet Union in 1990. As long as Russia's signature remains on the CTBT, Moscow cannot resume testing without incurring negative foreign policy consequences that would outweigh any desired effects of such a hypothetical resumption.

Russia's true goal is to enhance its negotiating positions

However, the problem lies in the fact that Russia's withdrawal of its ratification of the CTBT, coupled with its suspension of participation in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in February 2023, indirectly but consciously undermines the cornerstone Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It's worth recalling Article VI, one of the key provisions in the NPT:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

In simpler terms, Russia's current actions only exacerbate the longstanding crisis of the NPT, which began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.

Nonetheless, the goal of these actions is clear: to improve Russian negotiating positions at any cost, not only in the context of the war with Ukraine but also in the broader confrontation with the West. This is driven by the Kremlin's adamant refusal to recognize Ukraine as an independent international entity. The withdrawal of CTBT ratification must be considered in conjunction with other actions. Firstly, Russia's offensive efforts on the battlefield, as announced even by Russia's UN representative, Vasily Nebenzya. Secondly, it involves the continuous reminders of the uncompleted testing cycle of the intercontinental ballistic missile called “Sarmat” and the illusory Skyfall cruise missile. Thirdly, it reflects the thinly veiled anti-Israeli character of Russia's policy in the Middle East.

The Kremlin's has been adamantly refusing to recognize Ukraine as an independent international entity

Furthermore, one should not disregard the non-zero probability of Russia's involvement in the incident on the Finland-Estonia gas pipeline and damage to the underwater communication cable between Sweden and Estonia. In the past year alone, this marks the third significant attempt by the Kremlin to improve its “trade” positions. In September-October 2022, nuclear blackmail (including the propagated narrative of a “dirty bomb”) was combined with mobilization and, likely, sabotage on three branches of the Nord Stream pipelines. In February-March 2023, Russia's suspension of participation in the Treaty on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was accompanied by an attempt to advance in the vicinity of Vuhledar.

Moscow is banking on the belief that any concerns related to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as avoiding direct confrontation with Russia, are far more crucial to the United States and its NATO allies than Ukraine's territorial integrity. Everything else should serve either as an additional lever or as a bargaining chip. Moreover, Moscow views the United States' declared willingness to engage in nuclear weapons dialogue separately from other issues as an affirmation of its own standpoint and an open invitation to increase pressure.

In addition, Moscow is once again attempting to intimidate the West with its purported irreversible alignment with China (although Vladimir Putin's latest visit there didn't yield tangible results), North Korea, and Iran. At the same time, it keeps reminding that it is ready to supply gas to Germany through the remaining leg of the “Nord Stream 2” pipeline.

Negotiating a respite to save face

For a year now, Russia has been attempting to secure a temporary respite, a breather lasting a few years, to mend its wounds and partially rebuild its military strength. It's essential to underscore that this is indeed about a temporary pause because over the course of 20 months of warfare, the Russian leadership has repeatedly affirmed its unwavering commitment to the fundamental objective of this conflict – the obliteration of Ukraine's independent statehood and culture.

However, Russia is unwilling to accept a respite on any terms. The Russian authorities are striving to outlast, outsit, and outwait Ukraine and the Western nations, aiming for their actions to become politically acceptable on the domestic front. The war has not only steered Moscow into military, economic, and foreign policy impasses but has also carried the potential for domestic turmoil.

Russia is unwilling to accept a respite on any terms

The most significant risk in this scenario is the emergence of a so-called “party of the stolen victory,” if circumstances compel an acknowledgment of military defeat, or if the terms for the much-desired respite bear an unfortunate resemblance to defeat. This hypothetical party would find its nucleus in a substantial contingent comprising hundreds of thousands of returning veterans and their concerned families. Furthermore, the Kremlin grapples with the challenge of preserving the core of its ground forces, as the majority of current conscripts and contract soldiers will be demobilized, along with a sizeable portion of officers and junior commanders.

This is precisely why the Kremlin finds an unconditional ceasefire unacceptable and exerts every effort to impose its terms. These conditions were recently articulated by the former Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schröder.

  1. Ukraine's abandonment of its aspirations to join NATO (in Schröder's view, Kyiv is unlikely to meet the alliance's accession criteria “in any case”).
  2. “Ukraine's parliament revoked bilingualism. This needs to be reversed.”
  3. Regarding Donbas: the application of a model akin to South Tyrol (a province in northern Italy with a predominantly German-speaking population).
  4. Security guarantees for Ukraine, including from the UN Security Council and Germany.
  5. “Crimea is more than just a region for Russia; it is part of its history.”

Furthermore, in the context of a temporary respite, Russia would aspire to engage in protracted negotiations on nuclear armament and strategic stability. This approach aims to prevent Russia from languishing in a position of international pariah. The future of the suspended START Treaty, set to expire in 2026, and Russia's withdrawal of the CTBT ratification, can serve as a viable starting point for such negotiations, conveniently initiated by Moscow itself. This strategic maneuver seeks to ensure Russia's continued relevance on the global stage.

Why the SSC-X-9 Skyfall is a myth

In conclusion, it is worth noting that the oft-mentioned illusory cruise missile Skyfall also serves as leverage in this broad and somber political context. Moscow will demonstrate negotiating tenacity and simulate a tough decision, aiming to exchange the abandonment of this implausible missile for something more substantial.

The issue at hand is that, regardless of the “leaks” that might surface in Western and Russian media, or the information shared by “sources within intelligence circles” with journalists from prominent publications, the feasibility of the Skyfall is impeded by the principles outlined in a standard physics textbook.

The feasibility of the SSC-X-9 Skyfall is impeded by the principles outlined in a standard physics textbook.

Of course, on paper, one can calculate a reactor that would generate sufficient thermal power by harnessing the energy from the fission of several tens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium to heat the incoming air and create enough thrust for the missile's flight. However, highly enriched uranium, the reactor as a whole, and the equipment of the missile all require shielding, a control system for the reactor and missile, an electrical power generation system for onboard equipment, and a cooling system, at least in the form of a massive radiator, as the incoming air may not be sufficient for cooling. All these components add significant weight to such a reactor, falling into the range of tens of tons, with corresponding dimensions. Moreover, preparing such a reactor for operation would require at least dozens of highly educated engineers.

In short, the Skyfall missile is not a realistically existing weapon but rather another political ploy suitable for bargaining, not for warfare.

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