Russia and weapons of mass destruction

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Russian Federation
Location of Russian Federation
Nuclear program start date1943[1]
First nuclear weapon testAugust 29, 1949
First thermonuclear weapon testAugust 12, 1953
Last nuclear testOctober 24, 1990
Largest yield test50 Mt (210 PJ) (Tsar Bomba, October 30, 1961)
Total tests715 detonations
Peak stockpile45,000 warheads (1990)
Current stockpile6400 total[2]
Current strategic arsenal1,600[2]
Cumulative strategic arsenal in megatonnage663.5-801.5 (2016.est)
(Variability occurs because of uncertainty about SS-18 yields)[3]
Maximum missile rangeIntercontinental up to 16,000 kilometers
NPT partyYes (1968, one of five recognized powers)

The Russian Federation is known to have possessed three types of weapons of mass destruction: nuclear weapons, biological weapons, and chemical weapons. It is one of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The nation possesses approximately 6,400 nuclear warheads—the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world.[4] More than half of the world's 14,000 nuclear weapons are owned by Russia.[5] Russia's predecessor state, the Soviet Union, reached a peak stockpile of about 45,000 nuclear warheads in 1986.[6]

The Soviet Union ratified the Geneva Protocol—prohibiting the use of biological and chemical weapons—on April 5, 1928 with reservations that were later dropped on January 18, 2001.[7] Russia is also party to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.[8][9] The Soviet biological weapons program violated the Biological Weapons Convention and was the world's largest, longest, and most sophisticated program of its kind.[10] At its peak, the program employed up to 65,000 people.[10] In 1997, Russia declared an arsenal of 39,967 tons of chemical weapons.[11][12]

Nuclear weapons[edit]


Soviet era[edit]

Post-Soviet era[edit]

At the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Soviet nuclear weapons were deployed in four of the new republics: Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. In May 1992, these four states signed the Lisbon Protocol, agreeing to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, with Russia the successor state to the Soviet Union as a nuclear state, and the other three states joining as non-nuclear states.

Ukraine agreed to give up its weapons to Russia, in exchange for guarantees of Ukrainian territory from Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. China and France also made statements in support of the memorandum.[13]

Nuclear arsenal of Russia[edit]

The exact number of nuclear warheads is a state secret and is therefore a matter of guesswork. The Federation of American Scientists estimates that Russia possesses 6,800 nuclear weapons, while the United States has 6,185; Russia and the U.S. each have 1,600 active deployed strategic nuclear warheads.[2][14]

The RS-28 Sarmat[15] (Russian: РС-28 Сармат; NATO reporting name: SATAN 2), is a Russian liquid-fueled, MIRV-equipped, super-heavy thermonuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile in development by the Makeyev Rocket Design Bureau[15] from 2009,[16] intended to replace the previous R-36 missile. Its large payload would allow for up to 10 heavy warheads or 15 lighter ones,[17] or a combination of warheads and massive amounts of countermeasures designed to defeat anti-missile systems;[18][19] it was heralded by the Russian military as a response to the U.S. Prompt Global Strike.[20]

In 2015, information emerged that Russia may be developing a new nuclear torpedo, up to 100 megatons,[21] the Status-6 Ocean Multipurpose System,[22][23][24] codenamed "Kanyon" by Pentagon officials.[25][26] This weapon is designed to create a tsunami wave up to 500m tall that will radioactively contaminate a wide area on an enemy coasts with cobalt-60, and to be immune to anti-missile defense systems such as laser weapons and railguns that might disable an ICBM.[23][24][26][27][28] Two potential carrier submarines, the Project 09852 Belgorod, and the Project 09851 Khabarovsk, are new boats laid down in 2012 and 2014 respectively.[25][26][29] Status 6 appears to be a deterrent weapon of last resort.[28][29] It appears to be a torpedo-shaped robotic mini-submarine, that can travel at speeds of 185 km/h (100 kn).[28][29][30] More recent information suggests a top speed of 100 km/h (54 kn), with a range of 10,000 km (6,200 mi) and a depth maximum of 1,000 m (3,300 ft).[31] This underwater drone is cloaked by stealth technology to elude acoustic tracking devices.[23][29]

During an annual state-of-the-nation address given on March 1, 2018, President Vladimir Putin publicly claimed that Russia was now in possession of several new classes of nuclear weapons, including some with capabilities previously speculated to exist. Putin discussed several new or upgraded weapons, including a hypersonic glide vehicle known as the Avangard capable of performing sharp maneuvers while traveling at 20 times the speed of sound making it "absolutely invulnerable for any missile defense system."[32] Putin also discussed the existence of a nuclear powered underwater torpedo and a nuclear powered cruise missile (9M730 Burevestnik), both with effectively unlimited range. He also discussed that Russia had tested a new class of traditional ICBM called the Sarmat, which expanded upon the range and carrying capability of the Soviet-era Satan ICBM. Animations of these weapons were shown in front of the live and televised audience, and Putin suggested that an online poll be conducted to give them official public names.[33]

Nuclear weapons in Russian military doctrine[edit]

According to a Russian military doctrine stated in 2010, nuclear weapons could be used by Russia "in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it or its allies, and also in case of aggression against Russia with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is threatened".[34] Most military analysts believe that, in this case, Russia would pursue an 'escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, initiating limited nuclear exchange to bring adversaries to the negotiating table. Russia will also threaten nuclear conflict to discourage initial escalation of any major conventional conflict.[35]

Nuclear proliferation[edit]

Large stockpile with global range (dark blue)

After the Korean War, the Soviet Union transferred nuclear technology and weapons to the People's Republic of China as an adversary of the United States and NATO. According to Ion Mihai Pacepa, "Khrushchev's nuclear-proliferation process started with Communist China in April 1955, when the new ruler in the Kremlin consented to supply Beijing a sample atomic bomb and to help with its mass production. Subsequently, the Soviet Union built all the essentials of China's new military nuclear industry."[36]

Russia is one of the five "Nuclear Weapons States" (NWS) under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which Russia ratified (as the Soviet Union) in 1968.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of Soviet-era nuclear warheads remained on the territories of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Under the terms of the Lisbon Protocol to the NPT, and following the 1995 Trilateral Agreement between Russia, Belarus, and the US, these were transferred to Russia, leaving Russia as the sole inheritor of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. It is estimated that the Soviet Union had approximately 45,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled at the time of its collapse.

The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed for a warming of relations with NATO. Fears of a nuclear holocaust lessened. In September 1997, the former secretary of the Russian Security Council Alexander Lebed claimed 100 "suitcase sized" nuclear weapons were unaccounted for. He said he was attempting to inventory the weapons when he was fired by President Boris Yeltsin in October 1996.[37] Indeed, several US politicians have expressed worries and promised legislation addressing the threat.[38]

Dmitry Medvedev with Barack Obama after signing the New START treaty in Prague, 2010

In 2002, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their stockpiles to not more than 2,700 warheads each in the SORT treaty. In 2003, the US rejected Russian proposals to further reduce each nation's nuclear stockpiles to 1,500. Russia, in turn, refused to discuss reduction of tactical nuclear weapons.[39]

After U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Russia responded by building-up their nuclear capabilities, in such a way as to counterbalance U.S. capabilities.[40]

Russia decided not to sign the UN treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted on 7 July 2017 by 122 States.[41]

Most analysts agree that Russia's nuclear strategy under Putin eventually brought it into violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (although this is not confirmed).[42] According to Russian officials, the American decision to deploy the missile defense system in Europe was a violation of the treaty.[43] U.S. President Donald Trump announced on 20 October 2018 that the U.S. would no longer consider itself bound by the treaty's provisions, raising nuclear tensions between the two powers.[44]

There were allegations that Russia contributed to North Korean nuclear program, selling it the equipment for the safe storage and transportation of nuclear materials.[45] Nevertheless, Russia condemned North Korean nuclear tests since then.[46]

According to high-ranking Russian SVR defector Sergei Tretyakov, a businessman told him that he keeps his own nuclear bomb at his dacha outside Moscow.[47]

Russia is allegedly making efforts to build its influential hold in Africa for earning several billions pounds by selling nuclear technology to developing African countries.[48]

Nuclear sabotage allegations from Russia[edit]

The highest-ranking GRU defector Stanislav Lunev described alleged Soviet plans for using tactical nuclear weapons for sabotage against the United States in the event of war. He described Soviet-made suitcase nukes identified as RA-115s (or RA-115-01s for submersible weapons) which weigh from fifty to sixty pounds (23 kg - 27 kg). These portable bombs can last for many years if wired to an electric source. "In case there is a loss of power, there is a battery backup. If the battery runs low, the weapon has a transmitter that sends a coded message – either by satellite or directly to a GRU post at a Russian embassy or consulate.".[49]

Lunev was personally looking for hiding places for weapons caches in the Shenandoah Valley area.[49] He said that "it is surprisingly easy to smuggle nuclear weapons into the US" either across the Mexican border or using a small transport missile that can slip though undetected when launched from a Russian airplane.[49] Searches of the areas identified by Lunev – who admits he never planted any weapons in the US – have been conducted, "but law-enforcement officials have never found such weapons caches, with or without portable nuclear weapons" in the US.[50]

In a 2004 interview, colonel general of RVSN Viktor Yesin said that Soviet small-scale nuclear bombs have only been operated by the Army. All such devices have been stored in a weapons depot within Russia, and only left it for checks at the plant which produced them.[51]

Biological weapons[edit]

The Soviet Union covertly operated the world's largest, longest, and most sophisticated biological weapons program.[52] The program began in the 1920s and lasted until at least September 1992 but has possibly been continued by Russia after that.[52] Thereby, the Soviet Union violated its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention, which it had signed on April 10, 1972, and ratified on March 26, 1975.[53]

In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union significantly enlarged its offensive biological weapons programs.[54] After 1975, the program of biological weapons was run primarily by the "civilian" Biopreparat agency, although it also included numerous facilities run by the Soviet Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Chemical Industry, Ministry of Health, and Soviet Academy of Sciences.[55]

According to Ken Alibek, who was deputy-director of Biopreparat, the Soviet biological weapons agency, and who defected to the United States in 1992, weapons were developed in labs in isolated areas of the Soviet Union including mobilization facilities at Omutininsk, Penza and Pokrov and research facilities at Moscow, Stirzhi and Vladimir. These weapons were tested at several facilities most often at "Rebirth Island" (Vozrozhdeniya) in the Aral Sea by firing the weapons into the air above monkeys tied to posts, the monkeys would then be monitored to determine the effects. According to Alibek, although Soviet offensive program was officially ended in 1992, Russia may be still involved in the activities prohibited by BWC.[55]

In 1993, the story about the Sverdlovsk anthrax leak was published in Russia. The incident occurred when spores of anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility in the city of Sverdlovsk (formerly, and now again, Yekaterinburg) 1,500 km (930 mi) east of Moscow on April 2, 1979. The ensuing outbreak of the disease resulted in 94 people becoming infected, 64 of whom died over a period of six weeks.[55]

Chemical weapons[edit]

Russia signed the Chemical Weapons Convention on January 13, 1993, and ratified it on November 5, 1997. Russia declared an arsenal of 39,967 tons of chemical weapons in 1997 consisting of:

Ratification was followed by three years of inaction on chemical weapons destruction because of the August 1998 Russian financial crisis.

Russia met its treaty obligations by destroying 1% of its chemical agents by the Chemical Weapons Convention's 2002 deadline,[56] but requested technical and financial assistance and extensions on the deadlines of 2004 and 2007 due to the environmental challenges of chemical disposal. This extension procedure spelled out in the treaty has been utilized by other countries, including the United States. The extended deadline for complete destruction (April 2012) was not met.[57] As of October 2011, Russia has destroyed 57% of its stockpile. Russia also destroyed all of its declared Category 2 (10,616 MTs) and Category 3 chemicals.[12]

Russia has stored its chemical weapons (or the required chemicals) which it declared within the CWC at 8 locations: in Gorny (Saratov Oblast) (2.9% of the declared stockpile by mass) and Kambarka (Udmurt Republic) (15.9%) stockpiles already have been destroyed. In Shchuchye (Kurgan Oblast) (13.6%), Maradykovsky (Kirov Oblast) (17.4%) and Leonidovka (Penza Oblast) (17.2%) destruction takes place, while installations are under construction in Pochep (Bryansk Oblast) (18.8%) and Kizner (Udmurt Republic) (14.2%).[11]

On 27 September 2017, OPCW announced that Russia had destroyed its entire chemical weapons stockpile.[58][59][60]

Novichok agents[edit]

A range of Novichok agents were developed and tested in the 1970s and 1980s, but the intended Novichok weapons production site at the Pavlodar Chemical Plant in Soviet Kazakhstan was still under construction when it was decided to demolish the chemical weapons building in 1987 in view of the forthcoming Chemical Weapons Convention.[61][62]

In March 2018, former GRU agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned in Salisbury, United Kingdom by a chemical agent later confirmed to be Novichok.[63] The incident raised new controversy over Russia's potential production and use of chemical weapons, with the United Kingdom accusing the Russian government or rogue Russian agents of orchestrating the attack, a claim Russia repeatedly denied.[64]

In August 2020, Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk, Russia by a chemical agent later confirmed to be Novichok.[65] A joint investigation by Bellingcat, CNN, Der Spiegel, and The Insider with contributions from El País implicates Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) in the near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning,[66] a fact denied by Russia. Navalny later called what appears to be one of the FSB agents responsible for the cleanup operation who indicates they were tasked to clean Navalny' underpants from Novichok.[67]

Disposal facilities[edit]

Russia has a number of factories for destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal: Gorny in Saratov Oblast, Kambarka in Udmurtia, Leonidovka Penza Oblast, Maradykovsky in Kirov Oblast, Shchuchye in Kurgan Oblast and the latest one Pochep in the Bryansk Oblast 70 km from the border with Ukraine, built with funds from Italy in accordance with the agreement signed between the two countries.[68][69] The last Russian chemical disposal facility in Kizner, Udmurtia, was opened in December 2013.[70]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]