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3 May 2016

Critical mass

What is the ultimate goal behind the modernization of Russian nuclear forces?

In March 2016, Russia ignored yet another Nuclear Security Summit. In early 2016, Russian diplomats reiterated that they did not see any prospects for new talks on nuclear disarmament. This is happening against the backdrop of active and large-scale modernization of Russian strategic forces at a time of deep-rooted economic crisis, ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and confrontation with the West. It is therefore not unreasonable to question what Moscow’s objectives are given such policy.

A parity game

According to the New START Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) concluded between the United States and Russia in 2010, each party is allowed a maximum of 700 deployed strategic nuclear launchers (ICBMs, SLBMs and strategic bombers) in addition to 100 non-deployed launchers. The United States reduced the number of deployed launchers they have to almost the level of the specified threshold, whereas the number of launchers Russia had at the time the treaty was signed was already less than 700.






299* – 311




Bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160





531* – 543

The peculiarity of Russian strategic nuclear forces lies in the fact that many of the missiles purchased in large quantities in the second half of the 1980s (“Topol”, “Voevoda” and RS-18 missiles) and the 1990s-2000s (“Topol-M”) are retired today. Therefore, despite production of new missiles, the overall number continues to decline.




RS-20 Voevoda






RS-12M “Topol”


72* – 99

RS-12M2 “Topol-M”



RS-24 Yars”


58 – 73*

RS-26 “Rubezh”/ “Yars-M”



RS-28 Sarmat






RSM-54 “Sineva”/ “Liner”


80* – 96

RSM-56 “Bulava”


32 – 48*

Objectively, this decline in missiles does not pose a threat to Russian security as the combination of miles is still more than enough for defense. On the contrary, a further reduction in the number of nuclear launchers would be cost-effective and would allow the country to project the image that it is striving for disarmament at all costs. The same applies to strategic nuclear warheads: 1,735 warheads deployed by Russia and 1,481 – by the U.S..

However, a different logic is at play here: As a minimum, the Kremlin considers it vital to maintain nuclear parity with the USA at any cost. This is the only way of forcing Washington to heed Russia and to engage in talks. Besides, for many years, the global security agenda, in all its manifestations, is the only sphere in which Moscow is able to partake in talks. In other words, only by maintaining nuclear forces at a redundant, though comparable to the American, level can Russia strengthen its ambitions in the global arena.

This parity game is proving costly to the economically and socially vulnerable state. Still, it allows the Kremlin to pursue its incomparably immense foreign-policy goals thanks solely to the concept of mutually assured destruction.

The uncertainty principle

Apart from maintaining parity, Russia follows yet another principle while modernizing its nuclear forces: the uncertainty principle. Thus, whereas the number of strategic warheads and launchers is accounted for based on the New START Treaty, the number of Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons can only be roughly estimated: 1000-2000 stockpiled units. Counterpart estimates of American non-strategic nuclear weapons are more precise: 480-760 units including bombs and warheads currently being retired (see 1, 2 and 3). Besides, Moscow rejects the possibility of initiating negotiations regarding this type of arms: by keeping this trump card, Russia is afforded far greater military-and-political weight than it would should it opt to disclose information within the framework of a given agreement.

In line with this principle, new cruise missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, are being developed for the strategic bombers Tu-95MS and Tu-160. It is noteworthy that these aircraft were designed for striking aircraft-carriers and are not capable of carrying any other type of weapon apart from cruise missiles. And since this task seems virtually unattainable today, Russia is attempting to attribute a new role to such aircraft. It sees them as a means of de-escalating potential large-scale conflicts. At the heart of this idea is the premise of delivering a demonstrative and demoralizing nuclear strike upon unpopulated enemy territory or on the open sea.

To put it simply, according to the Kremlin, strategic bombers are intended to serve as a guarantee that the Russian army will not be defeated on the battlefield by a stronger enemy or international coalition, even under the least favorable foreign policy circumstances. A new strategic bomber, which is earmarked to replace Tu-95MS and Tu-160 in the mid-2020s, is being developed with the same goal in mind.

As regards the use of these aircraft in conventional warfare (in Syria), the imbalance between the high costs of arming and maintaining these aircraft and the meagre results they produce makes them very expensive. Moreover, the manufacturing capacity of Russian enterprises limits production to merely a few dozen cruise missiles a year which makes their use with a conventional warhead feasible only under exceptional circumstances.

The Kremlin wagers its stake on the design of the Barguzin” rail-mobile missile systems today as a means of maintaining strategic uncertainty and diffidence in its opponents. Such systems first appeared in the 1980s and were armed with missiles produced in Ukraine. Back in 2003, they were decommissioned and scrapped due to high costs. The infrastructure which allowed their operation was largely destroyed, too.

However, Moscow sees the key advantage of railway-based combat missile systems today in the fact that their patrol area stretches across almost the entire territory of the Russian Federation and they can be armed with Russia’s own missiles. Besides, a very small number of such trains will suffice to cause additional headaches for the United States and NATO, and serve to forge a formidable reputation.

Power mandate

In addition to the parity logic, yet another underlying objective can be traced behind these abbreviations and figures: to overcome disadvantages and weaknesses of previous ICBM and SLBM models. Currently, Russian forces are issued “Yars” and “Yars-M” (“Rubezh”) missile systems. By the 2020s, the “Topol” and “Topol-M” mobile systems will have been replaced and mine-based versions of these missiles systems will also be withdrawn at a later date. “Yars”, incidentally, is a more advanced, modified version of “Topol”.

Moreover, the development of heavy liquid-fuel ICBM Sarmat is underway. This missile should replace the “Voevoda” missile produced in Ukraine 30 years ago which became the most powerful Soviet/Russian ICBM, although difficult to maintain. For all intents and purposes, “Sarmat” will largely be based on upgraded technologies of its predecessor.

Similar processes are ongoing in the Navy. 667BDRM “Defin” (“Dolphin”) ballistic missile submarines (6 units will be in service before the late 2020s) are being rearmed with an SLBM “Liner”, even though their upgrade to the earlier modification of this missile named “Sineva” was completed as late as in 2014. At the same time, the 667BDR “Kalmar” (Delta III-class) submarines (22 units, 1 under repair) are armed with the previous generation of missiles – RSM-50 – and will remain in service as long as the missiles themselves and the submarines remain fit for purpose. The only new weapons being developed under project-955 (955A) are “Borey” ballistic-missile submarines (3 submarines are already in active service and 4 are under construction) with a “Bulava” SLBM largely unified with “Yars”.

However, only two plants produce strategic missiles in Russia: the Votkinsk Machine Building Plant and the Krasnoyarsk Machine Building Plant. The former specializes in the production of “Yars”, “Yars-M” and “Bulava”. The latter specializes in the production of “Liner” and “Bulava’s” upper stage, and will produce “Sarmat” in the future. The production capacity of these plants is estimated at 10-20 missiles a year each.

Hence, given the number of decommissioned “Topols” and the introduction of “Yarses” into service gives grounds to conclude that we are witnessing the upgrade of a certain number of old-type missiles to new-type missiles. With such an upgrade, only certain parts of the missile and the silo are modernized. Perhaps a similar pattern can be observed in the case of “Sineva” which is being upgraded to “Liner”.

The described nature of modernization of nuclear forces with a focus on maintaining their number has a domestic-political dimension to it.

To begin with, the special role of the military industry in Russian power games requires that the Kremlin feeds the defense industry new orders. This probably explains the decision to launch the “Sarmat” missile.

Secondly, the Kremlin has frightened itself with U.S. missile defense for so long that it seems to have finally come to believe its own hype. The Russian government is now obsessed with the idea of overcoming the problem of missile defense with new missiles.

Thirdly, the modernization of old missiles and the development of new missiles enables the legitimization of the current Russian regime which positions itself as a successor of “Soviet grandeur” and an opponent to the disarmament “in the face of the West”.

Besides, given the Kremlin’s inability to carry out economic modernization and solve pressing problems in the country, the upgrade of nuclear forces indicates Moscow’s political power capabilities in this arena.


Presented tables are compiled based on: 2010 data – Arms Control Association and PIR Center; 2015 data – Russian Nuclear Forces, 2015, and Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces (marked with an asterisk in the case of differences from Russian Nuclear Forces)

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