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Putin has threatened nuclear action. Here's what Russia is actually capable of


Moments before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine, he shot a stern warning to the rest of the world. Any country that interfered, he said, would, quote, "face consequences greater than any you have faced in history." He also bragged about Russia's nuclear arsenal and, several days later, put Russia's deterrent forces, including nuclear weapons, on high alert. So what are Russia's nuclear capabilities three decades after the Cold War? I put that question to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

HANS KRISTENSEN: The best estimate, I would say, is that they have just about 4,500 nuclear warheads in their military stockpile. They have some others that have been retired and await dismantlement. But those are the ones they could actually use.

MCCAMMON: That's a big number. It sounds like a lot. What is the impact of that? What does that mean?

KRISTENSEN: Well, it's split between sort of long-range strategic forces - that's the focus of it - that can be used in an exchange with the United States long-distance. But they also have a large inventory of short-range, so-called tactical nuclear weapons that are intended for use sort of locally, more in regional scenarios.

MCCAMMON: It's been a long time since the Cold War era. Do we know what kind of shape these weapons are in?

KRISTENSEN: Yeah, they're fully operational or fully functioning. The strategic forces are, most of them, deployed on their launchers. But the tactical weapons, they're in central storage - or at least the warhead's in central storage. So if Russia decided to use nuclear weapons in a scenario in Europe, it would first have to haul these warheads out and bring them to the launchers. But despite Russia's threats, the intelligence community has not seen any changes in the way that the Russians operate their nuclear forces. So it's a verbal threat, but they don't see any movement on the ground that indicate he's actually making preparations for that.

MCCAMMON: If Russia were to deploy nuclear weapons, you've talked about two different types. What type do you think they would be?

KRISTENSEN: Oh, of course, they will start small if it came to that. And then depending on where things going, they could turn up the heat. And if it goes all the way, it would reach strategic force levels, and that would be the big one.

MCCAMMON: In the past, this has been regulated through treaties. A number of Cold War-era treaties that regulated the use of nuclear weapons have fallen by the wayside in recent decades. What is left, and does the U.S. need to do more to reestablish those kinds of protocols?

KRISTENSEN: Yes, absolutely. It is both in our interests and, as a matter of fact, also in the Russian interest to keep lids on the nuclear force structures of the world. Right now, in terms of those limits, there's only one left, which is the New START treaty. It's over a decade old, and it's just been extended, but it will expire in 2026. After that, if it's not replaced, there will be no treaty limits on any nuclear forces. So it's very, very important that this war does not derail efforts to continue to control and limit nuclear forces.

MCCAMMON: You talk about the importance of not derailing those efforts, and there's a delicate balance here with diplomacy as it concerns this Russian invasion into Ukraine. How much do you think that the decisions and statements that the U.S. is making are being dictated by concerns about Russia's nuclear capabilities?

KRISTENSEN: Partly so, I think - no doubt about it. I think it's a deliberate decision on the part of the Biden administration and also the Pentagon. They do not want to play along with Putin's nuclear saber-rattling, and so their responses have actually been moderate and very responsible, I would say. The United States has even delayed a test launch of a long-range ballistic missile. So those are the right kinds of steps to take. Nobody doubts that U.S. forces are fully capable of responding to whatever scenario comes out, so they don't need to play that game.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned earlier that reestablishing some protocols regulating nuclear weapons would be obviously in the interest of the U.S., but also in Russia's interest. Do you think Putin would even be amenable to that kind of conversation at this point?

KRISTENSEN: I think before this conflict erupted, yes, they were interested, and there were several rounds of talks going on between Russia and the United States about sort of strategic security issues, but they're unlikely to be resumed until this war in Ukraine settles. But I think, yes - I think both sides, ironically, have an interest in continuing those talks.

MCCAMMON: That's Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Thank you.

KRISTENSEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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