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In June 2020 the Russian Government published, for the first time, an updated version of its “Foundations of State Policy in the Area of Nuclear Deterrence”. Previously classified, the document sets out the basic principles of Russia’s nuclear doctrine:

  • Russia’s nuclear deterrence policy is defensive in nature, to ensure Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, along with that of its allies.
  • Russia will maintain its nuclear weapons at a sufficient minimum level to ensure deterrence.
  • The use of nuclear weapons will be as a last resort.

The document does not advocate “first use” in a nuclear scenario. Yet it does not rule out first use in response to a conventional attack under certain circumstances either. The debate therefore continues among Western scholars as to whether the concept of “escalate to de-escalate” is a central tenet of Russian nuclear policy.

Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, with a stockpile estimated at 5,977 warheads, of which 4,477 are operational (strategic, non-strategic and reserve).

Russia’s large arsenal of 1,910 non-strategic/tactical nuclear warheads are not currently subject to any arms control limitations.

Forces are organised on the nuclear triad principle. Russia does not operate a policy of continuous at-sea deterrence but patrols periodically.

Russia has been undertaking an extensive programme of capabilities modernisation since 2008. In 2018 President Putin outlined a number of new nuclear weapons capabilities under development that are intended to counter US missile defence systems. These include hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles, a nuclear-powered torpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile. In December 2021 the Russian Ministry of Defense said that modern weapons systems comprised 89% of its nuclear inventory.

This short paper is intended as an introduction to Russia’s nuclear weapons policies and programmes. It is part of a series of country profiles which are available on the House of Commons Library website.


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