How many nuclear weapons does Russia have?

A forensic explosives expert examines a crater from a missile explosion at a freight railway station in Kharkiv on September 21, 2022, amid Russia's military invasion on Ukraine. (AFP)
A forensic explosives expert examines a crater from a missile explosion at a freight railway station in Kharkiv on September 21, 2022, amid Russia's military invasion on Ukraine. (AFP)


Russia has invested in a variety of ways to employ its warheads, including land-based ballistic missiles that could reach the US

Russian President Vladimir Putin in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine ordered his country’s nuclear-deterrence forces to be put on alert, a reminder of the threat posed by the war. On Wednesday, Mr. Putin said that Russia was ready to “use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity."

How many nuclear weapons does Russia have?

Russia has more than 1,500 warheads deployed on strategic long-range systems and almost 3,000 in reserve, according to an assessment published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Russia has invested in a variety of ways to employ those warheads, including land-based ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S., submarine-based missiles and bombs, and missiles that could be deployed from aircraft.

Has Mr. Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons?

Wednesday’s comments were Mr. Putin’s strongest warnings yet of a nuclear response in the Ukraine conflict, with some analysts saying the Russian leader was also expanding the basis on which Russia would use nuclear weapons.

“Those statements go beyond the Russian nuclear doctrine, which only suggests Russian first use in a conventional war when the very existence of the state is threatened," said Andrey Baklitskiy, a nuclear expert at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research on Twitter

“Putin adds ‘territorial integrity’ and very abstract protection of people, independence, and freedom," Mr. Baklitskiy added, saying that the comments must be taken seriously, coming from the person with sole decision-making power over Russia’s use of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Putin said in the Sept. 21 national address that “Russia will use all the instruments at its disposal to counter a threat against its territorial integrity—this is not a bluff." He claimed without providing evidence that North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials had said it would be acceptable to carry out nuclear strikes on Russia.

U.S. President Joe Biden recently warned the Kremlin not to use unconventional weapons in Ukraine, saying it would lead to a “consequential" response.

In the first days of the war, Mr. Putin raised the alert level of Russia’s nuclear forces, though not to the highest level. He previously warned countries supporting Ukraine that there could be “consequences you have never seen."

What other countries have nuclear weapons?

The U.S., France and the U.K. make up the Western nuclear-weapons powers. China also has built up a nuclear arsenal. India, Pakistan and North Korea also are nuclear-weapons powers. Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons but has never confirmed as much. The U.S. and Russia have by far the largest inventories of warheads, followed by China. The arguments these countries often put forward for having nuclear weapons is that they deter others from attacking them.

Does Ukraine have nuclear weapons?

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine was home to the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Under a 1994 agreement that Russia cosigned, which was supposed to guarantee Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity, the country agreed to hand over its warheads and deliver them to Russia. The handover was completed by 2001. Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 1 accused Ukraine of seeking to acquire nuclear weapons without providing any evidence. The next day, the head of the U.N. atomic agency said there was no evidence of any illicit nuclear work in Ukraine.

Are there defenses against Russian nuclear weapons?

The U.S. has invested heavily into the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads although it has no effective defense against Russia’s nuclear forces and has no plans to develop such a capacity. The limited anti-missiles system the US has are aimed at a North Korean threat. The U.S. systems have had a mixed success rate in testing.

Have nuclear weapons ever been used in war?

Yes. The U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs against cities in Japan in the closing days of World War II. The U.S., at the time, was the only country with nuclear weapons. Most modern nuclear warheads are far more destructive than the weapons employed against Japan.

What are NATO’s nuclear capabilities in Europe?

While the U.S. and NATO don’t disclose exact figures for European-deployed weapons, the Arms Control Center estimates 100 U.S.-owned nuclear weapons are stored in five NATO countries. The U.K. said last year it would reverse years of nuclear disarmament and increase the number of warheads to a new ceiling of 260, over 40% above its previous threshold. France is estimated to have just under 300 warheads, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, deployable by submarine or air-launch.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Feb. 27 said the country was planning to buy Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35 combat jets as he pledged to increase military spending. Germany, which doesn’t have its own nuclear weapons, is part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement. Buying F-35s that are also designed for a nuclear role would sustain Germany’s ability to drop U.S.-owned nuclear bombs. The German government on March 14 said it was moving forward with the acquisition of 35 of the radar-evading jets, with the goal of phasing out the Tornado planes now used in the nuclear role by 2030. The F-35s would be stationed at the same Buechel air base, the Luftwaffe said. Lockheed said in June, it would start providing the bombers from 2026.

Could Putin use tactical nuclear weapons?

Russia also has an unknown number of tactical or so-called nonstrategic nuclear weapons that could be used on the battlefield, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Such weapons are less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons, though their explosive yield can vary widely. The NTI says these warheads aren’t connected up to delivery systems but kept in central storage facilities.

The U.N. atomic agency has warned of the threat posed by war in a country with 15 nuclear reactors at four sites, a concern renewed when a Russian projectile caused a fire at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant. Ukrainian authorities said a power cut caused by Russian attacks on Kyiv could deprive the Chernobyl nuclear site of power, leading to a potential meltdown of spent nuclear fuel, though the U.N. agency played down risks of an imminent problem at the site.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, ahead of a March 24 alliance summit, said “Russia must stop its nuclear saber-rattling," calling Moscow’s suggestions it might use such weapons “dangerous."

At the close of the summit, he said the alliance would provide Ukraine with protective gear to help address chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats. That includes detection equipment, medical support, and training for decontamination, he said.


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