Russian soldiers transporting nuke

Russia’s Newest Nuclear Warheads

by Matt Collins

On February 28, 2023, Vladimir Putin abandoned the last treaty regulating his nuclear warhead arsenal.

Almost exactly one year after his invasion of Ukraine, the decision is likely just a symbolic one. But by suspending Russia’s participation in the New START agreement, Putin effectively turned his back on decades of hard-won diplomacy. And he’s doubled down on developing Russia’s deadly nuclear inventory.

This is obviously a major development when it comes to calculating the potential for a nuclear war.

Vladimir Putin giving a speech

Vladimir Putin gives a speech. (Image courtesy of Reuters)

Without the roadblock of nuclear non-proliferation treaties, after all, Russia is now free to fast-track development and production at will.

Just consider that in 1990, shortly before the iron curtain fell and the USSR imploded, Russia had a stockpile of over 45,000 nuclear warheads. Today, that number has dwindled to fewer than 6,000—less than 15% its prior size. And they’ve still got the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

So what would happen if Putin decided to restore Russia’s cache of nuclear warheads to its former glory?

What types of hypersonic missiles, high-yield bombs, and submarine-launched nukes would they have at their fingertips?

And what kind of impact would that have on the global balance of power?

Despite its recent setbacks, Russia’s military industry has a history of nearly unrivaled proficiency.

After all, it was the same industrial war machine that defeated the Nazis in World War II, engineered the rockets that powered Russia’s space program, and made the country a massive nuclear power in the first place.

So… what happens when Russia turns that machine back on?

Today, we’re going to answer that question.

That entails going back in time to evaluate the “golden age” of Russia’s nuclear program. We’ll look at the specific design of warheads, delivery devices, and the scientists who conceived them.

Then we’re going to assess the threat to Americans here on the homefront—and what you can do to prepare for an attack.

Let’s begin.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Russia’s Nuclear Program: From Pioneering Science to Superpower Arsenal

  • 02

    Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal of Nuclear Warheads Today

  • 03

    Decades of Nuclear Treaties Disintegrating

  • 04

    Increased Risk of Nuclear War?

  • 05

    Threat Levels Rising

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions

Russia’s Nuclear Program: From Pioneering Science to Superpower Arsenal

At the core of Russia’s successful nuclear program is a fanatical devotion to the science that makes it happen.

For decades, Russia has been ground zero for major scientific breakthroughs, thanks to both sheer ingenuity and a wee bit of espionage—especially during the Cold War arms race.

Igor Kurchatov, renowned as the “father” of the Soviet atomic bomb, initiated pioneering work on nuclear fission in the 1930s. Despite the scarcity of resources and geopolitical turmoil during this period, he continued exploring possibilities for fission’s employment in mightily destructive weapons.

Arguably the biggest catalyst of the early Soviet nuclear program was Joseph Stalin, who emphasized the relevance of nuclear warheads in modern war.

Stalin was responsible for “Project Y,” otherwise known as the Soviet atomic bomb project, which was based at least in part on data intercepted from America’s Manhattan Project. Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall served as Soviet spies working within the Manhattan Project, vigorously collecting data regarding America’s projects.

In 1945, the United States successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, sending shockwaves through the Soviet government. If the Americans had nuclear warheads and the Soviets did not, then America would clearly be in control of the postwar world.

As a result, the Soviets sped up their own initiatives. Consequently, in August 1949, the Soviet Union had its first successful nuclear trial at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. This milestone launched the nuclear arms race between the USSR and the United States.

Andrei Sakharov–who eventually emerged as an ardent lobbyist for nuclear disarmament–also deserves recognition for his role in developing the Soviet atomic bomb. His contributions to its next-generation thermonuclear design were crucial. When tested in 1953, it displayed a dramatic upswing in destructive potency compared to atomic bombs.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War intensified, and new methods of nuclear warhead delivery emerged, among which the space race loomed large.

Notably, in 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik–the inaugural artificial satellite–into orbit. This feat exhibited the nation’s rocket science and provided the basic structure for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Sergei Korolev, the main designer of the Soviet space program, played a pivotal role in concocting the R-7 Semyorka, the first ICBM in the world. Serving as a major evolution of the USSR as a nuclear power, the R-7 could haul nuclear warheads across vast distances.

Russia's R-7 missile

Russia’s R-7 missile. (Image courtesy of Missilery)

Finally, the growing power of both the USSR and the United States came to head with the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, American intelligence uncovered Soviet ballistic missiles stationed in Cuba, escalating geopolitical tensions to an unprecedented level. Eventually alleviated through painstaking diplomatic efforts, this harrowing episode amplified the risks inherent in the nuclear arms race.

Through this entire period, the Soviet Union persisted in growing its nuclear stockpile. Meanwhile, illustrious scientists like Andrei Sakharov, whose work was instrumental in developing these weapons, began to voice disapproval of the atomic arms race and advocated for arms control deals. This pressure, both internal and external to the Soviet Union, ultimately steered to endeavors to rein in the proliferation of nuclear munitions.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Soviet Union had devised a new breed of ICBMs, including the infamous SS-18 Satan with its MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle) capability. MIRVs, notably, could use a single missile to carry multiple warheads to a target, dispersing them to reach different targets while still up in the atmosphere.

Fortunately, a major diplomatic breakthrough was in the making. With economic struggles and political upheaval, the Soviet Union finally reached agreements to scale back its nuclear arsenal.

Accordingly, the administration headed by Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated nuclear arms reduction deals with the United States, culminating in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty–finalized in 1987–turning back the clock on a generation of growth in stockpiles of warheads.

It was in this way that Gorbachev distinguished himself as a significant figure of the era, advocating for nuclear disarmament and exercising an indispensable function in mitigating tensions between the superpowers.

Later, in 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union ushered in a whole new era of disarmament, whereby the Russian Federation inherited its predecessor’s nuclear arsenal amid apprehension regarding the balance of safety and security during the disordered transition period.

One example of this post-Iron Curtain chaos was the Russian Federation’s financial difficulties, which impeded its endeavors to preserve and develop its nuclear capabilities.

Yet they continued with the development and deployment of further generations of ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), as exemplified by the Topol-M and Bulava missiles, which demonstrated Russia’s continued dedication to growing its nuclear arsenal.

Meanwhile, in recent years, apprehension over the development of hypersonic missile systems and tactical nuclear weapons have only served to escalate concern even further.

Russia’s Nuclear Arsenal of Nuclear Warheads Today

Russia’s nuclear arsenal acts as a powerful deterrent that relies on a few key factors.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) form the core of Russia’s strategic missile forces. Notable ICBMs in its arsenal include the RS-24 Yars, RS-28 Sarmat (Satan 2), and Topol-M. These missiles can carry multiple independently targetable nuclear warheads (MIRVs), enhancing their lethality.

As for Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrence, Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) are a significant component–operated from nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) armed with Bulava SLBMs. Russia also maintains a fleet of strategic bombers, such as the Tu-95 Bear, Tu-160 Blackjack, and Tu-22M Backfire. These bombers can carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

Here, it’s worth noting that Russia is actively modernizing its nuclear arsenal to ensure its effectiveness and reliability.

This modernization effort encompasses several facets. It involves, for example, the development of new systems, including the RS-28 Sarmat, known as Satan 2, designed to replace aging ICBMs, and the Borei-class SSBNs, armed with Bulava SLBMs, replacing older submarines.

Russia’s “Satan 2” missile

Russia’s “Satan 2” missile. (Image courtesy of Newsweek)

Russia also upgrades and extends the service life of existing ICBMs, SLBMs, and bombers while improving their accuracy and survivability. Furthermore, Russia is a leader in hypersonic missile technology, exemplified by the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle and the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile.

Russian nuclear doctrine

Russia’s nuclear doctrine underscores the role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against aggression and a means to ensure national security. Key elements include a no-first-use (NFU) policy, wherein Russia has vowed not to employ nuclear weapons unless first attacked by an adversary with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

Note that precise numbers and readiness levels of Russia’s nuclear arsenal are closely guarded state secrets. However, estimates suggest that as of 2021, Russia possessed around 4,350 nuclear warheads, with approximately 1,570 deployed on operational delivery systems.

This, significantly, encompasses both strategic and non-strategic (tactical) warheads. Readiness varies, with a portion of the arsenal maintained in a high state of alert, ready for rapid deployment. This includes strategic missile forces, submarines on deterrence patrols, and strategic bombers on standby.

Naturally, several challenges and concerns are associated with Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Ensuring the reliability and safety of aging nuclear weapons and infrastructure, for example, is an ongoing challenge, with modernization efforts facing technical, financial, and logistical hurdles.

Important to note, too, is that Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows for varying levels of nuclear use in conflicts–raising concerns about escalation risks in regional conflicts. And while a technological achievement, the development of hypersonic missiles raises concerns about destabilization due to reduced warning times and increased miscalculation risks. In this way, Russia’s nuclear posture is intertwined with its foreign policy, impacting relations with NATO and Western countries.

Russia also continues to invest in its nuclear capabilities and has ongoing research projects that could shape its future nuclear arsenal. This includes further development and deployment of hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles to maintain a competitive edge in this technology.

Research and development efforts will focus, too, on next-generation ICBMs and SLBMs, potentially exploring new tactical nuclear weapons for regional conflicts. Likewise, investments in modernizing command and control systems remain essential for stability and security.

All in all, while the exact details of its composition and readiness are closely guarded, it is evident that Russia invests in modernization and advanced nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The future trajectory of Russia’s nuclear program will depend on evolving security dynamics, arms control agreements, and technological advancements in the coming years.

Unfortunately, this comes just as a generation of diplomacy has begun to fall apart…

Decades of Nuclear Treaties Disintegrating

In 1987, the United States and Soviet Union made history by signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty–a monumental nuclear accord that aimed to obliterate all ballistic and cruise missiles having ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.

Throughout these later stages of the Cold War, The INF Treaty proved instrumental in mitigating the danger of nuclear warfare in Europe.

But then in February 2019, the United States officially terminated its adherence to the INF Treaty, citing Russia's purported transgression of said agreement. Representatives argued that Russia’s engineering and development of hypersonic weapons was a clear violation of UNF terms.

Naturally, the INF Treaty's suspension had serious consequences for global security, removing a major obstacle to the emergence of intermediate-range nuclear missiles and unleashing the potential for a new arms race.

The New START Treaty, finalized in 2010, significantly maintained nuclear arms control between the United States and Russia during suspensions of the INF Treaty. It placed hard limits on the deployment of strategic nuclear weapons for both sides.

The signing of New START kept nuclear, featuring Obama

The signing of New START kept nuclear diplomacy alive.  (Image courtesy of

In 2021, the United States and Russia affirmed a five-year extension of the New START Treaty, thereby extending the deal through 2026–until Russia decided to withdraw in February of 2023.

Russia also elected to remove itself from the Open Skies Treaty, a pact developed to engender trust between signatories and augment visibility through enabling unarmed monitoring flights over one another's arenas.

Their decision was reportedly rooted in anxieties concerning its efficacy subsequent to the U.S.’s exit. They attributed this decrease in the convention's utility to recently imposed restrictions on Russian Open Skies flights over United States territories.

Increased Risk of Nuclear War?

So what does it all add up to?

Well, Russia’s withdrawal from the last remaining nuclear agreement (New START) means the country is free to grow its stockpile unfettered. And there’s a reasonable chance that leadership will do just that.

Bear in mind that Russia lost a great deal of its political stature following the end of the Cold War. As such, its economy is now the eleventh largest in the world, between Brazil and South Korea. But its nuclear arsenal remains one of its most powerful political assets. After all, it has seen Russia through a number of other hostile negotiations, and, most recently, has thus far prevented NATO participation in the war in Ukraine.

And regardless of how its armies perform in the field, the mere existence of Russia’s stockpile of nuclear warheads is enough to keep the world on a knife edge.

But this isn’t just about the number of warheads. After all, 6,000 will end humanity just about as effectively as 60,000.

Ergo, the real problem is the type of warheads. Tactical “battlefield” nukes, new hypersonic missiles–these aren’t your granddaddy’s doomsday weapons.

More importantly—these are the types of weapons they might actually use.

It’s believed that if Russia’s conventional military forces meet with impassable resistance in the field, leadership could potentially deploy tactical nukes to break the stalemate. (With that said, Former Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu insists this is unlikely.)

But even the use of a single tactical nuke could provide an equal and opposite response from NATO, deploying their own small-scale nuclear weapon against a Russian target. From there, the conflict could spiral into an all-out nuclear war, as depicted in the Arms Control Association’s “Plan A” scenario.

Of course, increasing the active nuclear warhead count also means increasing the risk of a bomb potentially being intercepted by terrorists or radicals–which in turn leads to increased instability. We here at MIRA Safety do not like instability.

That’s why we’ll remind you that now is as good a time as ever to make sure you have a gas mask or full-face respirator for each member of your family. In this regard, the CM-6M is an outstanding choice, thanks to its panoramic visor, integrated hydration system, and lightweight bromobutyl construction.

The CM-6M

Note that the CM-6M can be paired with a wide variety of gas mask filters. But we recommend the NBC-77 SOF for nuclear threats. Featuring both a P3 particle rating and a “Reactor” certification, it can protect you from iodine-131 particles often found in the atmosphere after a nuclear explosion. Plus, the NBC-77 SOF has the unique advantage of a twenty-year shelf life.

the NBC-77 SOF

Finally, we recommend stocking up on potassium iodide tablets. These affordable tablets will flood your system with safe iodine, preventing your thyroid gland from absorbing radioactive I-131, which has been known to cause cancer.

potassium iodide

Though these tablets cost just a few dollars now, they’d become impossible to find in the event of a nuclear emergency–so stock up now.

Threat Levels Rising

Over the last two years, Russia has withdrawn from the last of its nuclear agreements and invaded continental Europe.

Missile being launched

(Image courtesy of VOA)

Neither of these developments are exactly “good” news in terms of world peace. After all, increased nuclear armament and increased hostility ultimately add up to increased risk of potential nuclear war.

Granted, we haven’t been on the brink of nuclear conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. But we also haven’t seen a country in Western Europe invaded since the early 1940s.

At the same time, Americans have greater access to PPE right now than we’ve ever had before. So it’s a great time to gear up and build a stockpile of protective gear that can protect you and your family from whatever may come next.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Novaya Zemlya strategically significant?
What is Russia’s nuclear triad?
Who has access to Russia’s nuclear codes?