Something happened Aug. 16 on or near Novaya Zemlya, the Arctic island where Russia used to conduct its nuclear tests.
Was it an underwater earthquake, as Russia says? Or was it a clumsy attempt to violate the recently signed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)?
Although recent US Air Force information indicates the event occurred underwater, implying the event was an earthquake, there is still no official determination. The Pentagon says it's "reached no conclusions at this point."
Meanwhile, the Clinton administration is planning to submit the CTBT to the Senate in the next few weeks, and the debate on whether the US should ratify this pact has begun.
Opponents of the CTBT say the Russian event shows the treaty isn't verifiable. An odd conclusion, given that the treaty is not yet in force and its monitoring systems not fully in place.
Even so, the existing web of seismic stations and intelligence gathering did detect the event, allowing the Clinton administration to query Moscow and investigate further. If anything, this episode demonstrates that the test-ban monitoring system works - but only up to a point.
What the Russian event really shows is that living with a treaty that has been signed but is not in force is inherently problematic.
Over 140 nations - including the US, Russian, China, France, and Britain - have signed the treaty, but few have ratified it. Without the necessary ratifications the treaty can't be enforced or verified. We have a ban on nuclear testing with no legal means to check out ambiguous events.
Getting the treaty fully in force would improve the situation greatly. Take the Russian "event" as an example. Were the treaty in force with a completed monitoring system, we could have had better information up front from a wider network of seismic and other monitoring stations worldwide, reducing ambiguity.
If the information from the expanded monitoring system were still inconclusive, the CTBT allows for on-site inspections to clarify what took place. Any party to the treaty could request such an inspection from the treaty's executive council, which would need to approve the request by a three-fifths vote. If a violation were found, the matter could be referred to the UN for action.
Compare this with our current situation, where the US has limited information to go on and no legal basis to visit the suspect site.
In the words of the Pentagon, the Russian event "indicates that we need to have the kinds of transparency that that treaty offers to us. We not only need to get ratification on the US side, but we also need to get it on the Russian side."
The Russian event demonstrates the need to enforce the CTBT as soon as possible. Ambiguous events like this will continue (a similar situation occurred at the Russian test site in January 1996) and are more likely to go unresolved without the CTBT in place, eroding international confidence in the test ban regime. The CTBT is too important to US and international efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons to allow this to happen.
Bringing the CTBT into force will not be easy. Forty-four specific nations must ratify, including the five nuclear powers and India, which has said it will not sign. All the more reason to start now with ratification by the US Senate.
President Clinton needs to send the treaty to the Senate without delay, and the Senate must approve it next spring for there to be any possibility of enacting the treaty by the end of 1998. The time to act is now.
* Tom Zamora Collina is director the arms control and international security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.