22.05.23 Review

Nuclear Census: Russia is haunted by its failures in nuclear weapons development but has succeeded in their more active political utilisation

Experts from the American publication, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, have conducted a 'census' of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and reviewed Moscow's efforts to renovate it, concluding that Russia is encountering systemic difficulties in modernising its nuclear forces and implementing developments of new types of nuclear weapons. In the event of Russia's withdrawal from the New START treaty, the country would be capable of increasing the number of its deployed warheads by 60%, but it is unlikely to take advantage of this opportunity. As it stands, the Kremlin is most active in verbal nuclear interventions, which create a deceptive impression of innovation in Russian nuclear armaments and changes to the country’s nuclear doctrine. Nevertheless, the rearmament efforts and nuclear threats indicate a gradual shift in the Russian leadership's approach to the role of nuclear weapons, aiming to utilise this arsenal as a means of intimidation in regional conflicts.

Over the past year, the Russian nuclear arsenal has grown by 12 units: the Russian Armed Forces have acquired new intercontinental ballistic missiles and one new submarine that can be equipped with them. As of the beginning of 2023, Russia possesses more than 4,400 tactical and strategic nuclear warheads. More than a third of all warheads (around 1.6 thousand) are deployed on strategic delivery systems (the so-called nuclear triad): 834 on land-based ballistic missiles, approximately 640 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and an additional 200 on heavy bomber bases. Less than a thousand tactical and around 1,800 strategic warheads remain undeployed. In addition, approximately 1,400 Russian warheads have effectively been decommissioned but are yet to be dismantled. This data was provided by the researchers who published the census of the Russian nuclear arsenal in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Today, Russia finds itself in the late stages of a decades-long process of modernisation of its nuclear forces. According to Sergei Shoigu, by December 2022, over 90% of Russia's nuclear triad consisted of modern weapon types. However, experts note that the methodology behind this calculation is unclear, making it difficult to discern its exact meaning. Precise data regarding Russia's nuclear arsenal remains unknown as, unlike the United States, Russia does not publish reviews of its own strategic forces. In the latest data exchange within the framework of the New START treaty, which occurred on September 1, 2022, Russia declared the presence of 1,549 deployed warheads on 540 delivery systems. If Russia finally withdraws from international nuclear disarmament agreements, experts from the Federation of American Scientists believe the number of deployed warheads could increase by up to 60%. The speed at which this can be achieved depends on the choice of delivery systems: bombers can be loaded within hours or days, while fully loaded submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles may take months or even years.

However, it is important not to forget that, in recent years, many Russian nuclear weapons development programmes have encountered serious problems, leading to delays and even the suspension of their development. Just days ago, aerodynamics scientists, allegedly involved in the development of the 'Kinzhal' missile, were arrested on charges of treason. However, journalists have speculated that the likely reason for this repression is the fact that, contrary tomultiple public statements by Vladimir Putin, the 'Kinzhal' missile was unable to overcome air defence systems. Prior to this, the Tu-160M modernisation programme, which aimed to equip 50 Tu-160 bombers with nuclear warheads, faced legal action from the Ministry of Industry and Trade against the manufacturer.

It is not only the weapons that need modernisation, but also the locations where they are deployed. This has become a problem for another programme related to the operation of the strategic missile complex with the solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile 'Yars.' Satellite imagery analysed by experts indicates that only a small number of military divisions have been upgraded with the infrastructure required for the operation of these systems. Given the time it took to work on the already upgraded storage facilities, it is unclear whether Russia will be able to complete the modernisation by 2024, as planned.

Indeed, the same applies to the use of the 'Topol-M' systems. Russia planned to conduct at least 10 launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles in 2022 but managed to carry out only four.

Putin's claims that the 'Sarmat' (a strategic missile complex with an intercontinental ballistic missile) entered serial production in November 2022 and should have been 'put on combat duty' by the end of the year are refuted by the facts. According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, as of April 2023, only one additional test of the 'Sarmat' had been conducted, which, according to US officials, ended in failure. The same fate befell another of the president’s nuclear darlings — the 'Burevestnik' cruise missile. According to US military intelligence, since June 2016 when its testing began, it has failed more than ten times. In November 2017, a failed test resulted in the loss of the missile at sea. In August 2019, US State Department officials confirmed that an explosion occurred while the missile was being repaired, resulting in the deaths of five scientists and two military personnel. Due to these failures, the 'Burevestnik' programme was suspended, and since 2019, there have been no announced tests of the system, and Russian officials have not mentioned it. Satellite imagery dated August 2021 indicated that Russia was preparing for another test of the 'Burevestnik' system in the Novaya Zemlya area. However, researchers believe it is unlikely that the tests took place.

Another problem is that Russian missile forces conduct test launches of their missiles at the Sary-Shagan test site in Kazakhstan. Given that Kazakhstan is a state party to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, it may demand that Russia refrain from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons on its territory. In late 2020, Russia announced the construction of a new test range for the 'Sarmat' missile near the settlement of Severo-Yeniseisky in the Krasnoyarsk Krai. However, according to researchers, the construction has been suspended.

Moreover, the Poseidon nuclear torpedo has been the most successful among Russia's new types of nuclear systems. Underwater testing of the torpedo began in December 2018. Russian sourcesindicate that the 'first batch' of Poseidon torpedoes will soon be deployed to the submarine 'Belgorod,' despite the fact that the planned underwater tests of the torpedo, scheduled for the end of 2022, were not conducted. Instead, in January 2023, launch tests of a Poseidon model were carried out. The launch of the second submarine capable of carrying torpedoes of this type, the 'Khabarovsk,' was expected in the autumn of 2021 but was postponed to 2023.

The Russian Navy also possesses the largest number of non-strategic nuclear warheads. According to The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, it has approximately 835 warheads intended for land-based cruise missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft missiles, torpedoes, and depth charges. However, the Navy also faces challenges as the modernisation programmes of its strategic nuclear-powered submarines (known as the Project 885/M or 'Yasen-M' class submarines) are progressing slowly.

The first of these submarines, known as 'Severodvinsk,' entered service in 2015 after 16 years of construction. The submarine named 'Kazan' was originally scheduled to enter into service with the Northern Fleet at the end of 2019, but its launch was delayed due to unsatisfactory test results. From 2020 to 2022, only two 'Yasen-M' class submarines ('Kazan' and 'Novosibirsk') successfully completed tests and were handed over to the Russian Navy. Six more submarines, which were planned between 2015 and 2020, are still at various stages of construction.

Thus, it is evident that Russia's nuclear force modernisation programme is facing systemic challenges, the nature of which remains somewhat unclear. These issues may be attributed to inflated expectations and demands from the Russian political leadership, which is prone to grandiose statements that do not align with the industry's technological and financial capabilities. Nevertheless, even in its unmodernised state, Russia's nuclear arsenal remains one of the largest in the world, serving as a formidable deterrent. To compensate for its failure to modernise, Russian authorities resort to verbal interventions, hinting at possible changes to their nuclear doctrine and creating a sense of threat emanating from Russia. This has enabled the Kremlin to increase its political weight on the global stage.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia's official nuclear doctrine has remained unchanged (as previously reported by Re: Russia), and there has been no unusual activity related to Russian nuclear forces documented. However, the fact that Russian military forces are expending significant efforts to develop a wide range of modernised and new versions of nuclear weapons suggests that the actual doctrine goes beyond the scope of basic deterrence and aligns with new regional military strategies pursued by the Kremlin. Within this framework, Russia's nuclear potential is intended to serve as a weapon of intimidation.