The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought back the Cold War specter of the use of nuclear weapons in a world-ending conflagration. The fear of this is grounded in the belief that Putin is both insane and suicidal and wants victory in Ukraine or to end the world entirely.  We find that line of reasoning itself a bit irrational and say so here.

We think its a pretty safe bet that this conflict won’t turn nuclear given recent signs that Putin is trying to find a way out of the mess he has gotten himself into here. but figured it would be interesting to readers to know just what the world’s nuclear arsenals look like at a glance.

The events in the past three weeks have seen an aggressive Russia order their nuclear deterrent forces at a high alert, fueling tensions of an impending nuclear war in the case that the United States and NATO directly intervene into their so-called ‘special military operation’ otherwise known in the rest of the world as an invasion of Ukraine. Just recently as well, the Kremlin also released footage of them testing their 7,000mph Zircon hypersonic nuke missile, which Russia brands as an “unstoppable” missile.

These nuclear stockpiles were largely made during the height of the Cold War. Its threats, as much as it was built decades ago, are still very much felt today in what military experts and political historians call a second not-so Cold War, with the background of the invasion of Ukraine being a security threat for Moscow – which had seen former portions of the Soviet Union joining NATO.

The nuclear clock is ticking, and the threat is very much real. As chaotic as the war may seem, leaders who possess the power of launching a nuclear strike still follow caution on when to use their nuclear weapons. While the Russians have put their nuclear forces on high alert, this can very well be just a scare tactic and a deterrent as they’ve been hit by enormous sanctions that have been slowly bleeding their economy dry. In fact, Russia is now the most sanctioned country in the entire world as of the moment due to their invasion.

Nobody knows for sure what Vladimir Putin has on his mind now, and nobody can except him. However, an alleged FSB whistleblower did say that Putin had plans to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent and reported that he did not think that Putin would press the proverbial “red button.”  Such a decision is not his alone(Russia doesn’t trust anyone with that much power) and his own people could very well kill him if he went totally off the rails.

Regardless, it’s important to know what nuclear threats the Russians have instore for the West in the case the nuclear clock strikes 12. More so, ever since 2020, the doomsday clock, a symbol created by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, remains at 100 seconds to midnight, a severe movement from 7 minutes to midnight when the metaphorical clock was first made in 1947.

Interestingly, the doomsday clock was moved in 2020 due to the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 2018, which had been signed by former President Ronald Reagan and then Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. The treaty banned all land-based missiles with ranges of 310 to 620 miles for the short-medium range category and 620 to 3,420 miles for the intermediate category. Notably, the treaty did not include air and sea-launched missiles. It can be remembered that Former President Trump pulled out from the treaty due to alleged Russian non-compliance.

The World’s Nuclear Arsenal At A Glance

In 2022, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists reported that Russia had been in the late stages of its modernization plan for its nuclear weapons. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a statement in 2021, reported that modernized nuclear weapons made up 89.1% of their current nuclear stockpile. Given what we’ve seen of the modern Russian ground forces, take that one with a grain of salt.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in February 2022 stated that the current number of nuclear warheads that Russia currently has is around 5,977 nuclear warheads, with a stockpile of 4,477 warheads assigned for long-range and short-range targets. There are presently 1,588 warheads deployed, with 576 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, 812 on land-based ballistic missiles, and 200 at bomber bases (A January report puts the number at 1,458 deployed). Another 977 are in storage, as well as 1,912 non-strategic warheads. Around 1,500 nuclear warheads were “retired” but still need dismantling. For more details on their report, click here.

In comparison, the United States reportedly has 5,550 nuclear weapons in total, 1,389 of which are active, 2,361 in reserves, and 1,800 retired.

An air-to-air front view of a B-52G Stratofortress aircraft from the 416th bombardment Wing armed with AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) (Wikimedia Commons). Source:
An air-to-air front view of a B-52G Stratofortress aircraft from the 416th bombardment Wing armed with AGM-86B air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) (Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The two countries are by far the dominant forces in the nuclear game, accounting for 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons. The remaining nuclear-capable countries, namely China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea, do not even come close to Russia and the US in numbers.

China has 350 warheads, France has 290, and the United Kingdom has 225 (120 are deployed on 4 Vanguard-class Trident nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines). Countries not part of the Nonproliferation Treaty, India, Israel, and Pakistan, have 156, 90, and 165 nuclear warheads, respectively. North Korea, which withdrew from the NPT, has an estimated 40 to 50 warheads.

Iran and Syria are suspected of having nuclear weapons. However, no data is known about whether they had actually built actual weapons, but the evidence does suggest that they are capable of building them. It can be remembered that the renewed Iran Nuclear Deal was in its final stages when Russia had suddenly made demands from the US that Russian-Iran trade would not be affected by the Russian sanctions. On the other hand, Syria has not cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to confirm the disarmament of its nuclear program. Israel discovered Syria’s nuclear program in 2007 as they bombed Syria and discovered a nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor.

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Does Ukraine have nuclear weapons? Well, it did for a time. It had as many as 3,000 warheads. When the Soviet Union broke apart, they were in possession of Soviet nuclear warheads, but they subsequently returned these to Russia through the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. These nuclear weapons were given up in 1994 through 1996.

The memorandum states that Ukraine would give back all the nuclear weapons to Russia, provided that Russia, the UK, and the US would not threaten Ukraine and would respect their sovereignty and territory — which we now know that one of the countries broke the treaty in 2014 when Russia had annexed Crimea.

Belarus and Kazakhstan also inherited nuclear weapons from Russia, with 81 and 1,400 warheads, respectively. These were all transferred back to Russia as well. However, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belarus held a constitutional referendum that dropped its non-nuclear status on February 28, 2022.

Some notable inclusions are South Africa, which had developed nuclear weapons in secret but subsequently quit upon signing on the NPT in 1991. Libya also had a secret nuclear weapons program. However, then-leader Muammar Gaddafi agreed to dismantle any weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

Iraq, an infamous country for its nuclear weapons program, was actively developing warheads prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. However, they were forced to dismantle all chemical, biological, and nuclear programs after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but they did report in 2009 that they had two bunkers filled with chemical weapons — these were destroyed in 2018.

Would Russia Launch A Nuclear Weapon Now?

The argument for having nuclear weapons for almost all countries that are capable of building said weapons is for deterrence purposes. In simple terms, if you have enough nuclear weapons to destroy your enemy completely, then it would possibly prevent them from attacking you.

For now, experts believe that Putin is using the nuclear weapons narrative as a deterrent. Nobody can deny that he has been aggressive. However, it is well documented that the former Soviet Union historically had a “launch on impact” philosophy, which means they would only launch a nuclear strike after missiles hit them. It can be the case that Russia had adopted this doctrine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin observes strategic deterrence forces exercise in the Kremlin’s situation room (Wikimedia Commons). Source:
Russian President Vladimir Putin observes strategic deterrence forces exercise in the Kremlin’s situation room (Kremlin.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, Russian policies do state outright that they only use nuclear weapons as a deterrent and may only launch a nuclear strike if: a launch of ballistic missiles were headed for the Russian territory (or their allies); enemies attack critical government or military sites that target its nuclear capability; their enemies launch any type of weapon of mass destruction on them, and lastly; if the Russian Federation deems that the very existence of their state is on the line even if their enemies had only launched conventional weapons. Like a NATO army on the march for Moscow.

Is there a risk of Russia launching a nuclear weapon right now? The chances are slim, according to analysts. However, with recent developments with the invasion, military experts will continue to assess the situation and observe what the Kremlin decides to do next with their stalled invasion.

Don’t count them out, though. An analysis by SOFREP’s Brain Hudson stated that Russia could destroy the world a hundred times over and turn Ukraine into a “glass parking lot,” but if Putin wanted Ukraine to be part of its territory, a radioactive wasteland wouldn’t be any good to him or their economy anyway and would invite nuclear retaliation by the world powers who have nukes pointed at them.

“Putin doesn’t just open a desk drawer and push a red button sending 1,500 warheads on their way. Orders have to be written and transmitted to Rocket Forces commands. Russians don’t put total trust in anyone or anything. I’m sure other officials in the government will have to agree with Putin on suicidally ending their own country along with the rest of the planet,” he said.

If you have any more questions as to why Putin isn’t Nukin’,  you can check out SOFREP’s Brian Hudson’s analysis of Putin’s nuclear deterrence.

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