As the war continues to go increasingly bad for Russia in Ukraine, the threat of Putin taking drastic measures to change the situation remains high. Whether that is launching a tactical nuclear weapon, mobilizing the whole of Russia, or something else is hard to say.
What is certain, however, is the strength of the Russian nuclear arsenal, which is the biggest in the world, with approximately 6,400 nuclear warheads.
The Russian Nukes
As with the nuclear forces of the most advanced countries, the Russian nuclear arsenal is divided into three categories (the triad) depending on the method of delivery of the warhead.
The cornerstone of Russian nuclear capability is the Strategic Rocket Forces, a separate brand of the Russian military that maintains and operates the country’s nuclear arsenal. The Russian Strategic Rocket Forces operate the heavy-hitting Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and are tasked with strategic nuclear strikes. For example, taking out New York City or Beijing. (For comparison, in the U.S. military, it is the Air Force that is predominately responsible for the ICBMs). The Russian military has approximately 310 ICBMs that can carry up to 1,189 nuclear warheads in total.
In the sea, the Russian Navy has ten Delta-, Kilo-, and Borei-class submarines that can launch 16 ballistic missiles that can carry up to 624 nuclear warheads.
In the air, the Russian Aerospace Forces have the Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95MS Bear strategic bombers for conventional and nuclear missions. Each aircraft can carry from 12 to 16 AS-15 cruise missiles that can be armed with nuclear warheads. The Russian military has between 50 to 70 of these strategic bombers but is already working on a 5th generation replacement, the PAK DA stealth bomber.
When it comes to doctrine, nuclear weapons play a key part in the national security culture of the Russian Federation.
General Valeriy Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff, has gone on the record to say that “nuclear deterrence remains a key element in ensuring the military security of the Russian Federation …Nuclear weapons are considered as a means of forcing a potential adversary to refuse to unleash aggression against our country.”
Nuclear Threats in Ukraine
On its part, the U.S. has warned Russia that the use of a tactical nuclear weapon would bring “catastrophic” consequences.
In an interview earlier this week with ABC News, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan stated that the White House is taking Putin and his threats seriously—despite a large number of those threats since the war began.
Whether or not Putin decides to use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine remains to be seen. But what is certain is that he has the capability to do so if he chooses to.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.