The nuclear capabilities of Russia collectively represent one of the defining determinants of the strength of the Russian Armed Forces. Note that the country has the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. Furthermore, it has advanced missile delivery systems and has research institutions dedicated to researching and developing nuclear weaponry and delivery.
But what is the exact size of the Russian nuclear stockpile? How many nuclear weapons does Russia own in its entire nuclear arsenal? What are the types of nuclear weapons does it possess? How capable is the Armed Forces of Russia when it comes to developing and deploying nuclear warheads? And what related and relevant technologies does it use?
Understanding the Nuclear Capabilities of Russia
Doctrines and Pronouncements Justifying Russian Nuclear Proliferation
The Soviet Union started developing its nuclear capabilities in the 1940s through the Soviet Atomic Bomb Project of Joseph Stalin. The Soviets acquired thousands of warheads at the height of the Cold War as part of deterring threats from the United States.
In 1968, the Soviets ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, thereby becoming one of the first five recognized Nuclear Weapons State alongside the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Germany, and France.
But the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in former Soviet countries Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan surrendering their nuclear weapons to Russia. Note that Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for guaranteed sovereignty from Russia.
Russia attained the nuclear state designation because the Treat of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons recognizes it as the successor state of the Soviet Union. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have been designated as non-nuclear states.
The post-Soviet era saw Russia developing further its nuclear capabilities. Furthermore, it has adopted numerous policies and made different pronouncements to explain and rationalize nuclear proliferation and possible use-case situations.
A 2010 military doctrine noted that it can use nuclear weapons “in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, and also in case of aggression against Russia…when the very existence of the state is threatened.”
Vladimir Putin signed the “Basic Principles of State Policy of the Russian Federation on Nuclear Deterrence” in 2020. This document expanded the circumstances or situations under which it can justify the use and deploy nuclear weapons.
The documented presented four scenarios, two of which were already stated in the previous 2010 doctrine. The additional two focus on the arrival of reliable data or information about a possible nuclear attack, and attack on critical military and government sites.
Size of the Russian Nuclear Stockpile and Estimated Number of its Nuclear Weapons
The exact number of nuclear weapons Russia owns remains a state secret. However, several research institutions and defense analysts have come up with assessments of its nuclear capabilities and rough estimates of the size of its entire nuclear stockpile
Data from the Arms Control Association indicate that the country has 4497 strategic nuclear warheads and another 1458 strategic deployed nuclear warheads on 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers.
For comparison, the United States has about 3750 strategic nuclear warheads and 1389 strategic deployed nuclear warheads. Russia also owns non-strategic or tactical nuclear weapons, which are not subject to limits imposed by international agreements or treaties.
The country also has about 1760 retired nuclear warheads. These weapons are no longer part of the Russian nuclear stockpile but remain intact awaiting dismantlement and disposal. Some of these retired warheads can be repurposed for nuclear power generation.
Specific Types of Nuclear Weapons Developed and Owned by the Russian Federation
Understanding further the nuclear capabilities of Russia requires the specific type of nuclear weapons it owns. Remember that the country has weaponized its nuclear assets both for strategic and non-strategic or tactical use cases.
A strategic nuclear warhead is a weaponized nuclear asset reserved for strategic deployment. On the other hand, a strategic deployed nuclear warhead is a nuclear weapon that has already been mounted on a particular missile delivery system.
Compared with tactical nuclear weapons, which have lesser explosive power and are designed for the battlefield, all strategic nuclear weapons, whether reserved or deployed, have at least 100 kilotons of explosive power and are designed to target enemy interior.
Note that Russia specifically owns different types of nuclear missiles. Examples include the intercontinental silo-launched ballistic missile called the SS-19 M3 “Stiletto” and the multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile SS-18 M6 “Satan.”
Other notable examples are the submarine-launched ballistic missiles SS-N-18 “Stingray” and SS-N-32 “Bulava.” The former can deliver 200 kilotons of nuclear warhead at 6500 km range while the latter can deliver 100 to 150 kilotons of warhead at 8300 km.
The Russian government also introduced the RS-28 SAMAT or the SATAN 2 in March 2018. It is a liquid-fueled, MIRV-equipped, super-heavy thermonuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying about 10 tons of payload.
Other types of nuclear missiles within the nuclear arsenal of Russia are the non-strategic and defensive weapons such as the air-based S-300/S-400, the land-based Tu-22M3(M3M)/Su24M/ Su-34/MiG-31K, and the ground-based SSC-8 Screwdriver GLCM.
In summary, the Russian Armed Forces has a variety of strategic and tactical nuclear missiles for its ready disposal. These missiles have been grouped in different categories depending on their purpose, deployment or delivery, and explosive power.
Missile Delivery and Related Technologies as Part of the Nuclear Capabilities of Russia
Of course, an integral part of the nuclear capabilities of Russia is its specific missile delivery systems and technologies. The Russian defense industry works with the Russian government and to develop military hardware and relevant technologies for nuclear weapon delivery.
Vladimir Putin announced in March 2018 that it is has been developing one of the six strategic weapons called the Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System or “Poseidon,” which is an autonomous, nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater
Poseidon is capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads. It is also capable of generating a tsunami wave of up to 500 meters tall while evading several anti-missile defense systems such as laser weapons and railguns.
Remember that the Russian Armed Forces has 1458 strategic deployed nuclear warheads on 527 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers, thereby covering land-based, coastal-based, and air-based deliveries.
The Russian Strategic Rocket Forces controls land-based nuclear warheads while the Russian Navy oversees nuclear missiles in submarines and the Russian Aerospace Forces controls air-launched nuclear warheads.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Arms Control Association. 2022. “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance.” Arms Control Association. Available online
- Bugos, S. 2020. “Russia Releases Nuclear Deterrence Policy.” Arms Control Association. Available online
- Kristensen, H. M. and Korda, M. 2022. “Russian Nuclear Weapons.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. DOI: 1080/00963402.2022.2038907