Here are the nuclear weapons Russia has in its military arsenal

Video released by Russia in early 2022 shows drills by its strategic nuclear forces including intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missile tests. (Video: The Washington Post)

As Russia’s military retreats on the battlefield, Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric about using nuclear weapons is escalating.

Russia’s president has been warning of nuclear consequences with increasing intensity since the first week of his war in Ukraine — when he put his arsenal on higher alert. Now he is threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend the Ukrainian territory that Russia has illegally annexed.

“This is not a bluff,” he warned the West. “And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weather vane can turn and point toward them.”

What if Putin isn’t bluffing? What sort of nuclear strike is Russia, the country with the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, capable of — and what kind of destruction might it wreak in Ukraine and beyond?

“Nuclear weapons, they’re unlike any other weapon,” said Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons expert who previously served as president of the Ploughshares Fund. “And that’s just the explosive part — not to mention the thermal effects and the temperatures that are produced.”

It is very unlikely that Russia would use its most powerful nuclear weapons to settle scores with Kyiv; Moscow is far more likely, experts agree, to use a smaller nuclear weapon in the hopes of achieving a specific battlefield objective. But, those same experts caution, once a nuclear weapon is unleashed, controlling what happens next is difficult.

“Once you start talking nukes, all bets are off,” said Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “So it’s not clear how far this will go.”

The first and most basic question about the Russian nuclear arsenal is: How many of the weapons does Russia have? It is a difficult one to answer.

Nuclear weapons are commonly divided into two categories: strategic weapons — those being the longer-range missiles that can cross oceans and threaten rival superpowers — and tactical weapons, those that have a more limited capacity and arguably could serve a more limited function.

The United States has a good count of Russia’s strategic weapons, because Washington and Moscow are required to disclose this under the terms of New START, the last remaining arms control treaty. That count of strategic weapons is split among those deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and those launched from bombers.

But when it comes to the tactical weapons, the U.S. intelligence community can only offer its best guess, and different agencies have differing estimates. The ballpark figure they have settled on is between 1,000 and 2,000 tactical weapons (which, it should be noted, can be launched from ground launchers, ships and bombers but are not pre-deployed). After careful study, the Federation of American Scientists put its estimate at 1,912 — although it cautions that this could include weapons being retired or taken offline.

How powerful are these weapons?

The power of a nuclear weapon is its yield, and yield is measured as a TNT equivalent. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the American bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had yields of 15 and 21 kilotons, respectively — so equivalent to 15,000 tons and 21,000 tons of TNT.

Modern strategic nuclear weapons have enormous power. Standard ones can have yields of 500 kilotons, 800 kilotons and even 1 megaton — equivalent to 1 million tons of TNT. Russia holds the record for the most powerful weapon ever exploded: In 1961, it tested a bomb of at least 50 megatons, nicknamed “Tsar Bomba” — or the tsar of all bombs.

In 2020, Russia released classified footage of the world’s largest nuclear explosion, caused when the Soviet Union detonated the “Tsar Bomba” in October 1961. (Video: Reuters)

Modern tactical weapons usually have a capacity of 10 to 100 kilotons, which still makes the average tactical weapon potentially more destructive than the bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russia and the United States also have “low-yield” nuclear weapons that pack a “light” punch, even dipping below 1 kiloton. But even the least-powerful nuclear bomb — with a yield of about 0.3 kilotons — has about the same explosive power as the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

What weapons would Russia be most likely to use?

Russia has various kinds of tactical nuclear weapons. Some are designed for use by the navy, some to be used by the air force and others to be used by the army, either in surface-to-surface short-range missiles or in surface-to-air air defenses. The yield varies by purpose, since it takes more power to penetrate, say, an underground bunker than it does to stop an incoming warplane.

Russia has different-size stocks of all these weapons. For example, the Federation of American Scientists believes Russia has about 500 tactical air force nuclear weapons, a figure that includes gravity bombs and air-to-surface cruise missiles. Many of those would be delivered by aircraft that we have seen on conventional bombing missions in Ukraine. These planes include the Tu-22 “Backfire” bomber that Russia has used to strike Ukraine and the Su-34 “Fullback,” one of which Ukraine claimed to have shot down last month. But experts do not think the Russians are necessarily going to use those.

The Russian Defense Ministry released footage on June 14 it says shows an Iskander missile system engaged in conventional battle in Ukraine. (Video: Associated Press)

A far more likely candidate is the 9K720 Iskander missile system, classified by NATO as the SS-26, which is a ground-based ballistic missile. But according to Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, there are far fewer of these in Russia’s arsenal — only about 100 weapons. So why would Iskander be the nuclear delivery system of choice?

“Simply because it’s the most reliable, and the one that would have the best chance of making it to its target,” Kristensen said. “Not being shot down, not failing.”


A ‘small’ nuclear missile

The 9K720 Iskander missile system, known to NATO forces as the SS-26, is capable

of delivering “tactical” nuclear weapons

as well as standard explosive warheads.

The Russians appear to have Iskanders deployed in Ukraine.

MZKT launch/support truck

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

A ‘small’ nuclear missile

The 9K720 Iskander missile system, known to NATO forces as the SS-26, is capable of delivering “tactical” nuclear weapons as well as standard explosive warheads. The Russians appear to have Iskanders deployed in Ukraine.

9M723 Ballistic Missile

Range: Approx. 300 miles

The booster rocket stage

and the warhead are both maneuverable in flight

for precise targeting

MZKT launch/support truck

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;

U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org

A ‘small’ nuclear missile

A ‘small’ nuclear missile

The 9K720 Iskander missile system, known to NATO forces as the SS-26, is capable of delivering “tactical” nuclear weapons as well as standard explosive warheads. The Russians appear to have Iskanders deployed in Ukraine.

The 9K720 Iskander missile system, known to NATO forces as the SS-26, is capable of delivering “tactical” nuclear weapons as well as standard explosive warheads. The Russians appear to have Iskanders deployed in Ukraine.

9M723 Ballistic Missile

Range: Approx. 300 miles

The booster rocket stage and the warhead

are both maneuverable in flight for precise targeting

MZKT launch/support truck

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org;

Alex Wellerstein’s “Nukemap” simulator at nuclearsecrecy.com

How much destruction can these weapons cause?

The first metric to pay attention to when estimating the destructive capacity of a nuclear weapon is its yield. If the kilotons number is bigger, the blast is going to be bigger, all else being equal. But all else is usually not equal. Terrain can be a factor — if there are hills in the area of the blast, they can buffer some of the radiating effects of the blast. If the target and the blast occur underground, the ground itself can absorb some of the blow. And whether the weapon is detonated on a surface or a just above the surface can also make a huge difference.


‘Tactical’ nuke could still

wreak grievous destruction

Using the District of Columbia as a rough guide, comparing the blast radius of a hypothetical tactical nuclear strike centered on the National Mall with the blast of an atomic bomb the size of the one used on

the city of Hiroshima in World War II.

Heavy damage/

casualties radius

for a 16-kiloton (Hiroshima-bomb-size) nuclear detonation

Heavy damage/

casualties radius for a 5-kiloton (“tactical”) nuclear detonation

Note: A target’s weather, terrain and other factors can affect the radius and damage of a blast in ways this diagram does not reflect.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;U.S. Department of Defense;

GlobalSecurity.org; Alex Wellerstein’s “Nukemap” simulator

at nuclearsecrecy.com

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

‘Tactical’ nuke could still

wreak grievous destruction

Using the District of Columbia as a rough guide, comparing the blast radius of a hypothetical tactical nuclear strike centered on the National Mall with

the blast of an atomic bomb the size of the one

used on the city of Hiroshima in World War II.

Heavy damage/

casualties radius for a 16-kiloton (Hiroshima-bomb-size)

nuclear detonation

Heavy damage/

casualties radius for a 5-kiloton (“tactical”) nuclear detonation

Length of Natl. Mall

(approx. 2.5 miles)

Distance from

Arlington National Cemetery

to RFK Stadium

(approx. 5 miles)

Note: A target’s weather, terrain and other factors can affect the radius and damage

of a blast in ways this diagram does not reflect.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org;

Alex Wellerstein’s “Nukemap” simulator at nuclearsecrecy.com

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

‘Tactical’ nuke could still wreak grievous destruction

Using the District of Columbia as a rough guide, comparing the blast radius of a hypothetical tactical nuclear strike centered on the National Mall with the blast of an atomic bomb the size of the one used on the city of Hiroshima in World War II.

Heavy damage/casualties radius for a 16-kiloton (Hiroshima-bomb-size)

nuclear detonation

Heavy damage/casualties radius for a 5-kiloton (“tactical”) nuclear

detonation

Length of National Mall

(approx. 2.5 miles)

Distance from

Arlington National Cemetery

to RFK Stadium

(approx. 5 miles)

Note: A target’s weather, terrain and other factors can affect the radius and damage

of a blast in ways this diagram does not reflect.

Sources: Federation of American Scientists;U.S. Department of Defense; GlobalSecurity.org;

Alex Wellerstein’s “Nukemap” simulator at nuclearsecrecy.com

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

There are also the radiation, radioactive debris and long-term poisoning affects to worry about. But according to Kristensen, there are ways to avoid this impact if people in the blast area take proper shelter, which may not be available in a war zone.

“If you go down in your basement and you stay there with your ventilation system turned off for three to four days, then most of the acute radiation will have disappeared, so that you’re able to at least go out,” he said. But while people might be able to breathe more easily at that point, they will still have to make sure their food and water supply haven’t been compromised.

History and Hollywood have instilled in our imaginations the image of world leaders with their fingers hovering over a big nuclear button, just one false flinch or sneeze away from lighting the world on nuclear fire. While the major strategic weapons can be launched within minutes of an order being given, that is not the case for Russia’s tactical weapons.

Those weapons are stored at a limited number of facilities around the country, from which they have to be removed and transported. That process takes days, according to the experts. And those movements would probably be detected by U.S. and European intelligence services.

They will be watching for things like the mobilization of military units that aren’t usually active; an increased presence of strategic forces; and more trucks or trains appearing to move toward Ukraine from the locations where officials know such weapons are stored. In recent days, reports of armored train cars moving through central Russia caused a stir and some worried they were witnessing the first sign of a nuclear attack. But so far, the experts aren’t flinching.

“Read that with an enormous grain of salt, because there are also all sorts of reasons for why the vehicles could be on those trucks,” Kristensen said, noting that U.S. intelligence agencies were strikingly quiet — which would not be the case if a nuclear attack on Ukraine were imminent.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

Leave a Comment