Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization


Russia’s nuclear forces consist of both long-range, strategic systems – including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers – and shorter- and medium-range delivery systems. Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces, replacing Soviet-era systems with new missiles, submarines and aircraft while developing new types of delivery systems. Although Russia’s number of nuclear weapons has declined sharply since the end of Cold War, it retains a stockpile of thousands of warheads, with more than 1,500 warheads deployed on missiles and bombers capable of reaching U.S. territory.

Doctrine and Deployment

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union valued nuclear weapons for both their political and military attributes. While Moscow pledged that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, many analysts and scholars believed the Soviet Union integrated nuclear weapons into its warfighting plans. After the Cold War, Russia did not retain the Soviet “no first use” policy, and it has revised its nuclear doctrine several times to respond to concerns about its security environment and the capabilities of its conventional forces. When combined with military exercises and Russian officials’ public statements, this evolving doctrine seems to indicate that Russia has potentially placed a greater reliance on nuclear weapons and may threaten to use them during regional conflicts.

This doctrine has led some U.S. analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, where it might threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were losing a conflict with a NATO member, in an effort to convince the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw from the conflict. Russian officials, along with some scholars and observers in the United States and Europe, dispute this interpretation; however, concerns about this doctrine have informed recommendations for changes in the U.S. nuclear posture.

Russia’s current modernization cycle for its nuclear forces began in the early 2000s and is likely to conclude in the 2020s. In addition, in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was developing new types of nuclear systems. While some see these weapons as a Russian attempt to achieve a measure of superiority over the United States, others note that they likely represent a Russian response to concerns about emerging U.S. missile defense capabilities. These new Russian systems include, among others, a heavy ICBM with the ability to carry multiple warheads, a hypersonic glide vehicle, an autonomous underwater vehicle, and a nuclear-powered cruise missile.

Arms Control Agreements

Over the years, the United States has signed bilateral arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and then Russia that have limited and reduced the number of warheads carried on their nuclear delivery systems. Early agreements did little to reduce the size of Soviet forces, as the Soviet Union developed and deployed missiles with multiple warheads. However, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, combined with financial difficulties that slowed Russia’s nuclear modernization plans, sharply reduced the number of deployed warheads in the Russian force. The 2010 New START Treaty added modest reductions to this record but still served to limit the size of the Russian force and maintain the transparency afforded by the monitoring and verification provisions in the treaty.   Purchase this volume