Russian Nuclear Weapons 101

Nuclear arms have always been the source of superpower status for both Soviet and Russian leaders.

By Tom Nichols, for The National Interest

Americans don’t think very much about nuclear weapons, and they certainly don’t think very often about their own arsenal, at least until something goes wrong with it, like the recent scandals involving the U.S. ICBM force [4]. The Obama administration completed a nuclear posture review in 2010 [5], a document that supposedly lays out the purpose and future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Like previous U.S. reviews conducted in 1994 and 2002, it sank without a trace. The fact of the matter is that nuclear weapons and their mission simply do not matter much to post–Cold War American leaders.

Nuclear weapons, however, certainly matter to the Russians. Nuclear arms have always been the source of superpower status for both Soviet and Russian leaders. This is especially true today: the Soviet collapse left the Russian Federation a country bereft of the usual indicators of a great power, including conventional military force or the ability to project it. Little wonder that Moscow still relies on its nuclear arsenal as one of the last vestiges of its right to be considered more than merely—in President Obama’s dismissive words [6]—a “regional power.” (Or in the caustic words of Senator John McCain [7]: “A gas station masquerading as a country.”)

This story was originally published by The National Interest

Today, nuclear weapons have retained not only their pride of place but an actual role in Russian military planning. Unlike the Americans, who see little use for nuclear weapons in the absence of the Soviet threat, the Russians—wisely or not—continue to think about nuclear arms as though they are useful in military conflicts, even the smallest. Some of this might only be the bluster of officers who have never overcome their Soviet training, but some of it is also clearly based on the Russian General Staff’s understanding of Russia’s military weakness against far superior adversaries, including the United States and NATO.

(This first appeared in 2014 and is being reposted due to reader interest.) 

Before considering the future of the Russian nuclear arsenal and its role in Russian defense policy, a quick review of the development of Russia’s nuclear forces might be helpful.

Once freed from Stalinist orthodoxy, Soviet thinkers, like their Western colleagues, wrestled throughout the Cold War with the implications of nuclear weapons. Early on, Soviet theorists decided that while nuclear warheads were a remarkable development, it was not only their appearance but the ability to deliver them rapidly over long distances—that is, the development of ICBMs—that overall constituted a “revolution in military affairs.” (This phrase was later adopted and almost completely misunderstood by American strategists in thinking about the role of technology in warfare, but the Soviets pioneered the term.)

The Soviets rejected—at least in public—any notion that the sheer destructiveness of nuclear weapons defeated traditional aims of strategy. They held firmly to the assertion that nuclear war, as awful as it would be, would nonetheless be a war with a political character like any other, with a winner and a loser. Later evidence revealed that this idea was prevalent mostly among the Soviet military; Soviet civilians were far less sanguine about nuclear war and far less willing than their generals and marshals to court it. (There are undeniable and unsettling parallels here with American civil-military relations on nuclear issues [8].)

During this time, the Soviets and the Americans constructed nuclear forces that mirrored each other in important ways. Both relied on a mixture of ICBMs, submarine-launched missiles, and bombers to ensure the survivability of their deterrent and to maintain the ability to deliver a massive retaliatory strike no matter how bad the first wave of nuclear exchanges. To this day, only Russia and the United States maintain this “triad” of delivery systems. There were differences, however, that reflected geography and tradition: the Soviet Union, a massive land empire spanning two continents, commanded plenty of real estate and therefore buried most of its deterrent in silos. The United States, a maritime superpower, put most of its megatonnage underwater on submarines. The Soviet long-range bomber force never progressed beyond propeller-driven aircraft that had only enough range for one-way suicide missions, while the Americans developed the workhorse B-52 bomber and its stealth follow-on, the B-2.

Because of the Cold War standoff in Europe, East and West also developed a large arsenal of battlefield nuclear weapons. By the late 1960s, the United States and the USSR had tens of thousands of strategic and tactical weapons. Even more worrisome, each side fielded highly destabilizing INF, or intermediate-range nuclear forces, in the 1970s and 1980s. These weapons could reach all European NATO capitals from Soviet territory, and conversely, could reach Moscow from NATO bases, in a matter of minutes, cutting decision times for national leaders from minutes to literally seconds. This entire class of weapons (that is, with flight ranges more than 500 km but less than 5500 km, was banned by Soviet-American agreement in the INF Treaty of 1987 [9].)

The jewel in the Soviet nuclear crown was the Strategic Rocket Forces, a separate branch of the armed forces dedicated solely to ICBMs. The United States, by contrast, divided the strategic mission between the Navy and the Air Force. (Although the Americans created a Strategic Command in 1992 [10], the day to day operation of U.S. long-range forces still resides with the USN and USAF.) The Russian Strategic Rocket Forces still enjoy this privileged position, both in prestige and resources. Like the other Russian branches, they even have their own patron saint: St. Barbara, the patroness of people who, for want of a better description, work with things that explode. (Tellingly, the officially atheist Soviets established the SRF on St. Barbara’s Day—December 17—in 1959.)

The Russian nuclear arsenal in 2014 is much like its American counterpart: a kind of Mini-Me of its Cold War incarnation. It is a far smaller inventory than the huge Soviet force of the 1980s, but it is more than capable of destroying the United States, Europe, and the Northern Hemisphere. The Russian Federation officially claims to have 1400 nuclear warheads associated with 473 deployed strategic launchers of various types, although other estimates place that number somewhere between 1500 and 1700 warheads. The Americans, for their part, have 1,585 warheads deployed on 778 launchers. Each side actually has thousands more weapons, some nondeployed, others awaiting dismantling. (For a full, down-to-the-warhead accounting of the Russian arsenal, there is no better source than scholar Pavel Podvig’s website [11], from which these numbers are taken.)

In every respect, the current Russian deterrent is structured like its Soviet predecessor. ICBMs, launched either from silos or mobile launchers, remain the most reliable weapons and the mainstay of the Russian nuclear force. The Russian submarine force, almost moribund since the Soviet collapse and crippled yet again by a disaster in 2000 aboard the Russian submarine Kursk [12], has recovered somewhat, and Russian nuclear-missile-carrying submarines are now engaging in more patrols closer to the United States [13] since 2009. Only the Russian bomber force remains mired in its Soviet-era decrepitude, in part because Russian jet design has been the poor stepchild of Russian military research and development efforts. Although Russia’s bomber pilots are flying more hours and trying to return to their Cold War games along North American and European airspace [3], Russian bombers remain little more than a small adjunct to the submarine and land-based threats.

At the strategic level, the difference between the U.S. and Russian arsenals is small, and both sides have committed to the cap of 1550 warheads mandated by the New START Treaty [14] of 2010. But strategic nuclear reductions are, in a sense, the easy task, especially because New START uses simplified counting rules—treating bombers, for example, as one launcher with one weapon—that suggest that neither side really cares very much about the great bugaboo of 1970s-era arms control, “strategic superiority [15].” (Arms-control expert Hans Kristensen summarized New START’s rules [16] more succinctly: “Totally nuts.”)

There are, however, several questions for Western policy makers to consider about Russia’s nuclear future.

Why are the Russians engaging in strategic modernization?

The Western press has made much of Russia’s recent moves to modernize its long-range nuclear force, but in part this is because long-planned retirements and replacements in the Russian force structure get treated as “new.” The Russians, never ones to forego the political advantages of poor information, play along and present plans they made years ago as responses to current U.S. policies.

When the Russians announced that they were replacing the massive SS-18 ICBM, for example, there was a flurry of stories in 2011 and 2012 about how the Russians were building a “monster” 100-ton missile [17], and how it was a response to America and its missile-defense plans. Of course, the SS-18 was coming to the end of its service life anyway, and the Russians had announced plans to replace it a long time ago [18]—not least to keep all the people involved in making nuclear missiles gainfully employed. (Or, at least, gainfully employed in Russia.)

The point is that the Russians will modernize their strategic arsenal, and this shouldn’t cause undue worry in the West. The Russian rocket forces are a military jobs program, and Moscow’s plans to replace its strategic missiles long predate any current crisis. Although the Russians claim their warheads will evade any U.S. missile defense, we needn’t worry too much about that, since we have no national missile defenses, and the Russian “capability” to defeat our nonexistent defenses isn’t scheduled to be deployed until the mid-2020s, [19] if ever.

Why won’t they get rid of their tactical nuclear arms?

NATO has about 300 or so tactical nuclear weapons left in Europe, and we don’t know what to do with them, largely because all of their former Cold War targets were located in Warsaw Pact nations that are now actually inside NATO itself. Modernizing these aging battlefield weapons will be hugely expensive: the Obama administration has, after a great deal of agonizing, pushed for an upgrade, and has already run into trouble on Capitol Hill [20].

The Russians, however, still keep an inventory of some 2000 tactical nuclear weapons. Why?

One reason is that Russia, like NATO, doesn’t know what to do with them. Nuclear weapons cannot simply be left by the curb on “fissile-material removal day,” and these small weapons are likely safer under military control than they are in storehouses. The other reason, however, is that the Russian General Staff still thinks these weapons have some kind of utility. In 2011, the Russian Chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, said [21] that he could not “rule out that, in certain circumstances, local and regional armed conflicts could grow into a large-scale war, possibly even with nuclear weapons.”

It’s hard to imagine the difference between a “local” and a “regional” conflict, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. Although Makarov growled at NATO in his statement, it’s also likely he was looking to his unstable southern borders with Islamic countries. In either case, Makarov’s point is directly related to an admission he and other Russian officers have made before: that without nuclear weapons, Russia’s ability to sustain a major conventional conflict in any direction is severely limited. Who the Russian military chiefs think they’re going to fight is another matter, but like all militaries, their job is to make plans, not policy. Makarov stepped down in 2012 and was replaced by the much younger Valerii Gerasimov ( [22]age 58), but what’s more worrisome in all this is that there are least some officers in the General Staff who see nuclear and conventional power as fungible and interchangeable, with one usable in place of the other. So far, they have not had a chance to test that theory.

Does Russian military doctrine really think nuclear weapons are usable?

So far, the answer seems to be yes. Over five years ago, Russia put forward a draft national security concept, a kind of white paper on Russian security, and it included language about preventive nuclear strikes [23]. After raised eyebrows in NATO and elsewhere, a scrubbed version was rereleased, with the rest classified and held back. (In fairness, that’s how the Bush administration did its 2002 nuclear review, with the same poor public relations effect.)

For now, the Russians seems to have adopted the notion—again, as a function of their conventional weakness—that nuclear weapons can be used to “de-escalate” conflicts [24]. It’s doubtful that the Russians are really believe that nuclear strikes (especially on the United States or NATO) could be de-escalatory, but in the absence of any other ability to project force, old Soviet habits are hard to break. On May 7, for example, the Russian military floated the idea of stationing nuclear-capable short range missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad [25] if NATO increased its conventional forces in the region, a threat as unsurprising as it is meaningless.

Are they cheating on the INF Treaty?

For over a year, the Russians have been taunting the West by breaking, in spirit if not in letter, the INF Treaty [26]. It’s a clever approach: they’re not actually building intermediate-range nuclear forces, they’re just taking long-range nukes and then testing them at intermediate range. In other words, they’re skirting the treaty, no doubt as a clear sign to Europe and NATO that they are not immune from nuclear attack in the brave, new post–Cold War world. Indeed, the Russians have openly mooted quitting the INF Treaty, even though the weapons they banned no longer exist and there are no Russian or American plans to make any.

The Obama administration’s usual approach to the Russians has been to lag behind more nimble Russian diplomacy [27], but in this case the administration’s low-key response is the right approach. What the Russians are doing is, in effect, goading NATO, and showing that they still have the old Soviet charisma that created NATO in the first place. It is not news that Russian nuclear forces can reach Europe; what’s different is that the Russians are trying to emphasize that capability by testing weapons as though the calendar is stuck on 1981.

Where’s the real danger?

In sum, the outlook for Russia’s nuclear forces is less important than the serious improvements Russia is seeking to make in its conventional forces, especially in Europe [28]. The Russians have relied on nuclear arms to compensate for conventional weakness, a practice even Moscow realizes is unsustainable and dangerous. The real threat to NATO will occur if Western military forces on the ground continue to be hollowed out [29] by budget cuts and a lack of purpose, while Russian forces continue to improve and to recover from the disarray of the Soviet collapse.

During the current crisis in Ukraine, many in the West and in Ukraine itself lamented the 1994 Budapest Memorandum [30], in which Russia, the United States, and Britain agreed to respect Ukrainian borders and sovereignty in exchange for Ukraine releasing any claims on the last remnants of the Soviet nuclear arsenal on its territory. If Ukraine had kept its weapons, the reasoning goes, Russia would never have dared to threaten Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But this is the wrong lesson [31]: what seems to have given Moscow pause is the willingness of Ukraine, outnumbered and outgunned, to fight back [32]. What may be serving to cool further Russian ambitions, in other words, is Russian conventional weakness. Had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons, a Russian invasion might have taken place a decade ago on the pretext of “securing” those systems, but if Ukraine avoids a Russian invasion now, it will not be because of anyone’s nuclear arms, but because Russia is aware that it might face a serious conventional fight even against an admittedly weaker country.

If Moscow redresses those conventional shortcomings without an answer from the West, nuclear issues will seem, in comparison, like a quaint problem from the past.

This story was originally published by The National Interest

Tom Nichols [33] is Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College and an adjunct at the Harvard Extension School. His most recent book is No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security [34] (University of Pennsylvania, 2014) The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter: @TheWarRoom_Tom [35].

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This first appeared in 2014 and is being reposted due to reader interest. 


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