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Atomic Accounting: A New Estimate of Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Forces

Igor Sutyagin
Occasional Papers, 7 November 2012
Russia, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy
Russia's non-strategic nuclear weapons stocks may be far smaller than widely thought. Presenting a radical new estimate, this paper explains why

As Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have been drawn down in parallel with those of the US, its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear weapons has begun to play a greater role in the arms-control policies of Western states. But do we know how many non-strategic warheads Russia actually has?

While decades of verified strategic force reductions have given the US and Russia a relatively clear picture of each other’s strategic forces, non-strategic nuclear weapons have never been subject to any verifiable agreement or transparency regime. Furthermore, the sources and methods used to develop existing estimates are opaque.

To develop a new estimate of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear forces, this study draws from open-source information to derive assignment rules for operational warheads in military use. Applying these to available data regarding Russia’s nuclear-capable military systems suggests that, as of mid-2012, Russia maintains approximately 1,000 operationally assigned non-strategic nuclear warheads. This estimate represents a significantly lower number of operationally assigned and deliverable non-strategic nuclear warheads than previously thought. Other publicly available estimates, by contrast, have indicated that Russia maintains a stockpile of approximately 2,000 operationally assigned non-strategic nuclear weapons.

The findings of this paper challenge the assumption that Russia holds a large supremacy in non-strategic warheads: if the US and NATO wish to negotiate non-strategic nuclear reductions with Russia, this paper suggests that they will need to acknowledge the diverse elements and geographically dispersed tasks of Russia’s stockpile, and find a new way of prompting Russia to reassess its security needs.

Erratum: for copies downloaded before 16 November 2012, please note that there is an error in the table in Appendix 1. This has now been amended. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

About the Author

Dr Igor Sutyagin is a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute. 

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