How many nuclear warheads does Russia have? All numbers for nuclear weapons are estimates, but according to the Federation of American Scientists there are 5,977 nuclear warheads in Russia - devices that trigger a nuclear explosion - although this includes about 1,500 retired and ready for disassembly.
Most of the remaining approximately 4,500 weapons are considered strategic nuclear weapons - ballistic missiles or rockets that can be targeted at long ranges. These are the weapons often associated with nuclear warfare.
Russia's strategic nuclear warheads… Source: Federation of American Scientists, BBC
The rest are smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons for short-range use on battlefields or at sea.
However, this does not mean that Russia has thousands of long-range nuclear weapons ready to be fired.
Experts estimate that about 1,500 Russian warheads are currently "deployed", that is, on missile and bomber bases or on submarines at sea.
Compared to other countries… Nine countries have nuclear weapons: China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, US and UK.
China, France, Russia, the USA and the UK are among the 191 countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Under the deal, they have to reduce their stockpile of nuclear warheads and are, in theory, committed to their complete elimination.
Total number of nuclear warheads... Note: All figures are estimates... Source: Federation of American Scientists, BBC
What if Russia uses nuclear weapons? Let's start by saying that sooner or later they will use nuclear weapons. Russia has proven that it cannot win in a conventional war in Ukraine, so it has to resort to weapons of mass destruction to win.
· In which case will Russia use it?
Russian policy also considers nuclear weapons only as a deterrent and lists four situations for their use:
· Launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation or its allies
· Use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against the Russian Federation or its allies
· An attack on critical government or military facilities that threaten the nuclear capability of the Russian Federation
· Aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the existence of the state is at stake
· How destructive?
Nuclear weapons are designed to cause maximum destruction. The extent of destruction depends on a number of factors, including:
· The size of the warhead
· How high above the ground it explodes
· Local environment
Damage zones from 100kT nuclear weapons… Source: SGR, Fema, BBC
But even the smallest warhead can cause huge casualties and lasting consequences. The bomb that killed 146,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan during WWII was 15 kilotons. And nuclear warheads today can weigh more than 1,000 kilotons. The largest explosion ever recorded is the Tsar Bomb (Russia), reaching 100 megatons.
Very little is expected to survive in the immediate impact zone of a nuclear explosion. After a blinding glow, there is a huge fireball and blast wave that can destroy buildings and structures for several kilometers.
· Scenario 1: Remote atmospheric testing…
The least provocative would be Putin's resumption of surface nuclear tests, for example by detonating a low-yield nuclear warhead above Novaya Zemlya, the former Soviet test site in the Arctic. While both the actual damage to the ground and the radioactive fallout are negligible, the psychological impact can be enormous: It will be the first nuclear explosion by a superpower such as the United States or Russia since the end of nuclear testing in 1992, and after being banned by treaty in 1963. Then the first bomb will be detonated in the atmosphere. It will also be a powerful reminder that Putin has plenty of tactical nuclear weapons and is ready to use them.
· Scenario 2: Atmospheric explosion over Ukraine…
A more provocative spectacle could be an ultra-high-altitude blast of a more powerful weapon over Ukraine itself. In a test conducted in 1962, the United States detonated a 1.4 megaton hydrogen bomb 250 miles above Earth in the middle of the Pacific. The resulting electromagnetic pulse unexpectedly extinguished streetlights and interrupted telephone service in Hawaii, 900 miles away. A similarly powerful explosion over Kiev would not only be visually spectacular, but would also disable computers, cell phones and other electronic devices, plunging the capital into prolonged darkness and silence. EMP (electromagnetic pulse) effects can also spread to NATO member countries. However, the extent of the damage from the impact is unpredictable and Russian communications may also be affected.
Scenario 2 Nukemap nuclear simulator… Source: https://nuclearsecrecy.com/
· Scenario 3: Ground explosion in Ukraine…
The most dangerous - and therefore perhaps least likely - would be to use a tactical nuclear weapon to achieve a concrete military goal, such as preventing the distribution of weapons to the fighting Ukrainians in a city like Mariupol. Alternatively, Putin could detonate a tactical nuclear warhead against military or logistics targets in sparsely populated western Ukraine, for example, in the farmland between Lviv and Kyiv, after warning people in the target area to evacuate. But even the smallest nuclear weapon, when detonated in mid-air, sets fire to a large area. Depending on the height of the explosion, it could also spread persistent radioactive fallout, possibly extending to NATO member states and Russia itself.
Scenario 3 Nukemap nuclear simulator… Source: https://nuclearsecrecy.com/
These maps above show a simulation of each scenario (except for scenario 1 as it will be used as a demonstration away from civilization) using a nuclear bomb W-59 (Minuteman 1 warhead) of 1 megaton or 66 times larger than Hiroshima.
Reminder: The largest bomb Russia has ever tested is 50 megatons, or 3,333 times that of Hiroshima.
Conclusion? There is little doubt that a nuclear demonstration is an option being considered in the Kremlin. This opens the question of what would be the best US or NATO response. In our view, if Putin fires a nuclear warning shot in the Ukraine war, President Joe Biden should likewise resist pressure to respond and avoid options that could lead to an increased nuclear exchange.
Instead, the President should unite the nations of the world in a universal condemnation of Putin for breaking the nuclear taboo and taking the most dangerous first step towards a nuclear war. The United States and NATO can also respond using non-kinetic means such as cyber warfare. For Biden, no matter what Putin's decision, directly engaging Russian forces in combat should only be a last resort.
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