On February 28, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu confirmed that a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin had come into effect, placing the alert teams of the command posts of the Strategic missile Force had switched to enhanced combat alert. It meant that Russia’s nuclear weapons were effectively on “standby,” suggesting that Russia was either willing to respond to military threats with nuclear weapons.
Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Warhead Arsenal
According to the Federation of American Scientists, Russia has 5,977 nuclear warheads, including 1,500 that are currently retired and set to be dismantled. Roughly 1,500 warheads are considered “deployed,” which means that they are sited on submarines, bomber bases, or missile sites and ready to be used.
Most nuclear weapons are considered strategic nuclear weapons, meaning they consist of ballistic missiles that can be fired at long distances.
Russia’s stockpile of nuclear weapons consists of:
-1,185 intercontinental ballistic missile
-800 submarine-launched ballistic missiles
-580 air-launched rockets from nuclear bombers
The remaining nuclear weapons are smaller, less destructive, and designed for use at shorter ranges, such as tactical nuclear weapons.
Intelligence Directors Warn of Tactical Nuclear Weapon Use
This week, heads of the United States intelligence community testified before the House Select Intelligence Committee about the threat of Russia potentially using tactical nuclear weapons.
Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, suggested that Russia has been preparing to modernize its smaller-yield nuclear weapons for years and that Putin has specifically invested in tactical weapons.
“I believe that he thinks that gives him an asymmetric advantage,” he told the committee.
Avril Haines, the head of National Intelligence, said that Putin’s “saber-rattling” means the West should be on notice, but that Putin may be willing to reconsider what he considers a “victory” in Ukraine over time – suggesting that he may not be immediately likely to use the weapons.
“We assess Putin feels aggrieved the West does not give him proper deference, and perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose,” she said.
Instead of immediately resorting to the use of nuclear weapons against the West, CIA director William Burns suggested the Russian president is more likely to “double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.”
Zelenskyy Says He’s Bluffing
In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, Zelenskyy indicated that he believes Putin is unlikely to use his nuclear weapons and that his decision to put his command posts on “high alert” is a bluff.
“I think that the threat of nuclear war is a bluff. It’s one thing to be a murderer. It’s another to commit suicide. Every use of nuclear weapons means the end for all sides, not just for the person using them,” Zelenskyy said.
“Rather, Putin’s threat shows a weakness. You only threaten the use of nuclear weapons when nothing else is working. I am sure that Russia is aware of the catastrophic consequences of any attempt to use nuclear weapons.”
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and report on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.