What is Russia’s nuclear arsenal like?

A Russian BTR-82A armored personnel carrier (REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina) (EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/)

The Russian President, Vladimir Putinsent a nuclear warning to the West on Tuesday over the conflict in Ukraine with the suspension of a historic nuclear arms control treaty and the announcement of the commissioning of new strategic systems, He also warned that Moscow could resume the nuclear tests.

The president of Russia has been warning about the nuclear fallout with increasing intensity since the first week of its invasion of Ukraine, when it put its arsenal on high alert. Since then, as the Kremlin’s “special operation” stalled in the face of resistance from kyiv, the threats have increased.

How many nuclear weapons does Russia have

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Although determining how many weapons Russia has is a difficult question to answer, the country is believed to have the largest armory in the worldfollowed by the United States.

The United States has a good count of Russia’s strategic weapons, because Washington and Moscow are required to disclose this under the terms of the new STARTthe last remaining arms control treaty and one that Putin has just suspended.

All nuclear weapons figures are estimates, but according to the Federation of American ScientistsRussia has 5,977 nuclear warheadsthe devices that trigger a nuclear explosion, although this includes about 1,500 who are retired and ready to be dismantled. Other estimates speak of 6,375 warheads, compared to 5,800 in the US.

The Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launched during exercises carried out by Russia's strategic nuclear forces (Russian Defense Ministry / REUTERS)
The Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launched during exercises carried out by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces (Russian Defense Ministry / REUTERS) (RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY /)

Of the approximately remaining 4,500most are considered strategic nuclear weapons, which are the longest-range missiles that can cross oceans and threaten rival superpowers. Experts estimate that about 1,500 Russian warheads are currently “deployed”, that is, located on missile and bomber bases or on submarines at sea.

the rest are tactical weapons, smaller and less destructive. Some are designed for use by the navy, some for use by the air force, and some for use by the military, either in short-range surface-to-surface missiles or surface-to-air air defenses, but they are not pre-deployed. . According to experts, these are the ones that Russia could at some point use the Ukraine.

US intelligence estimates that Russia has between 1,000 and 2,000 of this tactical weapons. For its part, after careful study, the Federation of American Scientists estimated 1912 tactical weaponsalthough he warned that this could include retired warheads.

Russia compared to the rest of the world

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Nine countries have nuclear weapons: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, USA and United Kingdom. Israel is the only country of the nine that has never formally recognized its nuclear program, but it is widely accepted that it has nuclear warheads.

Moscow and Washington have a 90% of all nuclear weapons that exist on the planet.

China, France, Russia, the US and the UK are also among the 191 states that have signed the agreement. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Under the agreement, they have to reduce their arsenal of nuclear warheads and, in theory, agree to eliminate them entirely. The agreement has reduced the number of warheads stored in those countries since the 1970s and 1980s.

India, Israel and Pakistan never joined the NPT, and North Korea he left it in 2003.

What weapons is Russia most likely to use in Ukraine?

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About 500 tactical nukes they would be at the disposal of the Russian air force, a number that includes gravity bombs and air-to-surface cruise missiles. Many of them could be dropped by planes like the bomber Tu-22 “Backfire” and the Su-34 “Fullback”, which Russia already used to carry out conventional bombing in Ukraine.

However, for the experts it is more probable that Russia uses for an eventual tactical nuclear attack the missile system 9K720 Iskanderclassified by NATO as SS-26, a land-based ballistic missile.

As he told the Washington Post Hans Kristensendirector of the Nuclear Information Project of the Federation of American Scientists, this would be the favorite option of the Russian military because it deals with the system “more reliable and the one who would have the best chance of reaching his goal. Don’t be shot down, don’t fail”.

The power of nuclear weapons

The power of a nuclear weapon is its yield, and the yield is measured as an equivalent of T.N.T.. The US Department of Energy estimates that the US bombs dropped on hiroshima and nagasaki had yields of fifteen and 21 kilotons, respectively, which is equivalent to 15,000 tons and 21,000 tons of TNT. The bombs killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people.

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Modern strategic nuclear weapons have a enormous power and are designed to cause the maximum devastation.

Standards can have yields of 500 kilotons, 800 kilotons and even 1 megaton, equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT. Russia holds the record for the most powerful weapon ever exploded: In 1961, it tested a bomb of at least 50 megatons, nicknamed the “Tsar Bomb,” or the king of all bombs.

The tactical weapons modern systems usually have a capacity of 10 to 100 kilotonswhich still makes the average tactical weapon potentially more destructive than the bombs used in hiroshima and nagasaki.

Russia and the United States also have nuclear weapons “low performance” that have a “light” impact, even below 1 kiloton. But even the least powerful nuclear bomb, with a yield of about 0.3 kilotonshas about the same explosive power as the Beirut port explosion in 2020.

How destructive are they?

The extent of destruction depends on a variety of factors, including warhead sizehow high above the ground detonates and the local environment. But even the smallest warhead could cause great loss of life and long-lasting consequences.

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Little is expected to survive in the immediate impact zone of a nuclear explosion. After a blinding flash, a huge fireball and shock wave occurs that can destroy buildings and structures for several kilometers.

You also have to worry about the radiationthe radioactive waste and the poisoning long-term.

Russian policy on nuclear weapons

Russian President Putin watches a missile launch during naval exercises in Russia's northern Arctic aboard the Pyotr Veliky nuclear missile cruiser.  (Reuters/file)
Russian President Putin watches a missile launch during naval exercises in Russia’s northern Arctic aboard the Pyotr Veliky nuclear missile cruiser. (Reuters / file) (Itar Tass /)

Nuclear weapons have not been used in an armed confrontation since 1945. During the postwar period, having a powerful nuclear arsenal was solely for the purpose of nuclear deterrence. This concept is the axis on which the general strategy of nuclear weapons revolves and is based on the fact that a limited number of nuclear weapons can cause intolerable damage capable of deterring a potential aggressor.

Russian policy also recognizes nuclear weapons only as deterrent and lists four cases for its use:

1) The launch of ballistic missiles that attack the territory of the Russian Federation or its allies.

2) The use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction against the Russian Federation or its allies.

3) An attack on critical government or military sites of the Russian Federation that threatens its nuclear capability.

4) Aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in danger.

The Russian president seemed to refer to this last point in his threatening speech today, accusing the NATO of stoking the conflict in the mistaken belief that it could defeat Moscow in a global confrontation.

“They intend to transform a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation,” he said. “This is exactly how we understand all of this and we will react accordingly, because in this case we are talking about the existence of our country”.

Infographics: Santiago Milano.

(With information from the Washington Post, Reuters and own)

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