Here's everything you need to know about Russia's nuclear arsenal

Should be worried about nukes, as global tension rises?
Christopher McFadden
Military parade rehearsal on Red Square, Moscowrusm/iStock

Many people around the world had thought the anxieties of nuclear war were far behind us with the ending of the Cold War. But, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implied threat to turn the Ukraine war into a broader nuclear conflict has brought back some long-dormant fears of many old enough to remember those dark days. 

The eyes of the world are now turning to the nuclear powers of NATO to see if they too will raise the alert level of their nuclear forces. This is more troubling as only a year ago Putin and U.S. Presidential Incumbent Joe Biden had made a joint statement at a recent Geneva convention on just this subject. 

“Nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” they agreed.

Putin, it appears, may have had a change of heart on this subject when he told his top defense and military officials to put nuclear forces in a “special regime of combat duty.” However, it is important to note that it is not clear if this was mere public posturing or a genuine order. 

After all, all nuclear powers, whether they be Russia or the U.S., keep their nuclear deterrent arsenals in a high state of readiness all the time. That is, after all, the entire point of them. 

Putin's recent comments could also relate to Russia's smaller battlefield tactical nuclear weapons, rather than their strategic ones. Most nuclear-capable armed forces have some form of tactical nuclear weapons that come in the form of gravity bombs, short-range missiles, artillery shells, land mines, depth charges, and torpedoes. 

These weapon systems are designed to be used on the battlefield, and can even be deployed in relatively close proximity to friendly forces. 

But, if Putin is referring to the larger strategic nuclear weapons, this could be very worrying for most of the world.

How many nuclear weapons does Russia have?

For its part, Russia has the most potent nuclear deterrent, at least on paper, of all states in the world. According to some estimates, they have around 1,500 warheads in deployment, and somewhere in the region of 3,000 in reserve. These warheads are mounted on a variety of delivery platforms from the classic Intercontinental Ballistic Missile systems, to smaller warheads and bombs that can be deployed from aircraft. 

There are also rumors that Russia's latest developments in hypersonic missiles, could provide them, in theory, with a new and very deadly delivery platform for some of their massive stockpile of nuclear warheads. If true, this is very worrying for NATO members who could have less time to respond to a nuclear strike than previously believed. 

These weapon systems, especially those mounted in the nose cone of an ICBM, have the potential to reach anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. This, of course, includes mainland United States. 

Does Putin’s alert change the risk of nuclear war?

Yes and no. While no nuclear power wants to risk a nuclear war, Putin's comments will undoubtedly raise anxieties around the potential for a nuclear exchange. 

It is this worry that could conceivably increase the chances of mistakes being made by one or more nuclear powers. With nuclear assets on high alert, the chances for a false alarm are raised significantly during periods like this. 

Some experts are worried, however. 

“I’m more worried than I was a week ago,”  Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists told Vox in an interviewHe also pointed out that NATO increased its readiness levels for “all contingencies” in response to Putin’s speech, and with increased military buildup comes increased uncertainty.

“That’s the fog of war, so to speak,” Kristensen added. “Out of that can come twists and turns that take you down a path that you couldn’t predict a week ago.”

Experts like Kristensen are also surprised and perplexed by the apparent unnecessary escalation in rhetoric during an already tense situation. 

 “There is nothing in Russia’s stated public nuclear doctrine that justifies this.” Kristensen added, “Putin has now taken yet another step that unnecessarily escalates the situation to what appears to be a direct nuclear threat.”

Another expert, Matthew Bunn, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and former adviser to President Bill Clinton’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, was initially pretty calm about the potential for nuclear warfare, “I think there is virtually no chance nuclear weapons are going to be used in the Ukraine situation.”

As Bunn explained this is mainly due to the fact that the U.S. and NATO have made it very clear that no forces will be sent to help beleaguered Ukraine. Without this immediate threat of military intervention, Putin had little reason to use his "Ace Card, especially with their overwhelming numerical advantage. 

Bunn, however, did qualify his statements after Putin’s escalation. “No one outside of Putin’s inner circle knows for sure why Putin has taken this action,” he explained.

“My guess — and it’s only that — is that it is intended as further signaling to deter anyone in the West from even thinking about intervening militarily to help Ukraine.”

The war in Ukraine is a rapidly developing situation, and we aim to keep you updated as and when new developments are announced. 

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