What Russia’s Nuclear Modernization Means for the Future of Nonproliferation

What Russia’s Nuclear Modernization Means for the Future of Nonproliferation

On May 18, 2019, Posted by , In Analysis Reports,Europe, With Comments Off on What Russia’s Nuclear Modernization Means for the Future of Nonproliferation
Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat ICBM takes off on a test launch in July 2018 from an undisclosed location. The RS-28 has been developed as part of Russia’s push to modernize its nuclear weapons (

By Marren Haneberg

Russia and the US are the world’s top two possessors of nuclear weapons, holding 92 percent of nuclear weapons globally (Ploughshares Fund). Russia is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and some of its modernizations, such as the SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile system, led the US to plan an exit from the INF Treaty in August 2019.

With both states exiting the INF Treaty, there is a high incentive for them, as the world’s leading nuclear powers, to create an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War. This dangerous game is unpredictable and unstable, “nuclear weapons are like a rifle hanging on the wall in a play written and staged by a person unknown. We do not know the playwright’s intent. Nuclear weapons could go off because of a technical failure, human error or computer error,” as former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in an April 29 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal.

Already, there are signs that the US is entering an arms race against Russia. The US Government signed over $1 billion in new missile contracts in the three months following its October 2018 announcement that it would exit the INF Treaty (“U.S. missile contracts…”). In March, the Pentagon announced plans to test two missiles, both of which violate the INF Treaty.  In May, the Trump Administration requested about $100 million “to develop three new missile systems that would exceed the range limits” of the INF Treaty (Reif).

US Policy Recommendations

In 2000, Russia introduced its “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, that is, “if Russia were subjected to a major non-nuclear assault that exceeded its capacity for conventional defense, it would ‘de-escalate’ the conflict by launching a limited—or tactical—nuclear strike” (Stowell). This strategy lowers the threshold for Russia to resort to nuclear weapons, so the US needs to deter Russia from further development by engaging Russia in new agreements and developing commensurate technology.

To incentivize Russia’s agreement to these treaties, the US needs to develop comparable weapons alongside these agreements so that it comes in with a powerful bargaining chip. If the US does not develop similar weapons, Russia will take that as a sign that it can dominate the nuclear order unchecked. Two examples of weapons that US needs to match are Russia’s hypersonic missile, Skyfall, and its unmanned torpedo, Poseidon.

Additionally, the US needs to initiate new nuclear agreements updated for Russia’s technology that further the goal of disarmament. Russia is using a loophole in the New START Treaty to develop non-strategic, modern systems systems that “are not accountable” in the treaty.  A significant advantage of these systems is that they are dual-capable, meaning they can be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons. These systems “increase its warhead delivery capacity” and “rapidly expand its deployed warhead numbers” (Department of Defense 9).

Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal

After the Cold War, Russia steeply reduced its strategic nuclear forces, but kept a large, undisclosed number of non-strategic nuclear weapons. The number of weapons in this arsenal is unknown, as Russia has only disclosed disarmament information in terms of percentages. An April 2018 estimate claimed Russia had 1,800 warheads assigned to non-delivery systems. Compared to the US, Russia “kept thousands of battlehead nukes” (Brumfiel). “Experts believe Russian non-strategic warheads are not mated to delivery systems,” but are stored in “about a dozen central storage facilities” (NTI). 

In his March 2018 State of the Union address, Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed that Russia was developing six new nuclear weapons. Most concerning to US defense analysts was his announcement that Russia is developing a nuclear-powered hypersonic missile, dubbed Skyfall, which he claimed would be able to reach any point in the world. Successful tests in January 2019 indicate that Skyfall “will likely be ready for combat as early as 2020” (Gault, Macias “Russia’s new hypersonic…”). It “would be impossible for [the] United States missile defense system” to counter Skyfall, according to Philip Coyle, board member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and former US assistant secretary of defense (Gault).

Putin also announced “a nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle” that could deliver “massive nuclear ordinance,” likely connected to Status-6, “an unusually ‘dirty’ thermonuclear bomb that would generate significant amounts of long-lived radioactive fallout if detonated in coastal waters” (NTI). US intelligence assessments say that this project, called “Poseidon,” will be complete in 2027, after which the Russian military will put at least 30 of these Poseidon drones on duty. So far, the US Navy has not announced the development of a similar weapon (Macias “Russia’s nuclear-armed…”).

While Russia “does not publish [an] unclassified overview of its strategic forces,” according to Kristensen, a regular columnist in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Russia recently decreased “the number of warheads on each SS-18 and SS-27 Mod 2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), as well as on each SS-N-32 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM),” indicating that implementation of New START has led Russia to reduce its strategic deployed forces and increase its reliance on a strategic reserve of non-deployed warheads, which “can be loaded onto missiles in a crisis to increase the size of the force” and is similar to the United States’ decades-long strategy (Kristensen and Korda). Russia has approximately 318 ICBMs, which can carry approximately 1,138 warheads.

Particularly alarming to the US and its allies is Russia’s stockpile of over 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, which dwarfs the US’s collection of only a few hundred. Russia has modernized its tactical inventory, including with development of the Iskander missile launcher and the Kalibr cruise missile, “both of which can be armed with nuclear warheads,” but “are currently being used as conventional systems” (Oliker).


            By modernizing, developing, and expanding its nuclear arsenal, Russia is creating a precarious situation, given the fall of the INF Treaty. Its “escalate to de-escalate” strategy is more likely to trigger a nuclear conflict with the US and NATO than it is to prevent it. The Kremlin shows no indication of halting growth of its nuclear stockpile and this is an extreme concern for Western powers, especially because tensions between NATO and Russia have drastically increased in the past decade. Both the US and Russia need to see that they are heading the direction of an arms race, and to prevent this race to destruction, they need to begin crafting new nonproliferation and disarmament policies.


Brumfiel, Geoff. 2019. “The U.S. And Russia Are Stocking Up On Missiles And Nukes For A Different Kind Of War.” February 1. NPR.

Department of Defense. 2018. “Nuclear Posture Review.” February. Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Gault, Matthew. 2019. “Russia’s New Nuclear Missiles Squeeze Response Time.” March 27. Scientific American.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. 2019. “The Madness of Nuclear Deterrence.” April 29. The Wall Street Journal.

Kristensen, Hans M. and Matt Korda. 2019. “Russian nuclear forces, 2019.” March 4. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 75, no. 2, 73-84, DOI: 10.1080/00963402.2019.1580891.

Macias, Amanda. 2018. “Russia’s new hypersonic missile, which can be launched from warplanes, will likely be ready for combat by 2020.” July 13. CNBC.

Macias, Amanda. 2019. “Russia’s nuclear-armed underwater drone may be ready for war in eight years.” March 25. CNBC.

NTI. “Nuclear Weapons in Russia.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. Accessed May 3, 2019.

Oliker, Olga. 2018. “Moscow’s Nuclear Enigma.” November/December. Foreign Affairs.

Ploughshares Fund. 2019. “World Nuclear Stockpile.” April 29.

Reif, Kingston. 2019. “Trump Increases Budget for Banned Missiles.” May. Arms Control Assocation.

Stowell, Joshua. 2018. “Escalate to De-Escalate: Russia’s Nuclear Deterrence Strategy.” August 20. Global Security Review.

“U.S. missile contracts have surged since decision to exit arms treaty, study shows.” May 2, 2019. The Japan Times.

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