Russia has a massive nuclear weapons arsenal. But just how powerful is it? What sorts of weapons does Putin have? During the Cold War, the fear of nuclear Armageddon that would destroy the Earth was palatable. Fast forward to today, and nuclear arms pose a significantly smaller threat. But that doesn’t mean that countries continue to spend billions maintaining and upgrading their nuclear arsenals. Russia, in particular, has the biggest and one of the most ambitious nuclear capabilities in the world.
Today, nine countries have a nuclear weapons capability. The U.S., U.K., France, Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have a combined nuclear stockpile of approximately 13,500 warheads, though that number includes deployed, reserved, and stockpiled nuclear warheads.
But the U.S. and Russia are the undeniable leaders in the nuclear arms scene with respectively about 5,800 and 6,400 nuclear warheads. The U.K. and France make up the rest of the Big Four nuclear powers—China is getting up there too—that can field “deployed” nuclear weapons, meaning that are either placed on missiles ready to be fired at a moment’s notice or stored in operational bases and on standby.
The rest five countries have nuclear warheads or the fissile material to produce one, but they have stored them in reserve and would need to prepare them before they are ready for launch.
Russian Nuclear Doctrine
Despite an ongoing modernization program to bring the Russian armed forces to a modern level, nuclear arms still remain at the heart of Moscow’s military strategy. The strategic deterrence they offer allows the Kremlin to pursue its regional goals and expand its sphere of influence without the risk of the U.S. or NATO starting an all-out conflict.
Russian officials have repeatedly emphasized the importance of nuclear weapons to Russian military doctrine.
In December 2020, President Putin stated that it is essential for the Russian armed forces to maintain their nuclear weapons arsenal at high combat readiness and invest in all components of the nuclear triad, stressing out that this is critically important to Russian national security and Russian strategic parity.
Russian Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu has also highlighted the importance of nuclear weapons to Russia’s strategic doctrine, stating that the Russian nuclear triad is well maintained and almost all strategic missile forces launchers are in constant readiness.
General Valeriy Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, has echoed the above and has said on the record that “nuclear deterrence remains a key element in ensuring the military security of the Russian Federation …Nuclear weapons are considered as a means of forcing a potential adversary to refuse to unleash aggression against our country.”
Russian nuclear doctrine favors an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy. By threatening the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict with NATO, Moscow wants to convey the message that the U.S. and NATO shouldn’t undertake any adventures against it or in its sphere of influence.
Russian Nuclear Arsenal
The Russian nuclear triad (land, air, water) is focused mainly on the Strategic Rocket Forces, a separate brand of the Russian military and the cornerstone of its nuclear arsenal. They are responsible for Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, of which there are about 310 that can carry up to 1,189 nuclear warheads.
The maritime component of the Russian nuclear triad is focused on about ten submarines, mainly of the Delta and Borei class, that can pack 16 submarine-launched ballistic missiles each but with multiple warheads. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Russian nuclear submarine force can load up about 624 nuclear warheads.
Finally, the air component of the Russian nuclear triad is based on the Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear heavy bombers. With between 50 to 70 strategic bombers in its arsenal, Russia has a potent air option in case of a nuclear war. These aircraft can carry from 12 to 16 AS-15 cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads and are going through modernization programs to improve their stealthiness and arsenal. Eventually, the 5th generation PAK DA stealth bomber is scheduled to replace these aircraft.