Soviet Union (Russia) tested a its first nuclear weapon in 1949. In 1953 the country tested it’s first hydrogen bomb and in 1961 the Soviet Union tested the world’s biggest nuclear weapon – Tsar Bomba. Although Russia has reduced its nuclear arsenal, as has been holding the country together with the US, 93 % of all the world’s nuclear weapons. The total number of warheads is estimated at 7000.
While the number of Russian nuclear weapons has declined significantly, Russia has, over the last couple of years, substantially modernized its strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. In recent years, Russia has also dangerously expanded its rationale for having nuclear weapons from strict deterrence against nuclear attack to deterrence of conventional military aggression by the US and NATO.
During the 1930s Russian physicists began research on nuclear fission. During the Second World War, Soviet intelligence services received important information about the German and American nuclear weapon programmes. After the US nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered rapid development of a Soviet nuclear weapon.
The first Soviet nuclear test occurred in 1945, using a plutonium bomb similar to the one the United States dropped over Nagasaki. Simultaneously, a group of physicists including Andrei Sakharov worked on the development of a fusion-based hydrogen bomb, which was first tested in 1955.
For a period of time, the Soviet Union built increasingly powerful thermonuclear weapons, culminating with the detonation of the 50-Mt Tzar Bomba over Novaya Zemlya. The yield of this single bomb amounted to more than 10 times the combined yields of all explosives used during the Second World War.
The Soviet Union conducted nearly 1000 nuclear detonation tests in the area of Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan and near Novaya Zemlya, dispersing substantial local, regional and global radioactive fallout.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union spent enormous resources in an attempt to close the gap on the US lead in nuclear arms. For instance, the Soviet Union established at least 10 closed cities—so-called “Atomgrads”—for research and construction of nuclear weapons.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union spent about 30 % of its gross domestic product on its military, of which nuclear weapons took a large share. At this time, the Soviet Union also maintained more nuclear warheads than the United States, peaking at 40,000 in 1986. The numbers then rapidly fell, partially due to the declining state of the Soviet economy, but primarily as the result of bilateral disarmament agreements with the United States, such as the INF treaty (1987) and the later START treaties. The Soviet Union’s successor, the Russian Federation, has also removed a considerable number of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, even though no disarmament treaty has yet limited such weapons.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, its nuclear weapons and fissile material stocks in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were transferred to Russia. Russia is the only former Soviet republic that has kept nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons today
In February 2017, Russia has been estimated to maintain 7000 nuclear warheads in its arsenal.
The New START treaty, signed in April 2010, limits the number of Russian (and American) strategic nuclear warheads to 1550 on each side, stating that these goals must be reached by 2017 at the latest.
The Russian strategic nuclear arsenal consists of three legs of what is known as a “nuclear triad”: land-based ballistic missiles; bombs and cruise missiles deliverable by aircraft; and submarine-based ballistic missiles (SSBNs).
Russia’s Long-range Aviation Command (DA), a branch of the Russian Air Force is tasked with the capability to bombard strategic targets from the air with nuclear weapons. The least developed “leg” of Russia’s nuclear triad since the Cold War, the DA consists of aging Soviet-era strategic bomber aircraft such as the Tu-95MS6/S16 and Tu-160.
Russia currently maintains 60 strategic bombers, with 60 deployed warheads. Strategic bombers are based at both the Engels Air Base near Saratov in western Russia, and the Ukrainian Air Base near Belogorsk in eastern Russia. Russia also maintains a number of non-strategic (tactical) nuclear-capable aircraft, such as the Tu-22M3 intermediate-range bomber, and the Tu-24M and Su-34 fighter-bombers.
- Tu-95MS6: Most of the aging Soviet-era Tu-95MS6/MS16 aircraft, apart from a “few tens”, are scheduled for retirement. The Tu-95MS has a mission range of 6500-10500 km, and is capable of delivering both nuclear gravity bombs and nuclear air-launched cruise missiles.
- Tu-160: The Tu-160 is a late Soviet-era supersonic bomber, designed to penetrate US airspace in nuclear missions. The Tu-160 has a range of 10500-13200 km, and is able to drop both nuclear gravity bombs and nuclear air-launched cruise missiles. A number of Tu-160s are scheduled for modernization by 2020, and Tu-160 bomber squads frequently fly missions along the Norwegian coast into the Atlantic Ocean, as well as over the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean.
Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces (SRF), a branch of the Russian army, controls Russia’s arsenal of land-based ballistic missiles, the second leg of its nuclear triad. The SRF is divided into 12 missile divisions grouped into three armies and deploys a wide variety of different intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Russia’s ICBMs make up the largest portion of it’s strategic nuclear weapons, with 967 warheads mounted on 304 ICBMs.
A large portion of Russia’s ICBM force comprises missiles with more than one warhead—Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicle, or MIRVs. The multiple warheads of a MIRVed missile can have different and independent targets, so that each missile is able to deliver large amounts of destruction upon multiple targets over a wide area. Many of these missiles are road-mobile, mounted on vertical erector-launcher trucks, which are frequently moved so that they will not be lost to a surprise attack.
- RS-20V: Russia’s oldest Intercontinental range missile (11000-15000 km), also known by its NATO designation SS-18 Satan, is currently being phased out, with the last one to be removed by 2024. The missile is liquid-fuelled and carries up to 10 multiple re-entry vehicle warheads (MIRVs).
- RS-18: The RS-18 is a liquid-fuelled ICBM with an estimated 10000 km range, with each missile carrying 6 MIRV warheads. The RS-18 is also currently being phased out, with the last missile scheduled for removal by 2019.
- RS-12M Topol: Similar to the RS-18/20V ICBMs, the RS-12M Topol is a Soviet-era ICBM (10500 km range) scheduled for eventual removal (2021). Using solid fuel rather than liquid fuel, the missile can be fired with a significantly lower preparation time. The RS-12M Topol is currently deployed both in silo-based and road-mobile variants, and carries a single 800-kt warhead.
- RS-12M2 Topol-M: The RS-12M2 Topol-M is a single-stage, solid-fuelled ICBM—a more advanced variant of the Topol, but with the same 10500 km range. The RS-12M2 Topol-M is the silo-based variant.
- RS-12M1 Topol-M: The RS-12M1 Topol-M shares characteristics with the RS-12M2 Topol-M, but is the road-mobile variant.
- RS-24 Yars: The RS-24 Yars is a MIRVed variant (4 warheads) of the Topol-M ICBM, but otherwise shares the same characteristics. The RS-24 Yars was recently deployed in both silo-based and road-mobile variants in 2009 and 2010 respectively, coinciding with the expiration of the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START).
Russia’s sea-based nuclear forces, the third leg of its nuclear triad, are based on a fleet of strategic ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) controlled by the Russian Navy. Russia’s SSBNs are intended for a strategic deterrence role, providing an “assured” second-strike capability with nuclear submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) from the sea in the event of a nuclear conflict.
Russia currently maintains 144 SLBMs on its submarine forces, with a total of 416 MIRVed warheads. Russia is currently modernizing its SSBN fleet with the construction and deployment of new Borei-class SSBNs. The Russian Navy is scheduled to take delivery of up to eight Borei-class SSBNs, of which two have already been delivered. The deployment of all eight submarines will most likely not be concluded until after 2020. Until then, the Russian SSBN fleet will consist of six Delta IV-class SSBNs built between 1985 and 1992, and three of the older Delta III-class SSBNs. The Delta IV-SSBNs are a part of the Russian North Sea fleet, while the Delta III SSBNs are a part of the Pacific fleet. The Russian submarines still conduct undersea deterrence patrols, but to a lesser extent than US SSBNs. The Russian SSBNs are capable of firing their SLBMs both from surface and submerged positions, as well as from Russian piers.
- RSM-50 Volna: The RSM-50 Volna, the oldest Soviet-era submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) in the Russian navy, is still deployed on older Delta III SSBNs. Each two-stage, liquid-fuelled missile, with an intermediate range (6500 km), carries three MIRV warheads. Each Delta III SSBN (3 in total) carries 16 Volna SLBMs, for a total of 48 warheads in each Delta III.
- RSM-54 Sineva: The current backbone of the Russian SSBN fleet consists of six Delta IV submarines carrying the RSM-54 Sineva missile. The Sineva is a liquid-fuelled, three-stage missile with an intercontinental range (9000 km), each carrying four MIRVed warheads. Each Delta IV SSBN can carry 16 Sineva-missiles, for a maximum of 64 warheads on each SSBN.
- RSM-56 Bulava: Projected as the future cornerstone of it’s sea-based strategic deterrent, Russia’s newest SLBM, the RSM-56 Bulava, is currently undergoing further tests for deployment on the newest Borei-class SSBNs. While a small number of Borei-class SSBNs have undergone sea trials and deployment, the RSM-56 Bulava has been delayed by technical problems after a number of failed test launches and is therefore believed to be not yet deployed in the Russian Navy. The Bulava is a three-stage, solid-fuelled missile carrying 4 MIRVed warheads each. As each Borei-class SSBN is equipped with 16 launch tubes, this will allow the Borei-class SSBNs to carry up to 64 warheads each.
In addition to strategic nuclear weapons, Russia also deploys about 2000 tactical nuclear weapons in air-, sea- and land-based missile forces. In 1992, former Russian president Boris Yeltzin pledged that Russia would disarm its land-based tactical nuclear weapons, but Russia is still believed to deploy about 170 of these on short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). The numbers are uncertain because Russia does not publish data about its tactical nuclear weapons. Russia has nevertheless declared that all of these weapons are stored under strict control.
Nuclear weapon modernization
In contrast to the United States, which is extending the lifetime of its nuclear warheads, Russia continually replaces older and decommissioned warheads with new nuclear warheads. While the number of Russian nuclear warheads is only about a tenth of what the Soviet Union possessed at its peak, Russia has nevertheless spent large amounts on developing new land- and sea-based nuclear weapons, and has modernized all three “legs” of its nuclear triad.
In November 2006, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin stated that it is not only the number of weapons and nuclear warheads that matters, but also the quality of the weapons. While the 1991 START I treaty prevented the parties from increasing the number of nuclear warheads on each missile, Russia declared in December 2006 that it would place multiple independently re-targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads on its new Topol-M ICBMs.
By increasing the number of warheads carried by each missile, Russia is able to cut costs as well as maintain strategic parity with the modernized arsenals of the United States. Russia is also planning to upgrade and extend the lifetime of several of its missiles, partly in order to be able to penetrate missile defence systems. The US is now accusing Russia of violating the INF-treaty by developing and testing new nuclear-capable ground-launched cruise missiles.
Fissile material inventory
Russia maintains large stocks of fissile material that can be used to produce new nuclear weapons. While Russia, along with the US, the UK, France and China, has ceased to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons or other uses since the late 1980s, it announced in 2012 that it would resume limited production of HEU for naval- and fast-reactor fuel.
Russia’s continued possession of large fissile material stocks, however, makes it difficult to calculate worldwide fissile material stocks with any certainty, due to a lack of information on Russia’s production and consumption of plutonium and HEU (10). As does the United States, Russia continues to downblend HEU, assigned earlier for military uses, into low-enriched uranium (LEU) reactor fuel. Therefore, global HEU stockpiles are gradually diminishing.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
The role of nuclear weapons in Russia’s national defence has varied in the years since Russia inherited the former Soviet Unions role as a nuclear super power in 1991. In 1993, Russia suspended the earlier Soviet “no first use” policy, but did not specify under what circumstances it would use nuclear weapons.
In 2000, Russia published a military doctrine that described multiple scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used, including a conventional war that did not necessarily threaten Russia’s existence. The reason for this broader doctrine was most likely the relative weakening of Russia’s conventional forces and a fear that NATO would use military force for political gains in Eastern- and Central Europe.
Russia’s latest military doctrine was published in February 2010. The new military doctrine states that possible use of nuclear weapons is limited to regionally more encompassing wars, and that nuclear weapons still are viewed as an important deterrent against nuclear weapons. The doctrine, however, does not rule out the possibility that any given war could escalate to a point where the use of nuclear weapons becomes possible.
The new doctrine does state that the very existence of the Russian Federation must be threatened for nuclear weapons to be used, while the formulation from 2000 suggests that mere threats to Russia are a sufficient reason for use of nuclear weapons. It should also be noted that the new doctrine focuses primarily on strategic deterrence, thereby possibly reducing the role of tactical nuclear weapons.
Russia’s nuclear policy today continues to focus on defending the country against a nuclear attack from NATO. The eastward expansion of NATO is evidently a thorn in Russia’s flesh. In the current global security environment, Russia might also remain committed to its nuclear weapons because the country has fewer conventional military forces than the United States and NATO.
The decision in 2000 to reduce the number of land-based ballistic missiles and, instead, further develop the submarine-based strategic capability, was partially reversed after the United States withdrew from the ABM-treaty in 2002. Russia has also threatened to deploy new land-based missiles as a response to US and NATO plans for a missile shield.
Russia has not been willing to discuss any treaty on the numerical reduction of tactical nuclear weapons, before the US removes about 200 tactical weapons it has deployed in a number of European countries.
Last update: March 15, 2017