Russia’s nuclear arsenal: How big is it and who controls it? | News about Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin said Russia had struck a deal with neighboring Belarus to deploy tactical nuclear weapons on its territory.

He said on Saturday that the agreement would not violate non-proliferation agreements.

The following are details on Russia’s nuclear arsenal, how large it is, and who commands it.

Nuclear superpower

Russia, which inherited the nuclear weapons of the Soviet Union, has the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads in the world.

Putin controlled about 5,977 such warheads as of 2022, compared to 5,428 controlled by United States President Joe Biden, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Approximately 1,500 of these warheads are retired (but probably still intact), 2,889 are in reserve, and 1,588 are strategically deployed warheads.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said 812 were deployed on land-based ballistic missiles, 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles and about 200 on heavy bomber bases.

Russian military vehicles, including intercontinental ballistic missile systems
Russian military vehicles, including Yars intercontinental ballistic missile systems, drive through Red Square during a rehearsal for a military parade [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

The US has 1,644 deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

China has a total of 350 warheads, France 290 and the United Kingdom 225, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Such figures mean that both Moscow and Washington can destroy the world many times over.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s arsenal peaked at about 40,000 nuclear warheads, while the US peaked at about 30,000 warheads.

The key, however, is how to deliver the weapons – the missiles, submarines and bombers that carry the warheads.

Russia appears to have about 400 nuclear ICBMs, which the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says can carry up to 1,185 warheads.

Russia has 10 nuclear powered submarines that can carry a maximum of 800 warheads. It has 60 to 70 nuclear bombers.

Newer nuclear weapons

The US said in its 2022 nuclear posture review that Russia and China are expanding and modernizing their nuclear forces and Washington will pursue an arms control approach to prevent a costly arms race.

Putin said he had information that the US was developing new types of nuclear weapons.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, only a handful of countries have tested nuclear weapons, according to the Arms Control Association: the United States most recently in 1992, China and France most recently in 1996, India and Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea most recently in 2017.

The Soviet Union last tested in 1990.

Who can give Russian launch orders?

According to the Russian nuclear doctrine, the Russian president is the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to the use of Russian nuclear weapons, both strategic and non-strategic.

The so-called nuclear briefcase or “Cheget” (named after Mount Cheget in the Caucasus Mountains) is with the president at all times.

The Russian Defense Minister, currently Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of the General Staff, now Valery Gerasimov, are also believed to have such briefcases.

Essentially, the briefcase is a communications tool that links the president to his senior military staff and from there to the missile forces via the top-secret Kazbek electronic command and control network. Kazbek supports another system known as “Caucasus”.

Russian rocket
Russia’s Yars intercontinental ballistic missile has a range of 12,000 km (7,500 miles) and can carry multiple nuclear warheads [File: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

Footage shown by Russian TV channel Zvezda in 2019 showed what it believed to be one of the briefcases with a set of buttons.

In a section called “command” there are two buttons: a white “start” button and a red “cancel” button. The briefcase is activated with a special flash card, according to Zvezda.

If Russia believed it was facing a strategic nuclear attack, the president would, through the briefcases, send a direct launch order to the General Staff Command and the reserve command units that hold the nuclear codes.

Such orders would cascade rapidly down various communications systems to strategic missile force units, which would then fire on the targets.

If a nuclear attack is confirmed, Putin could activate the so-called Dead Hand or Perimeter system as a last resort. Basically, computers will decide the Last Judgment. A cruise missile would order nuclear strikes from Russia’s entire vast arsenal.

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