Decoding the Latest U.S. Report on Arms Control: Are Russia and China Really Cheating?

On April 15, 2020, the State Department released the executive summary for the 2020 Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments, more commonly known as the Compliance Report. While the executive summary states the full, unclassified report will be released “at the earliest possible opportunity consistent with safe personnel and reduced staffing practices necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” some critical questions and key takeaways can already be gathered from the available information. In particular, recent articles highlight specific concerns raised in the report that Russia and China may have conducted yield-producing or supercritical nuclear tests in 2019 in ways inconsistent with their international commitments.

Q1: What is the Compliance Report?

A1: The recently-released unclassified executive summary is an abbreviated version of the congressionally mandated annual report on “Adherence to And Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, And Disarmament Agreements and Commitments”—commonly referred to as the Compliance Report. Per the 1961 Arms Control and Disarmament Act, the State Department must submit to Congress the U.S. government’s assessment of the compliance and adherence to “arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreements and related commitments . . . including confidence- and security-building measures (CSBMs) . . . and the Missile Technology Control Regime,” by April 15 of each year.

The 2019 report was the subject of significant controversy and disagreement, both publicly and privately. The original unclassified report issued in April 2019 came under fire for its highly politicized tone and disproportionate Iran focus rather than providing the far more technical and intelligence-based compliance assessments of prior years. A completely revised version, far more in line with the tone and content of prior years, was reissued in August 2019. The executive summary of the 2020 Compliance Report suggests a return to the more careful, technical approach to compliance of previous years, highlighting a number of areas of concern across a range of arms control and nonproliferation obligations. In particular, the executive summary carefully delineates between findings of noncompliance with legal obligations, issues of “adherence” with political commitments, and descriptions of areas of concern for which actual determinations of compliance or adherence cannot be made. Of note, most of the nuclear testing-related findings involving China discussed in recent media reports fall into this latter category. It remains to be seen if the full report will include more elaborated and detailed findings in this or other areas covered in the summary.

Q2: What does the Compliance Report say about Russia’s activities?

A2: Numerous prior compliance reports have raised serious concerns about Russia’s compliance and adherence to a wide range of arms control and nonproliferation agreements, and the 2020 report is no different. For example, the United States had assessed as far back as 2014 that Russia was in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by possessing ground-launched cruise missiles and associated launchers with a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The weapon deemed in violation of the INF Treaty is the SC-8 SCREWDRIVER, reportedly designated the 9M729 by Russian forces. Citing these concerns, the United States withdrew from the treaty on August 2, 2019.

Regarding the Open Skies Treaty, the United States finds that Russia continues to be in violation. In addition to the previously identified two violations in the 2019 Compliance Report, the 2020 executive summary alleges Russia improperly denied a planned U.S.-Canadian flight over the Russian TSENTR 2019 military exercise on September 20, 2019.

Regarding chemical weapons, the 2020 report asserts that Russia continues to be non-compliant with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) due to its use of a military-grade nerve agent on March 4, 2018, in an alleged assassination attempt in the United Kingdom against a former Russian intelligence officer. The 2019 full Compliance Report made no such determination, instead referring to specific reporting mechanisms within the CWC. Importantly, given renewed uncertainty over the future of New START, the 2020 report finds Russia is in compliance with the treaty governing strategic nuclear weapons. Ultimately, many of these findings are in accordance with Compliance Reports from years past: though there may be differences in tone and details from year to year, the U.S. government has had serious concerns about Russian compliance and adherence for years, and these concerns are not necessarily a new problem.

Q3: What specifically in the Compliance Report raises concerns about nuclear testing by Russia and China?

A3: The 2020 Compliance Report suggests both Russia and China have conducted some types of yield-producing nuclear tests. With regard to Russia, the report “finds that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that have created nuclear yield and are not consistent with the U.S. ‘zero-yield’ standard.” Similar accusations have been levied before. In May 2019, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, stated in public remarks that “the United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard.”

The accusation against Chinese nuclear testing is noteworthy in its specificity but is also much more nuanced in its claim. As originally reported by the Wall Street Journal, the compliance report suggests that a high level of activity at China’s Lop Nur facility and “possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur, and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities . . . raise concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard.” This is not a new problem, and neither is the concern that Russia and possibly even China may have been conducting very low-yield, supercritical tests in support of their nuclear weapons development and stockpile management. Disagreement about what constitutes “zero-yield” and how it could be verified lies at the heart of the substantive debate surrounding ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and is one reason why the agreement has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Q4: What are the major questions left unanswered from this executive summary of the Compliance Report?

A4: With the information that is currently available, there is nothing dispositive about the observations at the Chinese testing site Lop Nur. Perhaps the information in the classified report provides more concrete proof of Chinese nuclear testing, but openly available information raises more questions than answers. Moreover, the nuclear testing moratoria observed by a number of states including China, Russia, and the United States and referenced in the report is a voluntary political commitment. The “zero-yield” standard observed and favored by the United States is neither internationally agreed nor legally binding, hence the language used in the report: “as interpreted in accordance with the U.S. ‘zero-yield’ standard.” As for the international treaty designed to prohibit nuclear testing, the CTBT, both China and the United States have signed but not ratified the treaty, and the treaty has not entered into force. As such, it is difficult to consider these actions in a compliance context. Whether or not the forthcoming full report (either the unclassified public version or the classified report to Congress) provides any more evidence supporting these allegations of compliance and adherence remains to be seen. 

Q5: What are the implications of these conclusions for the U.S. arms control and nonproliferation agenda?

A5: The conclusions of the compliance report have garnered attention in part because of worries about possible nuclear testing by Russia and China and what this could signal in terms of renewed nuclear competition. These reactions also reflect concern that these matters of compliance and adherence by other states are being amplified within the Trump administration for the purpose of justifying controversial changes in U.S. arms control and nonproliferation policy and practice—whether in terms of justifying potential withdrawals from existing agreements such as the Open Skies Treaty, the development of new capabilities that would previously have been limited by the INF Treaty, or the latest calls by some to “unsign” the CTBT.

On this last point, the latest concern is that the United States would use these assessments as justification to redefine U.S. commitment to the nuclear testing moratorium and potentially violate the “zero-yield” standard, perhaps resuming supercritical testing it has insisted other states not conduct. Such a development would likely set off alarm bells across the international nonproliferation community, as this would be a significant change in a U.S. government policy that has existed for nearly three decades: as recently as the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, it was stated that “the United States will not seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but will continue to observe a nuclear test moratorium that began in 1992.” The United States currently maintains its stockpile through science-based stockpile stewardship programs, and as it currently stands, the National Nuclear Security Administration is only prepared to resume nuclear tests “when the President has declared a national emergency . . . and only after any necessary waiver of applicable statutory and regulatory restrictions.”

Rebecca Hersman is the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and a senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Rebecca Hersman