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What Makes Russia’s Nuclear Weapons So Dangerous

Russia's Mobile Nuclear Weapons
Russia's Mobile Nuclear Weapons. Image Credit: Russian Federation.

Russia has thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready: I have been writing about Russia’s nuclear doctrine and threat for more than 15 years, but I have never had to do it during a debate concerning whether Putin would use nuclear weapons in the near term. Both the U.S. and the U.K. government have warned that Putin may employ chemical and biological weapons against Ukraine. Moreover, I have never seen greater disconnects within an administration concerning: 1) views about Putin; 2) the desirability of cutting our nuclear deterrent and changing our declaratory policy; and 3) the risk of nuclear escalation and a Third World War.

In Congressional testimony on March 8th, we heard from senior intelligence officials in response to questions from Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH):

  • The DNI, DCIA and DDIA said the nuclear threat to the U.S. from Russia and China was increasing.
  • CIA Director William Burns said, “…Russian doctrine holds that you escalate to deescalate, and so I think the risk would rise, according to the doctrine.”
  • DIA Director Lieutenant General Scott Berrier said Putin has “invested in tactical nuclear weapons….I believe that he thinks that [these niche weapons ] gives him an asymmetric advantage.”
  • He also observed concerning Putin’s nuclear threats that “I also believe that when he says something we should listen very, very carefully, and maybe take him at his word.”

On March 17th, General Berrier wrote, “As this war and its consequences slowly weaken Russian conventional strength, Russia likely will increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength to its internal and external audiences.”

For over two months prior to his invasion of Ukraine, Putin and his government were threatening nuclear war. Just before he started the war, Putin staged a major nuclear exercise where he showcased his new nuclear superweapons. On February 8th, President Putin personally raised the specter of nuclear war if Ukraine joined NATO. On the day Putin launched his full-scale invasion, he appeared to threaten a large nuclear strike against NATO (i.e., a response “never seen in history.”) The situation got so bad that France’s Foreign Minister felt compelled to respond to this threat by reminding Putin that, “…the Atlantic alliance is a nuclear alliance.”

Putin’s current focus on World War III rather than on the limited nuclear strikes that are in his military doctrine reflects the fact that President Biden keeps signaling concern about nuclear escalation to World War III. Putin is willing to use nuclear weapons in circumstances no Western leader would consider, but he does not want World War III. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Christopher Bort observes, “Putin also knows that in the back of his opponents’ minds lurks a fear of escalation to nuclear conflict, which limits their willingness to challenge him militarily.” Fear of World War III has resulted in the Biden administration rejecting most forms of deterrence relevant to Ukraine.

The Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg recently said, “We strongly believe it’s reckless and irresponsible the way Russia is speaking about nuclear weapons.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Putin’s “Provocative rhetoric about nuclear weapons is the height of irresponsibility.” Putin has been making nuclear threats since 2007. What we may see at some point in the Ukraine crisis is more like an ultimatum than a threat. The Putin government is not likely to call it an ultimatum to preserve the option of backing down.

President Putin’s stated his reasons for ordering his nuclear forces to “high combat alert” were “unfriendly economic actions,” “illegitimate sanctions,” and “aggressive statements” by NATO officials. Putin characterized sanctions as “akin to an act of war.” This is a vastly different rationale from what any Western leader would state as the reason for a nuclear alert.

Russia

Russian Nuclear Weapons. The image is of a Russian Mobile ICBM. Image Credit – Creative Commons.

Putin is paranoid and surrounded by yes men, and, thus, lives in a world of ideological fantasy. Putin often sounds crazy, but he is not. According to former Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was “rational” but “wrong and immoral,” and it was the result of  views held by Putin and the Russian elite that President Biden was “mentally inept” and that the European Union was “toothless.” He added that if you believe this “…and your goal is to restore the glory of the Russian Empire (whatever that means), then it is perfectly rational to invade Ukraine.”

The Biden administration has done nothing in response to Putin’s nuclear alert and says it does not know what “special combat duty alert” (its translation from the Russian, which differs from the version on the Kremlin website) means. According to the BBC, “Special alert is the highest level of alert for Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN).”

The  Pentagon claims it can’t confirm the reports of enhanced Russian nuclear activities. It says it is confident in our nuclear deterrent posture. DNI April Haines indicated that while the declaration of a nuclear alert was “extremely unusual….we have not observed force-wide nuclear posture changes that go beyond what we have seen in prior moments of heightened tension during the last few decades.” However, there is no real precedent to Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. His 2008 invasion of Georgia was not even close, and there was no announced alert of nuclear forces during this short war. Moreover, Putin’s 2014 invasions of Ukraine were limited and covert.

Vladimir Isachenkov, writing for the Associated Press, reported on March 1, 2022, that:

Russia’s Northern Fleet said in a statement that several of its nuclear submarines were involved in exercises designed to “train maneuvering in stormy conditions.” It said several warships tasked with protecting northwest Russia’s Kola Peninsula, where several naval bases are located, would join the maneuvers.

In the Irkutsk region of eastern Siberia, units of the Strategic Missile Forces dispersed Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launchers in forests to practice secret deployment, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Neither the U.S. nor NATO has increased its nuclear alert status. A higher alert would improve the survivability of our nuclear forces and show resolve. Absent action, we could lose the entire U.S. heavy bomber force, the entire NATO tactical nuclear capability and half of the U.S. ballistic missile submarine force to a small Russian nuclear attack. Keep in mind that STRATCOM commander Admiral Charles Richard has just said, “Today’s nuclear force is the minimum required to achieve our national strategy.” Far from matching Putin’s nuclear exercise, the Biden administration even delayed a routine ICBM test. Putin is unlikely to be impressed. Calling him names will not discourage his use of nuclear threats. 

Russian Nuclear Doctrine and First Use of Nuclear Weapons

Russian nuclear doctrine has involved the first use of nuclear weapons going back to the Soviet period. In June 2020, Russia made public a Presidential directive on nuclear deterrence. It is now clear that the most alarming Russian press reports over the last two decades, including those in the state media, which indicated a lower Russian nuclear first use threshold than made public in official documents, were accurate. Noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer observed:

The Kremlin is constantly playing the deterrence game by trying to scare the West. But this situation has two dangerous ramifications. First, the nuclear threshold is becoming lower: in any serious skirmish, the Russian Navy would either need to go nuclear or risk being sunk. And second, while the Russian leadership believes it has surpassed the West militarily thanks to its dazzling superweapons, Moscow’s threshold for employing military force in conflict situations may also drop further.”

Paragraph 19 of President Putin’s June 2020 decree states:

19. The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:

  1. arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
  2. use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;
  3. attack by an adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;
  4. aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

It is clear that the Russian nuclear weapons use threshold in the 2010 and 2014 versions of their military doctrine (which is contained in paragraph 19d) was a deception. Paragraph 19 has two objectives: 1) to deter effective use of U.S. conventional strike capability because of fear of escalation; and 2) to allow the use of Russia’s nuclear capability in a wide variety of circumstances.

There is likely an unannounced change to paragraph 19d). The new (December 2021) joint military doctrine with Belarus returns to the earliest version of Putin’s doctrine, which allowed for the first use of nuclear weapons in a conventional war. According to noted Russia scholar Roger McDermott, it reads, “At the same time, the participating states consider it possible to use the nuclear weapons of the Russian Federation in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against them, as well as in response to large-scale aggression using conventional weapons in situations that are critical for the security of any of the participating states.”

Paragraph 4 of Putin’s decree is also very interesting. It states the role of nuclear weapons is:

…to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state and to deter a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and (or) its allies in the event of the emergence of an armed conflict by preventing the escalation of military activities and ending them on conditions acceptable to the Russian Federation and (or) its allies.

This confirms previous reports in the Russian media, including state media. In light of what Putin has said about what constitutes attacks on both Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, it implies a very low nuclear use threshold, including pre-emptive strikes. Not all of Russian nuclear doctrine is in the Putin decree.

Central to Russian nuclear strategy is the idea of “escalate to deescalate” or “escalate to win.” This was announced officially in 2003. The idea is that Putin launches a small low yield/low-collateral damage nuclear attack, his victims do not retaliate, and as a resultRussia wins.

In 1999, Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, then-Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Force, described the “de-escalation” by nuclear attack concept: “…the deterrent actions of strategic forces…[involve] strikes with both conventional and nuclear warheads with the goal of deescalating the military conflict,” and Russian forces “…should be capable of conducting ‘surgical’ strikes…using both highly accurate, super-low yield nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones…” This is the core of Putin’s nuclear first use strategy. 

The Number of Russian Nuclear Weapons

In the current crisis, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned about a Ukrainian conflict becoming a new Cuban missile crisis. During the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. had over 25,000 nuclear weapons. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists writes that at the time, “The Soviet Union had about 3,350.” There is no mystery why Russia backed down.

We have no recent official unclassified USG numbers for the Russian nuclear stockpile. Russia today probably has from over two to four times as many active nuclear warheads as the U.S. Most of these are nonstrategic. Ambassador Robert Joseph has observed that we are “Second to One.”

In December 2017, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026….The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads to circumvent arms treaty limits and support Moscow’s new doctrine of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.”

My estimate of the number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons is over 5,000. This is based on Russian press reports like Pravda.ru which in 2014 said, “Russia, according to conservative estimates, has 5,000 pieces of different classes of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] – from Iskander warheads to torpedo, aerial and artillery warheads!” The official Russian claim that it has reduced its tactical nuclear weapons 75% from Cold War levels equates to about the same number. Mr. Rogov has noted that assessments of Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons range between several thousand and over 10,000.

Dr. Philip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation, has stated that roughly half of Russia’s 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons have been modernized with new sub-kiloton nuclear warheads for air defense, torpedoes and cruise missiles. Dr. Karber’s source is under Chatham House rules, but the source is a very good one.

In 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, in an important speech at the Hudson Institute, stated that, “…during the past decade, Russia has improved and expanded its production complex, which has the capacity to process thousands of warheads annually.” There is no plausible reason for such an expansion unless Russia plans to build back toward Soviet nuclear force levels.

According to Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists, “We estimate that [U.S. nuclear forces consist of] approximately 1,800 warheads are currently deployed, of which roughly 1,400 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and another 300 at strategic bomber bases in the United States. An additional 100 tactical bombs are deployed at air bases in Europe.” They have also written that, “Approximately 230 tactical B61 bombs of all versions remain in the stockpile.” (Emphasis in the original). They also say that the number of U.S. low-yield Trident warheads was under 25. 

Modernization of Russian Strategic Nuclear Triad

The Director of National Intelligence’s 2022 report on the Global Threat Assessment states, “We assess that Russia will remain the largest and most capable WMD rival to the United States for the foreseeable future as it expands and modernizes its nuclear weapons capabilities and increases the capabilities of its strategic and nonstrategic weapons.” (Emphasis in the original). U.S. strategic modernization begins in about a decade and the Air Force is not saying when the F-35 will become nuclear-capable.

Russia has been modernizing its Cold War legacy strategic nuclear force since 1997. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report states that, “In addition to modernizing ‘legacy’ Soviet nuclear systems, Russia is developing and deploying new nuclear warheads and launchers. These efforts include multiple upgrades for every leg of the Russian nuclear triad of strategic bombers, sea-based missiles, and land-based missiles. Russia is also developing at least two new intercontinental range systems, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo.”

In December 2021, Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu said the share of modern weapons in the strategic nuclear force was 89%. The comparable U.S. number is zero. He said that in 2022 Russian strategic nuclear forces would receive 21 Yars, Avangard and Sarmat ICBMs, a Borei class ballistic missile submarine and two Tu-160 heavy bombers. Since the Sarmat has not yet been tested, the probability of IOC in 2022 is low. However, short of an economic collapse of Russia, it will ultimately be deployed in very large numbers. The Avangard is their new OPERATIONAL intercontinental-range hypersonic missile.This will replace one of the new Russian ICBMs, the Yars. In December 2019, General Karakayev stated that Russia will complete its nuclear modernization by 2024. They won’t make this date but once again, short of an economic collapse, they will complete their modernization before we even begin ours late in this decade. Russia’s completing modernization just means they go on to their next generation of systems.

The Tu-160 will carry a variety of weapons including long-range stealth nuclear cruise missiles and hypersonic missiles. He also said that work was underway on promising cruise and hypersonic aircraft missiles. They are way ahead of us in hypersonic missiles and ours will not be nuclear.

The Russian program to develop the Burevestnik nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missile is currently a disaster area due to repeated flight test failures. However, they may eventually solve the technical problems.

An Atlantic Council publication by Matthew Kroenig, Mark Massa and Christen Trotti, on Russia’s new “novel” nuclear systems, the “Sarmat, Avangard, Kinship, Brevetting, and Poseidon”) maybe pursued a means of obtaining a real or perceived strategic superiority over the United States within the New START framework.” 

Conclusion

As STRATCOM Commander Admiral Richard has pointed out, we now face two major nuclear threats – Russia and China. For the foreseeable future, the Russian threat will be the largest.

Putin’s nuclear strategy and weapons development represent a very serious threat. Putin has shown increasing willingness to take risks. Christopher Bort of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has pointed out the lack of any real response to Putin’s aggression encouraged his faith in the Russian military and a belief that the U.S. and NATO, because of fear of nuclear escalation, would not intervene against him.

The decline in U.S. nuclear capabilities as a result of six decades of bad policy has contributed to this perception. Dr. Keith Payne has aptly characterized U.S. policy as “The Great American Gamble.” We have lost the gamble and Ukraine and NATO are paying the price.

The repeated suggestion that a no-fly zone against Russia in Ukraine would lead to “World War III” is questionable at best. Putin clearly now knows how bad his Army and Air Force are. He is now reportedly firing his generals. His threat to widen the war has no credibility. He is not going to take on NATO’s 30 nations or even the United States alone when he can’t defeat Ukraine or must resort to nuclear or other forms of WMD to do so. Putin may introduce nuclear weapons, but he will start with small low-yield attacks. If we don’t respond in kind, Putin may escalate. Weakness with Putin is more escalatory than strength. In light of the consequences, a massive nuclear strike against NATO will get Putin nothing. He could lose Russia and Ukraine. A small nuclear strike in Ukraine is much more likely, particularly if we continue to do nothing to deter it.

Covid 19 has given us a very small taste of what a war with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would be like. Despite that, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, after stating Russia might use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, refused to characterize this as a “red line.” The next day President Biden said that Russia would pay a “severe price” if it used chemical weapons (he ignored biological weapons). He repeated his mantra about no U.S. troops in Ukraine, which of course, has nothing to do with what we might do to deter Russian chemical and biological weapons use.

From a deterrence standpoint, the Biden administration has made many mistakes. The Ukraine war could and should have been deterred. Russian use of low-yield nuclear weapons, chemical or biological weapons can and should be deterred. Deterrence is not a nice word. Putin’s threats must be matched by counter threats. An enhanced deterrent alert, possibly in conjunction with Britain and France, would be a good idea. A nuclear firepower display similar to Putin’s February 19th nuclear exercise might also be useful. A serious deployment of 5th generation combat aircraft to Eastern Europe is in order. If Putin can’t beat the Ukrainian Air Force, he is not likely to take on ours or NATO’s.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.

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