“A nuclear war can never be won and must not be fought.” Joe Biden said today speaking at the UN general assembly. The risk of an escalation leading Putin to use nuclear weapons is shaking the whole world. But what does the arsenal available to Moscow consist of? Intercontinental missiles that can hit the United States and hypersonic missiles five times faster than the speed of sound. The latest generation submarines that escape enemy radars and the mysterious nuclear-powered rockets. But above all, the devastating tactical and strategic atomic arsenal. In addition to the military power already deployed in Ukraine, from artillery to fighter-bombers, these are the arrows in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly tense bow that cause fear of a dramatic exasperation of the conflict.
Putin’s nuclear arsenal
After the chaos following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian arsenal has been extensively modernized over the past two decades. The Federation of American Scientists has calculated 5,977 warheads available to Moscow, more than any other country in the world and all the NATO reserves combined, even though about 1,500 would now be obsolete and ready to be dismantled. At least 1,588 of these bombs are ready to use, mounted on ground launch bases, submarine missile launchers and fighters. Most of the weapons are “strategic”, that is, those designed for maximum destruction, which would trigger nuclear war in the traditional sense. “Tactical” weapons, with lower potential and lower range, could instead be used in conflict to hit specific targets in the field, from fortified targets to large arrays of armed forces.
The risk of a global escalation
The use of the nuclear arsenal would mark the passage of the mother of all red lines, triggering the announced reaction of NATO and the United States. And if so far it seemed mostly a specter to be waved for propaganda purposes, the words used by the Russian president in his speech on partial mobilization have raised the antennas of many observers. The Kremlin leader in fact evoked their possible use in case of a threat to the territorial “integrity” of Russia: a formula explicitly indicated in his doctrine on deterrence, made public in 2020. According to the document, Moscow reserves the right to “tactical” weapons to resort to battle not only in the event of an “existential” threat, but also if it senses limited risks at its borders. That in a week, after the referendums he has already decided to recognize, in his eyes they could extend to the Donbass and the southern Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.