The 6,000 nuclear warheads that Russia uses to deter Western support for Ukraine

Moscow’s official doctrine allows these weapons to be used if ‘the very existence of the Russian Federation is under threat’

A Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk in 2022.
A Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk in 2022.AP
Javier G. Cuesta

Russian President Vladimir Putin once again showed his nuclear card this past week to dissuade the West from taking another step in its support for Ukraine. “This really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization,” Putin told the Russian Parliament on Thursday.

The comments came after French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that “nothing should be ruled out” with respect to Russia’s war in Ukraine, not even sending NATO troops to the country. Macron later qualified this statement, explaining that he was not referring to troops entering combat, but rather training Kyiv’s troops in the rear.

The Kremlin has a very large arsenal of around 6,000 nuclear warheads, a figure similar to the United States’ arsenal. The difference, however, is Russia’s 2,000 tactical warheads. These are “small” nuclear bombs that are not listed in disarmament treaties and that are the focus of an important debate among Western experts: would the Kremlin provoke a nuclear explosion as a warning if cornered in Eastern Europe?

The U.S. and Russia have over 90% of the planet’s nuclear bombs. Just a year ago, Putin suspended the New START agreement with Washington, aimed at the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Frozen in practice since the pandemic — Moscow has not allowed the U.S. to inspect its arsenals since 2020 — this pact limited the destructive power of both powers to 700 strategic delivery systems (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers); 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads and 800 nondeployed launchers. In practice, both sides are suspected of having about 200 more nuclear warheads each.

These are weapons that could destroy the world in a few minutes. In addition, there are the thousands of Cold War nuclear warheads that remain locked in warehouses, which would take time to deploy. The actual figures are classified, although the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that Russia and the United States had 5,889 and 5,244 nuclear warheads, respectively, in 2023.

This is where the so-called “tactical bombs” come into play. They are designed to destroy specific targets, such as a fleet or a base — not entire cities — but they are still a major threat. According to the Pentagon, Russia has about 2,000 nuclear warheads of this type.

Under official Russian military doctrine, using the most powerful weapons in the world is acceptable in response to an aggression “which puts the very existence of the Russian Federation under threat,” according to the latest revision that Putin signed in 2020. However, the Kremlin began to consider using these weapons in conflicts two decades ago, when it observed the technological superiority of NATO in conflicts such as the two wars in Iraq.

Western experts do not agree on whether Moscow is capable of resorting to the “escalate to de-escalate” tactic. In other words, of employing a tactical bomb first to force the opponent to negotiate. Mark Schneider, former senior official of the U.S. Department of Defense, recalls that Russian doctrine considers this option “in response to large-scale aggression utilizing conventional weapons.” Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, an analyst at Chatham House, says that “describing Russian nuclear strategy as ‘escalate to de-escalate’ is an unproductive simplification.” She believes Moscow would be more concerned about NATO’s possible response after such an action.

NATO’s problem is that it does not know what to expect from Putin. “The contradiction between declared and actual policy casts doubt on all previous and future Russian nuclear doctrines,” warns Nikolai Sokov, a researcher at Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was created by scientists from the Manhattan Project.

“In its war against Ukraine, Russia has ‘utilized’ its nuclear weapons in the offensive deterrence mode — that is, as a cover for its unprovoked aggression rather than for the purposes of defensive deterrence against what is proscribed in all official documents — from the national security concepts to the military doctrines,” continues Sokov, who was one of the Russian negotiators of the first disarmament treaties with the United States. He believes it is possible that Moscow will “escalate to de-escalate.”

Since the start of its offensive against Ukraine, the most serious step the Kremlin has taken so far has been deploying of a small arsenal of nuclear weapons in Belarus in 2023. “Given the short ranges of delivery vehicles intended for a nuclear mission in Belarus, the nuclear signal appears clearly aimed at Poland, a full member of NATO. That country has taken arguably the most proactive position on assistance to Ukraine,” warns Sókov, arguing the measure will change the geostrategic map in Eastern Europe in the coming years.

Testing ground

The Kremlin has been modernizing its strategic force. “[Russia’s opponents] understand that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory,” Putin said last Thursday. During his speech, the president spoke of Russia’s new generation of weapons and how they can deter NATO, both in a regional and large-scale conflict. Two of them have already been tested on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Kyiv claims to have evidence that the Russian army used a 3M22 Zircon hypersonic missile against several Ukrainian cities in February. The rocket, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, can reach a target 620 miles away and has a top speed of Mach 9, around 7,000 miles per hour. Russia’s test against Ukrainian air defenses — which include American Patriot batteries — is another measure of Putin’s weapons. This includes the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which has been used extensively in the war.

They are powerful weapons, but not infallible. Many Kinzhals — made from Western parts — have been shot down in Ukraine, while new nuclear-powered weapons, the Poseidon underwater drone and the Burevestnik missile, remain out of service. The new generation of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles is an unknown. The RS-28 Sarmat, with a range of 11,000 miles, is the successor to the backbone of Russian ICBMs, the R-36M Satan. The problem is that it was manufactured in Ukraine, and since the breakup a decade ago, the Kremlin has been forced to put its Sarmat into production, without barely a single successful test.

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