The Russian invasion of Ukraine raised public fears about the use of nuclear weapons in Europe or against the United States. This level of concern had not been seen since the end of the Cold War.
NATO countries have been surprised by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s implicit threats to use nuclear weapons against “anyone who interferes with us” in Ukraine, and his placement of additional nuclear officers on rotation under a “special regime of combat duty”.
Russia and the United States both possess thousands of nuclear weapons, most of which are at least five times more powerful than the atomic bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. These include around 1,600 weapons on standby on either side that are capable of hitting targets across the globe.
These figures are close to the limits allowed by the new 2011 strategic arms reduction treaty, often called “New START”, which is the only nuclear arms control treaty currently in force between Russia and the United States.
Their arsenals include intercontinental ballistic missiles, better known as ICBMs, and ballistic missiles launched by submarines, as well as missiles launched from specialized aircraft. Many of these missiles can be equipped with multiple nuclear warheads that can independently hit different locations.
To ensure countries adhere to limits on warheads and missiles, the treaty includes methods for both parties to monitor and verify compliance. By 2018, Russia and the United States had fulfilled their obligations under New START, and in early 2021 the treaty was extended for another five years.
The nuclear arsenals of both countries also include hundreds of shorter-range nuclear weapons, which are not covered by any treaty. Currently, Russia has almost 2,000, about 10 times more than the United States, according to the most cited non-governmental estimates.
It is believed that about half of the approximately 200 US short-range weapons are deployed in five NATO countries in Europe: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey – although the states States neither confirm nor deny their locations. In times of war, Allied planes would take off from these locations and fly to their targets before dropping the bombs.
Two other NATO members, France and the United Kingdom, also have their own nuclear arsenals. They have several hundred nuclear weapons each – far fewer than the nuclear superpowers.
France has both submarine-launched nuclear missiles and air-launched nuclear cruise missiles; the UK only has nuclear weapons launched by submarines. Both countries have publicly disclosed the size and nature of their arsenals, but neither country is or has been party to US-Russian arms control agreements.
The United States, United Kingdom and France protect other NATO allies under their “nuclear umbrellas”, in line with NATO’s commitment that an attack on an ally will be considered an attack on the entire alliance.
China’s nuclear arsenal is currently similar in size to the British and French arsenals. But it is growing rapidly, and some US officials fear China is seeking parity with the United States. China, France and the United Kingdom are not subject to any arms control treaty.
India, Pakistan and Israel each possess dozens of nuclear weapons. None of them have signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, in which the signatories agree to limit the ownership of nuclear weapons to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, each of whom possesses nuclear weapons before it is signed.
North Korea, which also has dozens of nuclear weapons, signed this treaty in 1985 but withdrew in 2003. North Korea has repeatedly tested nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them.
There were also nuclear weapons elsewhere. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the republics that became Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan had former Soviet nuclear weapons on their territory. In exchange for international guarantees for their security, the three countries transferred their weapons to Russia.
Fortunately, none of these weapons have been used in warfare since the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But as recent events remind us, the risk of their use remains a frightening possibility.
Miles A. Pomper is Senior Fellow, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury and Vasilii Tuganov is Graduate Research Assistant at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury
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