Country Profiles: Russia

Russia flag
NPT: 1970
CTBT: 1996 (signed but not ratified)
First Test: 1949
First Hydrogen Bomb: 1955

Current number of nuclear warheads:
Strategic: ~5600
Tactical: ~3600
Total: ~9200
Last Updated: 2/27/02

Scientists in the Soviet Union were quick to grasp the military ramifications of the advances in nuclear physics during the 1930s. However, not until 1943, when Joseph Stalin learned of the Manhattan Project, did an actual program to construct a nuclear weapon begin, though one with very limited resources. Although Stalin did not want to be left too far behind the rest of the world in the field of nuclear weapons, he remained unconvinced of the necessity of nuclear weapons, and the program was under-funded compared to programs in other states. But, by the 1945 conference of Potsdam, in which United States President Harry Truman alluded to a powerful new weapon in his talks with Stalin, the program was well underway under the control of Igor Kurchatov, albeit still with much smaller resources than the Manhattan project. After the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, Stalin decided that it was imperative to develop a bomb as soon as possible, sparing no costs. In April of 1946, the town of Sarov (pop. 3000) was converted into a secret atomic weapons research city, named Arzamas-16, which was directed by Yuli Khariton. In 1949, the Soviets conducted their first nuclear test, a plutonium device with a 22kt yield.

Initially, the Soviet program was greatly assisted by outside knowledge, and espionage was quite helpful as well. A weak security apparatus at the Manhattan project, sympathies for the Soviet Union (which was locked in combat with Nazi Germany), and the socialist leanings of some scientists made this task easier. Karl Fuchs, in particular, provided the Soviet program with important information. While this espionage may have reduced the time necessary to produce a bomb, it was not the deciding factor: Soviet work on the bomb would have proceeded regardless. The Soviet project was also aided by teams of German scientists who were brought to the Soviet Union after the end of WWII.

Initial attempts by the United Nations, the United States, and the Soviet Union to preempt an arms race and eliminate nuclear weapons were unsuccessful. The Soviet Union and the United States could not agree on an acceptable framework: the US plan proposed inspection followed by dismantlement and a provision for strong sanctions, while the Soviet plan called for dismantlement first and did not offer the possibility of sanctions. Any possibility of accord was further dimmed by the secretive nature of the United States atomic project (which had included Britain but kept the Soviet Union in the dark), and by Stalin’s propensity for paranoia.

Almost immediately after the first nuclear test, work began on a thermonuclear device. A “layer-cake” model, with fission and fusion materials interspersed, was detonated in 1953 with a yield of 200-400kt. However, the Soviet’s first true hydrogen bomb, which had a payload of 1.6 megatons, was not detonated until 1955, three years after the first American test of a hydrogen device.

Besides the obvious threat from the United States, the Soviet Union feared threats from Europe (NATO) and China (especially after the first Chinese atomic test in 1964). In the conflict with these other nations, nuclear weapons could play a vital role in insuring the survival of the Soviet state. At first, Soviet planners assumed that any war with the West would go nuclear. However, according to historian David Holloway, by the 1980s they had backed away from this view and combined an official pledge not to use nuclear weapons first with a restructuring of armed forces to gear towards more conventional combat.

In terms of nuclear strategic forces, the Soviets initially focused on closing the gap with the United States. While they were never able to do this completely, relative parity was attained by the late 1960s/early 1970s. Although some American policymakers believed that the Soviet Union was trying to achieve strategic superiority, most experts suggest that in fact the Soviet Union aimed merely for the security and greater flexibility in foreign policy that nuclear parity would bring. This “parity” can also be understood through the framework of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)—as long as both sides remained vulnerable to each other’s arsenals, stability could be preserved.

As opposed to the United States, which initially focused on its bomber fleet as a long-range delivery option for nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union early on turned their attention to rockets. In the period shortly after WWII, bombers were not capable of round trip inter-continental flights without stopping at a military base on the way. Since the Soviet Union did not have any military bases close to the United States, the development of intercontinental missiles offered a great advantage. By 1957, the Soviets successfully flight-tested the world’s first ICBM, the SS-6. Later that year, they used the SS-6 to launch the Sputnik satellite into space, alarming the Americans and beginning the so-called “space race.” By 1961, the first Soviet cosmonaut reached space.

Weapons developments continued throughout the Cold War. In 1961, the Soviet Union tested the largest bomb ever built. Dubbed the “tsar-bomba,” it was designed to yield 100 megatons of explosive power (the equivalent of nearly 7,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs), and the test itself, adjusted to be less powerful, yielded 50 megatons. Overall, the Soviet Union conducted approximately 715 nuclear tests.

Over the course of the Cold War, the Soviets modernized their air and naval forces to deliver nuclear weapons. The first ballistic missile submarines were deployed in the later 1950s, and new designs continued up through the 1980s. Air forces, while quite poor at first, were gradually improved.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union began to construct an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system around Moscow. Although the US held the edge in ABM technology at the time, it was concerned by this deployment, and the two sides agreed to the 1972 ABM Treaty in an attempt to stop a missile defense race that threatened to lead to an offensive arms race. The Treaty (and a 1974 protocol) limited ABM deployments to one location, for which the Soviet Union chose Moscow. There are currently 100 ABM missiles encircling the capital—36 exo-atmospheric “Gorgon” interceptors and 64 endo-atmospheric “Gazelles.” Each interceptor is armed with a nuclear warhead of 1Mt and 10 kt, respectively. Any use of the Gorgon missiles would create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) which could effectively cripple Moscow’s electric and communications systems, thus reducing their effectiveness.

The issue of ballistic missile defense resurfaced in the early 1980s when President Ronald Reagan proposed a new missile defense system, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics. Predictably, the Soviet response to this program was uniformly negative. Soviet leaders wanted to ban SDI and in response threatened to escalate the arms race. They especially resented efforts to weaponize space. However, in an interview with the Soviet press, Reagan proposed eliminating nuclear weapons before deploying the missile shield; in other reports he suggested sharing the Star Wars technology with the Soviets. Although both of these suggestions were later repudiated, they demonstrate Reagan’s hope that a missile shield would render nuclear weapons obsolete.

This abolitionist idea was embraced by some in the Soviet Union, most notably Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1986 the new leader of the Soviet Union called for an end to nuclear weapons by the year 2000. In the fall of that year, Gorbachev and Reagan nearly agreed to eliminate nuclear weapons at a summit in Reykjavik, but the initiative, hindered by Reagan’s continued refusals to stop work on SDI, could not be completed. However, Gorbachev continued his advocacy of arms reductions, and in 1987 signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Reagan, under which each nation agreed to eliminate all of its land based intermediate range nuclear missiles. Then, in 1991, he and President George Bush organized the START treaty which mandated a nearly 50% reduction in the nuclear arsenals of both sides. Gorbachev also responded to Bush’s unilateral de-alerting of strategic bombers by acting in kind. A START II treaty calling for reductions in warheads down to the 3000-3500 range was signed and finally ratified by the Russian Duma in 2000 (though with modifications that require ratification by the United States Senate). A START III treaty mandating further reductions has been discussed as well.

When the Soviet Union formally dissolved in 1991, some 27,000 nuclear warheads remained in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Since then, all weapons in the three smaller former Soviet Republics have either been destroyed or moved to Russia, and all three have joined the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states. However, Russia continues to possess thousands of nuclear warheads – at least 6000 strategic warheads and over 10,000 tactical ones. More dangerously, its ability to support these weapons has declined. As economic woes worsen, several experts claim that Russia will only be able to support 1000 warheads by 2015. There have been cuts in almost all nuclear military programs, and currently the submarine fleet has only 17 subs in operation. As the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000 illustrates, Russia’s forces are ill-maintained and its personnel are underpaid. This raises not only the danger that Russia’s weapons of mass destruction could fall into the wrong hands, but also increases the possibility of accidental nuclear launches as Russia’s command and control services decline. In 1995, Russian early warning satellites detected a missile launch from Norway and frightened missile commanders went so far as to wake President Yeltsin and activate the “nuclear briefcase” with the codes to trigger a nuclear strike. Yeltsin was mere minutes from ordering what would have been a devastating counterstrike before planners realized that the rocket would land harmlessly in the ocean. In fact, the launch was merely a scientific test rocket.

In order to avert the possibility of nuclear catastrophe raised by a decaying control apparatus and faltering economy, the United States has supported the Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative, named Nunn-Lugar after its principle Congressional sponsors. The Initiative provides nearly $400 million per year to dismantle Russian warheads and provides alternate employment for Russian scientists (so rogue or terrorist groups can less easily recruit them). The program also offers resources that might otherwise be acquired through the sale of advanced weaponry to rogue states.

Although suffering from political instability and a struggling economy, Russia still considers itself a great power. Its size and history no doubt contribute to this self-image. But, more importantly, as long as nuclear weapons continue to be seen as a source of prestige, Russia will continue to maintain its nuclear arsenal as a way to keep itself firmly a member of the superpower club. Russia will also maintain its nuclear arsenal to counterbalance China and an expanding NATO.


Russia’s nuclear program, from the High Energy Weapons archive

Citizen Kurchatov: Stalin’s Bomb Maker, PBS Special

Declared Nuclear Weapons States – Russia, from the Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions, by Carey Sublette

Sputnik: The Times Looks Back, from The New York Times

“Ending the Nuclear Weapons Era” by David Krieger

CRS Issue Brief IB98038: Nuclear Weapons in Russia: Safety, Security, and Control Issues

Honoré M. Catudal Soviet Nuclear Strategy from Stalin to Gorbachev (West Berlin: Berlin Verlag Arno Spitz, 1988)

David Holloway The Soviet Union and the Arms Race 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983)