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Why Putin Would Use Nuclear Weapons

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

Russia thinks it has nuclear superiority over the West and NATO and we should beg him for arms control – that’s why he keeps making nuclear threats over the Ukraine war: We live in interesting times. In support of the most blatant aggression since World War II, we have heard since November 2021 Russian high-level nuclear war threats every week or two. Indeed, the probability of Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine is under active debate. In July 2022, President Vladimir Putin threatened to continue the war until the last Ukrainian man was standing and his Deputy Dmitri Medvedev suggested that “punishing” Russia over war crimes “potentially poses a threat to the existence of humanity.” Since 2007, nuclear threats have been commonplace among high-level Russian officials but the current ones are clearly more extreme. Then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has noted that Putin has personally made nuclear threats 35 or more times.

Moreover, as Dr. Steven Blank has pointed out, “Pervasive anxiety about Russian nuclear use has inhibited Western relief efforts, e.g., the campaign for a no-fly zone or for sending Ukraine aircraft.” Lt. General (ret.) Henry Obering III and Ambassador Robert Joseph have stated that “…nuclear coercion worked against the Biden administration….[T]he Biden administration barred vital weapons and targeting assistance that it believed would risk escalation to “World War III.” The Biden administration’s emphasis on the risk of World War III while taking no measures to enhance our deterrent, has increased the impact of Russia’s nuclear war threats. Turning Russian territory into a sanctuary by either not providing Ukraine the weapons it needs or demanding assurances that limit their use plays into Putin’s hands.

NATO’s June 2022 new strategic concept states, “The Russian Federation is modernizing its nuclear forces and expanding its novel and disruptive dual-capable delivery systems, while employing coercive nuclear signalling.” STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Richard has recently observed that we now face “a three-party nuclear-peer reality” and, “The war in Ukraine and China’s nuclear trajectory—their strategic breakout—demonstrates that we have a deterrence and assurance gap based on the threat of limited nuclear employment.”

The only good nuclear news is that Russia’s dual-capable non-strategic missiles and one strategic cruise missile have significant reliability, quality control, fusing and accuracy problems. However, the fusing and accuracy problems have less significance for the nuclear variants because of their vastly greater yield and different type of fusing. Moreover, the relevant nuclear comparison is not with the modern U.S. conventional cruise missiles but with the AGM-86B nuclear ALCM, which is 40 years old, pre-stealth, pre-precision/near precision accuracy and has seriously eroded reliability.

Russian Nuclear Doctrine 

Putin’s Russia has the lowest nuclear weapons use threshold in the world. Worse still, in 2019, President Putin even promulgated the KGB version of Christianity: In a nuclear war he said, all Russians go to heaven but their victims won’t.

Putin’s June 2020 directive on nuclear deterrence made it clear the most alarming reports concerning the Russian nuclear first use threshold were accurate. Noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer observed that Russia’s “…nuclear threshold is becoming lower” and, “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:

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

a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

c) attack by [an] adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;

d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy

Each of these subparagraphs allows for the first use of nuclear weapons. Paragraph 4 of Putin’s decree links nuclear weapons use to sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is potentially very permissive. Indeed, in 2022, Putin delivered a major speech outlining his views on Russian sovereignty which is well-worth reading.

Russian nuclear doctrine has two objectives: 1) to deter effective use of U.S. conventional strike capability because of fear of nuclear escalation; and 2) to allow the use of Russia’s nuclear capability in a wide variety of circumstances, facilitating nuclear threats and nuclear first use if necessary. For example, the Russian false flag operations involving chemical weapons warned about by the Biden administration would justify Russian nuclear weapons use against Ukraine under paragraph 19(b). In paragraph 19(c), the use of the formulation “nuclear forces” rather than “strategic nuclear forces” allows a Russian nuclear response to conventional and cyber-attacks on a large number of Russian military facilities because dual-capability (conventional and nuclear capability) is almost universal in Russian air, naval and ground units.

Moreover, not all of Russia’s nuclear doctrine is contained in the Putin decree. In September 2014, General of the Army (ret.) Yuriy Baluyevskiy, who developed the 2010 revision of Russia’s nuclear doctrine when he was Deputy Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, stated that the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”

Central to Russian nuclear strategy, announced in 2003, but probably dating from 1999, is “escalate to de-escalate” or “escalate to win.” For example, In 1999, Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, then-Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Force described it as follows: “…the deterrent actions of strategic forces…[involve] strikes with both conventional and nuclear warheads with the goal of de-escalating 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…” The idea is that Putin launches a small, low-collateral damage nuclear attack, his victims do not retaliate, and as a result Russia wins.

In 2017, then-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart affirmed that, Russia is “…the only country that I know of that has this concept of escalate to terminate or escalate to deescalate but they do have that built into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea and it’s really kind of a dangerous idea…”

The Russian nuclear use threshold may get lower still in response to their failures in Ukraine. An analysis by Russia expert Pavel Luzin indicates Russia needs about ten years after the war ends to rebuild the missiles it has already expended in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia would have to improve performance as well as replenish the inventory in the context of intensified Western constraints on technology transfer. 

The Number of Russian Nuclear Weapons 

We have no recent unclassified USG numbers for the Russian nuclear stockpile. In 2019, Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley, Jr., then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, stated that, “…during the past decade, Russia has improved and expanded its production complex, which has the capacity to process thousands of warheads annually.” Increasing an already oversized production capability makes no sense unless Russia plans a Soviet-size nuclear stockpile. Even assuming a ten-year weapons life span (likely much longer today), if Russia can produce thousands of nuclear weapons a year, it could support an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. This suggests that most estimates of the current size and expansion plans for Russian nuclear forces are much too low. According to the Biden administration, the U.S. has 3,750 active and inactive nuclear weapons. Its plans to restore our ability to produce new “pits” (the nuclear component of a new type of nuclear weapon) are many years in the future and puny by comparison to Russian capabilities (80 per year compared to Russia’s thousands).

Russia likely has between two to four times as many active nuclear warheads as the U.S., most of them non-strategic. Considering China’s nuclear buildup, we may end up second to two. 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.” In August 2019, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter Fanta confirmed the Gertz story stating that, “The Russians are going to 8,000 plus warheads.”

In February 2021, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten said Russia had “thousands [of] low-yield … and tactical nuclear weapons that Russia is building and deploying…” This certainly implies that Gertz and Fanta were correct.

Russian open-source estimates of the Russian stockpile are frequently much higher than Western estimates. For example, Russian expert Sergei Rogov has said the Russian strategic nuclear stockpile could be around 6,000 weapons and assessments of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear weapons range between several thousand to over 10,000.

A December 2019 statement by Russian Strategic Missile Forces Commander Colonel General Sergei Karakayev implied that Russia had over 3,300 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.[5] He has repeatedly stated that he has 400 ICBMs with warheads on “combat duty,” which can only be achieved by violating the New START Treaty in light of the Russian declared nuclear force numbers.

In March 2021, a German Defense Ministry document reportedly stated Russia has about 6,375 nuclear warheads ready for use.

Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons are not constrained by arms control. The typical U.S. estimate for the Russian force is 2,000 or ten times our number. Russia has maintained a very diverse tactical nuclear arsenal. My estimate is 5,000 or more. 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!” and the official Russian claim that it has reduced its tactical nuclear weapons 75% from Cold War levels equates to about the same number. Dr. Philip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation, has said 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 he is a very good one.

Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists stated the following with respect to U.S. forces: “…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” and 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 is under 25. The ranking Republican on the HASC Strategic Sub-Committee Doug Lanborn states, “Russia now has about 2,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons, while the United States has only 200.” 

Modernization of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Triad  

The Director of National Intelligence’s 2022 report on the WORLDWIDE THREAT ASSESSMENT states that Russia is expanding, modernizing and increasing the capabilities of its strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. 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%. In April 2022, Admiral Richard said 80%. The comparable U.S. number is zero. In December 2019, General Karakayev stated that Russia will complete its nuclear modernization by 2024. They will not make that date but more importantly is that when they reach 100% percent it will start all over again. They are now finishing the deployment of MIRVed Yars ICBMs and the second regiment of Avangard hypersonic missiles will be operational this year.

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 2020, Colonel General Karakayev, Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces, said that the development of new ICBMs “…will begin in the short-and mid-term perspective.” In December 2020, TASS reported that a new missile called the Kedr would replace the RS-24 Yars ICBM starting in the 2030s. In December 2021, General Karakayev confirmed previous press reports that, “A new road-mobile missile system is being designed.” If any of the reported new Russian ICBMs under development are actually hypersonic boost glide vehicles, they will not count under the New START Treaty if they are tested in a manner that avoids the New START Treaty ICBM definition.

Russia has just conducted the first full test of its new Sarmat heavy ICBM. Putin turned the first test announcement into a new type of nuclear threat characterizing the launch as a “…wakeup call for those who are trying to threaten our country in the frenzy of rabid, aggressive rhetoric.” Nuclear war over “rhetoric”? They are threatening genocide with the Sarmat, but its real mission is counterforce attacks.

In December 2019, Putin was told that Russia planned to deploy 20 regiments of the Sarmat (120-200 launchers) by 2027. This is dramatically higher than the previously reported number of 46. When the first Sarmat launch was announced, then-Roscosmos (the Russian Space Agency) Chief Executive Officer (and former NATO Ambassador and Deputy Prime Minister) Dmitry Rogozin said, “We will have a total of 46 strategic combat systems Sarmat” and they were a “gift to NATO.” (Emphasis in the original). In late May, Rogozin said that Russia would deploy Sarmat this Fall and would have 50 deployed Sarmats “soon.” I believe they will deploy a small number this year because Sarmat is now their main nuclear threat system, but it won’t really be operational. They will continue testing and my guess is that they will eventually deploy one or two regiments a year.

Whether the number is 46 or 120-200 Sarmat, this is a lot of firepower. According to RT (Russian state media), the Russian Ministry of Defense said the “…Sarmat will be able to carry up to 20 warheads of small, medium, high power classes.” Based on Russian and Western press reporting, these categories apparently equate to a maximum yield of 100-150-kt350-kt and 800-kt. The Sarmat will also carry the Avangard hypersonic glider. The Avangard has the potential to destroy the New START Treaty warhead inspection regime because of its size. With the right type of warhead covers, the presence of several ballistic warheads could appear to be a single Sarmat.

The Avangard, now deployed on SS-19 ICBMs, has a main mission of pre-emptive nuclear strikes on very important time urgent targets.

Russia has a program to build at least 50 improved Tu-160 bombers which are now being delivered to the Russian forces. In December 2020, statements by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko indicate a production rate of one or two bombers per year for the first ten. 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 other promising cruise and hypersonic missiles. They are way ahead of us, and our hypersonic missiles will not be nuclear.

In January 2021, state-run Ria Novosti reported that the Russian Defense Ministry plans that the new Pak DA stealth bomber will enter service by the end of 2027. This is probably very optimistic. The U.S. B-21 bomber will be operational before it but will initially only carry bombs.

The sixth Borei ballistic missile submarine will be operational this year. The U.S. will not have six Columbia class ballistic missile submarines until 2036. The Russians reportedly plan 12 of their new Borei class ballistic missile submarines. According to its builder, the Husky “5th generation” nuclear ballistic missile submarine is not currently being funded but it has not been cancelled.

Six of Putin’s eight nuclear superweapons are not subject to arms control constraints. According to Russian press reports, the Poseidon nuclear-powered nuclear-armed drone submarine carries a 100-megaton warhead, possibly salted with cobalt to intensify radioactive fallout. Its mission is the mass slaughter of civilians. According to TASS, Russia will have three Poseidon submarines each carrying six Poseidons by 2027.

The Russian program to develop the Burevestnik nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missile is currently a disaster area due to repeated flight test failures. 

The Development of New Types of Nuclear Weapons  

Senior Russian officials and Russian press reports during the George W. Bush administration aid that

Russia was introducing new and improved nuclear weapons. For example, in 2005, Russian Defense

Minister Colonel General Sergei Ivanov asserted, “We will develop, improve, and deploy new types of

nuclear weapons.” According to Colonel General Vladimir Verkhovtsev, then-chief of the Defense Ministry’s 12th Main Directorate, Russia’s nuclear weapons organization, the newly developed and manufactured nuclear munitions will have “improved tactical and technical specifications….” The Russians are staging yield producing nuclear tests, which explains what is going on in terms of modernization. Russian development of new nuclear weapons has been confirmed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report. 

Conclusion

Putin’s nuclear strategy and weapons development represent a profoundly serious threat to the U.S. and its allies. As demonstrated by Ukraine, Putin has shown increasing willingness to take risks. Recently, President Putin compared himself and his war against Ukraine to Peter the Great. He is no Peter the Great, but he has some of his worst characteristics.

Former Russian President Medvedev has just said that the U.S. should “beg” for nuclear arms control with Russia. What he means is that Russia has achieved nuclear superiority and the Putin regime thinks this gives it leverage against the U.S. and its allies.

Putin will use nuclear weapons if he sees it in his interest to do so. It is our job to make sure he does not. Indeed, NATO’s new Strategic Concept aptly observes, “The strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States, are the supreme guarantee of the security of the Alliance.” It is critical that we go forward expeditiously with the full modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.

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 as 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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