Russia's nuclear arsenal: What weapons does Putin have?

Russia’s nuclear arsenal: What weapons does Putin have? Where will they be deployed?

Russian President Vladimir Putin in March announced a plan to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, Moscow’s first move of such warheads outside Russia since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.

Belarus began taking delivery of the weapons in June according to the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko.  

The Kremlin has long used Belarus as a staging ground to launch its attacks on Ukraine, with Russian troops and tanks flooding across the southern Belarusian border onto Ukrainian soil on February 24, 2022.

Now, Russia’s air force flies sorties over Ukrainian skies from Belarusian air bases.

But the stationing of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders three NATO member countries in Lithuania, Latvia and Poland, represents yet another ramping up of tensions and the scale of potential consequences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in the resort city of Sochi, Russia 09 June 2023

Iskander missile launch at the command post of the Armed Forces brigade in April 2022

A ground-based mobile launcher for Russian Iskander short range nuclear capable tactical missiles 

FILE – Belarusian army Su-25 jet fighters fly during a parade marking Independence Day in Minsk, Belarus, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. Belarus announced some Su-25 fighters were being upgraded to carry tactical nuclear warheads

What weapons will be deployed and where?

Putin said that ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons would be sent to Belarus but did not say exactly which warheads would be deployed or where.

READ MORE – Putin’s terrifying nuclear arsenal: ‘Unstoppable’ hypersonic missiles, submarine drones and artillery capable of lobbing atomic shells 

But Lukashenko said the warheads are three times more powerful than the atomic bombs the United States dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The Hiroshima bomb, made from highly enriched Uranium-235, was about 16 kilotons (equivalent to 16,000 tonnes of TNT), while the Nagasaki bomb, made from plutonium-239, was about 21 kilotons, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Tactical nuclear weapons are not of the same class as strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which can strike targets on the other side of the world and wipe out multiple cities with ease.

Instead, tactical warheads are designed to be used in a theatre of operations to turn the tide on the battlefield – but if Lukashenko’s estimate of their power is accurate then just one of the tactical warheads now stationed in Belarus could still devastate huge swathes of Ukrainian cities.  

Russia has about 1,816 non-strategic nuclear warheads, according to a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ analysis of Russia’s nuclear weapons.

Putin said Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missiles, which can deliver nuclear warheads, had already been handed over to Belarus. Russian sources say the Iskander has a range of 500 km (310 miles).

Putin also said 10 Belarusian aircraft had been adapted to carry nuclear warheads, while Belarusian officials specified that Su-25 aircraft had been retrofitted to grant them deployment capability, though it is unclear what missile system would be used to deploy such warheads from a fast jet. 

The Sukhoi-25 jet has a range of up to 1,000 km (621 miles), according to Russian sources.

The Federation of American Scientists has said the weapons could be based at Lida air base, just 40 km (25 miles) from the Lithuanian border.

If so, the delivery vehicles could potentially reach most of Ukraine, almost all of eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, a swathe of Germany, as well as some of Denmark, Sweden and Finland. 

Tactical nuclear weapons do not compare to strategic nukes like the Yars ICBM currently in use by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces (pictured). These heavier weapons can level several cities with ease, while tactical nukes are designed to have a large impact on the battlefield

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) during an interview with Russian journalist Olga Skabeeva (R) of the Rossiya-1 Russian state TV channel, in the Minsk region, Belarus. Lukashenko said Belarus has started taking delivery of Russian tactical nuclear weapons

What did Putin and Lukashenko say about the deployment?

Putin’s nuclear deployment is a message to the West that he will not back down over the Ukraine war.

READ MORE: Putin threatens that Ukraine war could turn NUCLEAR and warns ‘in the event of a Third World War there will be no winners’

Putin made the announcement, almost as an afterthought, in an interview with state television Kremlin correspondent Pavel Zarubin that was first posted on Telegram on March 25.

Putin said the trigger for the decision to deploy in Belarus was an announcement by Britain that it would supply depleted uranium munitions to Ukraine. 

The Wall Street Journal reported on June 13 that the United States was also set to approve depleted uranium tank rounds for Ukraine.

Belarus said the deployment was in answer to the West’s ‘aggressive policy’ and that it was aimed at forcing the West’s leaders to think before escalating.

Lukashenko meanwhile, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, making him Europe’s longest-serving leader, said he ‘demanded’ that Putin station tactical nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. 

‘We have always been a target,’ Lukashenko said. ‘They (the West) have wanted to tear us to pieces since 2020. No one has so far fought against a nuclear country, a country that has nuclear weapons.’

Who controls the weapons?

Putin said Russia would remain in control of the weapons just as the United States controls its own tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Europe.

Russia’s nuclear weapons are controlled and transported by the 12th Main Directorate of the defence ministry (12th GUMO). 

Russia has already used Belarus as a staging ground to launch its war in Ukraine, deploying troops and tanks across the southern Belarusian border and flying aerial sorties over Ukrainian skies from Belarusian airbases. 

Their agreement would work much in the same way as those held by Western powers. 

The United States has had nuclear weapons deployed in Europe since the 1950s at NATO bases. 

Putin has repeatedly raised concerns about the 200 U.S. B61 tactical nuclear warheads deployed at bases in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.

Those U.S. warheads are kept in vaults at air bases and the United States keeps the Permissive Action Link (PAL) codes used to arm them. 

Although they are stored in Europe, only U.S. forces can initiate their deployment. 

Iskander missiles have been used by Russian in its war against Ukraine (pictured) carrying conventional explosives, but can also be armed with nuclear warheads 

The 2S7 Pion is one of the largest conventional artillery pieces ever developed and is known to be in use in Ukraine. It can fire nuclear-tipped shells with a relatively small yield of one kiloton

When will the weapons be deployed?

Putin said Russia would finish the construction of a special storage facility in Belarus on July 7-8 and the weapons would be deployed soon afterwards.

But Lukashenko has made different comments. 

He seemed to indicate last month that the weapons were already on the move while on June 13 he said the weapons would be deployed in ‘several days’.

Then on June 14, he posted a video in which he claimed that his armed forces had already begun taking delivery of some of the weapons and organising their storage and deployment. 

He has also said that there could be ‘nuclear weapons for everyone’ who joined the Russia-Belarus union. 

What is the response of NATO and the US?

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States went to enormous lengths to ensure that the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were returned to Russia – which inherited the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

By putting nuclear weapons back in Belarus, Putin is showing that the architecture of post-Cold War nuclear arms control is crumbling.

The United States has criticised Putin’s nuclear deployment but has said it has no intention of altering its posture on strategic nuclear weapons and also that it has not seen any signs Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon.

The State Department said on March 27 that speaking candidly, it condemned the announcement of the deployment. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on April 18 that Putin’s decision was irresponsible.

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