How Russia Is Building the Nuclear Weapons of the Future

January 16, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaNuclear WeaponsNuclear WarVladimir PutinMilitary

How Russia Is Building the Nuclear Weapons of the Future

Threatening a nuclear war of annihilation is one of Moscow’s favorite sports.


In December 2023, in his annual speech before the Russian Defense Ministry Board, President Vladimir Putin stated that, “Given the changing nature of military threats and the emergence of new military and political risks, the role of the nuclear triad, which ensures the balance of power, the strategic balance of power in the world, has significantly increased.” According to the Putin regime’s mythology, recently echoed in state-run Sputnik News, it is only Russia’s strategic nuclear forces that “Saved Russia From Being Erased From [the] World Map.”

Threatening a nuclear war of annihilation is one of Moscow’s favorite sports. High level Russian nuclear threats are commonplace. This is particularly prevalent with regard to Russian aggression against Ukraine. The objective is nuclear coercion. Under supposed Russian “negative assurances,” Ukraine, which is not a nuclear-armed state, is supposed to be immune to Russian nuclear attack. Yet, Russian nuclear threats against Ukraine are very common dating back to 2014 when Russia seized Crimea. Russia started its 2022 invasion of Ukraine with a nuclear threat by President Putin which was repeated frequently. According to the Deputy Chief of the Russian Security Council (and former President) Dmitri Medvedev in September 2023, the illegally annexed areas of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk) “…can be defended by “…any Russian weapons, including strategic nuclear weapons and weapons based on new principles…” In March 2023, Medvedev declared, “Thank God, we have parity and even superiority in strategic nuclear forces which, in effect, is even more vital for the existence of our country, because otherwise we would have been torn apart.” Medvedev even threatened “‘…the further existence of the entire human civilization’ if Russia ends up defeated in Ukraine by the West which he claimed is aimed at the disintegration of Russia.”


When he invaded Ukraine in February 2022, President Putin threatened NATO should it intervene against Russia, stating that Russia would respond “…immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.” Most current Russian nuclear threats associated with Putin’s aggression against Ukraine have been aimed at the United States and NATO. Russian nuclear threats are designed at deterring Western assistance to Ukraine. Indeed, they have been successful in limiting the scope of Western assistance.

Russia has the lowest nuclear weapons use threshold in the world. Putin’s June 2020 decree on nuclear deterrence states:

The conditions specifying the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the Russian Federation are as follows:

a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

c) attack by [an] adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;

d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

In September 2014, General of the Army (ret.) Yuriy Baluyevskiy, who developed the 2010 revision of Russia’s nuclear doctrine when he was Deputy Secretary of the Russian National Security Council, stated that the “…conditions for pre-emptive nuclear strikes…is contained in classified policy documents.”

Since at least 2003, Russian nuclear doctrine involves an “escalate to de-escalate” or an “escalate to win” strategy. In fact, Russia routinely practices nuclear escalation in its nuclear exercises.

Recognition that Russia is further enhancing its reliance nuclear weapons is clear in the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI’s) 2023 “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community” which provides a stark warning about the Russian nuclear threat. It states:

  • “Russian leaders thus far have avoided taking actions that would broaden the Ukraine conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders, but the risk for escalation remains significant.”
  •  “Heavy losses to its ground forces and the large-scale expenditures of precision-guided munitions during the conflict have degraded Moscow’s ground and air-based conventional capabilities and increased its reliance on nuclear weapons.”
  • Russia maintains the largest and most capable nuclear weapons stockpile, and it continues to expand and modernize its nuclear weapons capabilities.” (Emphasis in the original).

The Biden Administration’s October 2022 National Security Strategy recognized that, “Our competitors and potential adversaries are investing heavily in new nuclear weapons. By the 2030s, the United States for the first time will need to deter two major nuclear powers, each of whom will field modern and diverse global and regional nuclear forces.” Moreover, it continued, “Russia’s conventional military will have been weakened, which will likely increase Moscow’s reliance on nuclear weapons in its military planning.”

In December 2023, President Putin announced that, “This year, thanks to the consistent implementation of the state armament programme and the efficient operation of the defence industry enterprises, the level of modern weapons and equipment in the strategic nuclear forces as a whole has reached 95 percent, and the naval component – almost 100 percent.” This is an increase from 91.3% a year before. The comparable U.S. number is zero. Putin said that in 2023 Russia had added a new Borei-A class ballistic missile submarine (the 7th Borei submarine) and 15 Yars ICBMs and Avangard hypersonic missiles. (Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu noted that the Russian “Strategic Missile Forces have completed the rearmament of the modern Avangard missile system…” This is presumably a reference to the second regiment.) Putin also said, “The aviation component is also being upgraded. In particular, four Tu-160M missile carriers have arrived. We must continue to maintain the combat readiness of strategic forces at the highest level. All plans approved in this area will certainly be implemented.”

In a December 2023 interview conducted by Red Star, Colonel General Sergei Karakayev, Commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces (the ICBM force) stated that their modernization had reached 88%. He said that “The current state of the missile forces is characterized by high readiness to perform tasks. The capabilities of the armaments, military, and special equipment are increasing.” Karakayev also indicated that Russia now had the world’s most modern nuclear weapons. He announced that there would be seven ICBM tests in 2024. (In January 2024, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed this and compared it to 20 launches over the last five years.) A number of the 2024 launches are likely to be the new Sarmat heavy ICBM. Colonel General Karakayev also said that silo-based RS-24 Yars ICBMs carried more warheads than the mobile versions. I will return to this later, but it is significant.

At the December 2023 Defense Ministry Board meeting, General Shoigu said that in 2024, “The Strategic Missile Forces will complete the task of putting the Sarmat strategic missile system on full combat alert. Two Tu-160M strategic missile carriers will join the Strategic Air Forces. The Knyaz Pozharsky nuclear-powered submarine cruiser of Borei-A project, three submarines and 11 surface ships will join the Navy.”

Putin announced that another Borei missile submarine (number 8) would become operational in 2024. In December 2023, Mikhail Budnichenko, CEO of the Sevmash Shipyard, told TASS that, “In the coming years, another three strategic submarines of Borey-A class have to be floated and handed over to the Navy in the framework of the state arms program.” This confirms previous press reports that Russia is going beyond the ten announced Borey submarines. In January 2024, Sputnik News reported that, “Russia expects to receive a complement of 12 Borei subs total by 2031…” The notional availability date for the first new U.S. Columbia class ballistic missile submarine is also 2031 but it is behind schedule.

Russia is reportedly developing a new replacement for the Bulava-30 SLBM, currently deployed on the Borey SSBNs.

Contrary to Russian practice for the last five years in the Defense Board meetings, neither Putin nor Shoigu announced the number of ICBMs to be deployed in 2024. Colonel General Karakayev said Russia has now completed the deployment of mobile MIRVed RS-24/Yars ICBMs (replacing all Soviet-era SS-25s) but that the silo-based Yars deployment will continue.

Russia is continuing the development of the nuclear-capable PAK DA stealth bomber. In December 2023, its developer, the Tupolov design bureau, announced that “…specialists have carried out the full cycle of research and development and experimental design work for creating a testing base and set of test benches.” Sputnik News, Russian state media, reported that, “The PAK-DA is meant in part to replace the Tu-95 – the long-time workhorse of Soviet and Russian aviation which goes back all the way to the 1950s, and the Tu-160 – the late-Soviet era variable sweep wing strategic bomber which proved so successful that production of a modernized variant was recently restarted. It reported that the PAK DA has a 12,000-15,000 mile operational range and a 30 ton payload, which “will be able to carry an array of existing long-range Russian air-launched missiles, cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons, and be future-proofed to be able to deploy new munitions as they become available.” (Emphasis in the original.)