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Report to Congress on Russian Nuclear Weapons

The following is the March 21, 2022, Congressional Research Service report, Russia’s Nuclear Weapons: Doctrine, Forces, and Modernization.

From the report

Russia’s nuclear forces consist of both long-range, strategic systems—including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers—and shorter- and medium-range delivery systems. Russia is modernizing its nuclear forces, replacing Soviet-era systems with new missiles, submarines and aircraft while developing new types of delivery systems. Although Russia’s number of nuclear weapons has declined sharply since the end of Cold War, it retains a stockpile of thousands of warheads, with more than 1,500 warheads deployed on missiles and bombers capable of reaching U.S. territory.

Doctrine and Deployment 

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union valued nuclear weapons for both their political and military attributes. While Moscow pledged that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, many analysts and scholars believed the Soviet Union integrated nuclear weapons into its warfighting plans. After the Cold War, Russia did not retain the Soviet “no first use” policy, and it has revised its nuclear doctrine several times to respond to concerns about its security environment and the capabilities of its conventional forces. When combined with military exercises and Russian officials’ public statements, this evolving doctrine seems to indicate that Russia has potentially placed a greater reliance on nuclear weapons and may threaten to use them during regional conflicts. This doctrine has led some U.S. analysts to conclude that Russia has adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, where it might threaten to use nuclear weapons if it were losing a conflict with a NATO member, in an effort to convince the United States and its NATO allies to withdraw from the conflict. Russian officials, along with some scholars and observers in the United States and Europe, dispute this interpretation; however, concerns about this doctrine have informed recommendations for changes in the U.S. nuclear posture.

Russia’s current modernization cycle for its nuclear forces began in the early 2000s and is likely to conclude in the 2020s. In addition, in March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was developing new types of nuclear systems. While some see these weapons as a Russian attempt to achieve a measure of superiority over the United States, others note that they likely represent a Russian response to concerns about emerging U.S. missile defense capabilities. These new Russian systems include, among others, a heavy ICBM with the ability to carry multiple warheads, a hypersonic glide vehicle, an autonomous underwater vehicle, and a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The hypersonic glide vehicle, carried on an existing long-range ballistic missile, entered service in late 2019.

Arms Control Agreements 

Over the years, the United States has signed bilateral arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and then Russia that have limited and reduced the number of warheads carried on their nuclear delivery systems. Early agreements did little to reduce the size of Soviet forces, as the Soviet Union developed and deployed missiles with multiple warheads. However, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, combined with financial difficulties that slowed Russia’s nuclear modernization plans, sharply reduced the number of deployed warheads in the Russian force. The 2010 New START Treaty added modest reductions to this record but still served to limit the size of the Russian force and maintain the transparency afforded by the monitoring and verification provisions in the treaty.

Congressional Interest 

Some Members of Congress have expressed growing concerns about the challenges Russia poses to the United States and its allies. In this context, Members of Congress may address a number of questions about Russian nuclear forces as they debate the U.S. nuclear force structure and plans for U.S. nuclear modernization. Congress may review debates about whether the U.S. modernization programs are needed to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent, or whether such programs may fuel an arms race with Russia. Congress may also assess whether Russia will be able to expand its forces in ways that threaten U.S. security if the United States and Russia do not continue to limit their forces under the New START Treaty. Finally, Congress may review the debates within the expert community about Russian nuclear doctrine when deciding whether the United States needs to develop new capabilities to deter Russian use of nuclear weapons.

Download the document here.