Russia remains a formidable nuclear threat, even to the U.S.

Michael J. Szanto
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles drive at Red Square in Moscow on May 7, 2019, during a rehearsal for the Victory Day military parade. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

As is now clearer than ever, the greatest military threat to the United States and its allies in the near future is Russia. Many in the West have long lulled themselves into believing that Russian nuclear weapons somehow do not matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the past 20 years, Russia has maintained, modernized and upgraded the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear weapons constitute a core element of Russian military strategy. The most well-known component of Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the strategic component that consists of over 1,500 thermonuclear warheads on intercontinental missiles aimed at the United States that take 30 minutes to arrive at their targets. While Russia’s strategic nuclear weapons are the most frightening, they are far less likely to be used than Russia’s tactical (nonstrategic) nuclear weapons.

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The bulk of America’s strategic forces are deployed on nuclear-powered subs. Our subs constitute a particularly vital second-strike capacity to deter Russian attacks against the American homeland but still must guard against threats from Russian nuclear depth charges and nuclear-tipped torpedoes much like the Cold War. America’s strategic deterrent does largely create the mutually assured destruction that many are aware of. However, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction is widely misunderstood in terms of the larger game theory context.

MAD doesn’t prevent Russia from numerous types of military aggression including limited nuclear strikes against military targets. Rather, it prevents the United States from credibly threatening massive retaliation. In fact, the Russian military is often thought to view limited nuclear strikes, particularly with tactical nukes, as “de-escalation.”

The most likely nuclear threat comes from Russian tactical nukes, which are not even covered by the New START or any other treaty. The limited obsolete nature of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons comes out of a unilateral 1990s disarming by the United States based on a misplaced assumption that America would never again face off against a hostile Russia.

Russia has 10 times as many tactical nuclear weapons as the United States. Russian battlefield nukes are designed to detonate cleaner with minimized long-lasting fallout and thus are viewed by the Russian military as very usable in battle. In fact, the Russian military routinely rehearses tactical nuclear weapons in conventional battles. Overall, today’s Russian military intends to counter American advantages in terms of land and surface forces with tactical nuclear weapons. Russia’s offensive tactical nukes include nuclear artillery, short-range missiles and nuclear-tipped anti-ship missiles.

Even in terms of conventional ground forces, Russia remains quite formidable.

During a military crisis, the U.S. military would be very challenged in shipping all of the heavy equipment necessary to stop on the ground a Russian military offensive against allies like Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia or even Poland. American air superiority could be significantly challenged by very capable Russian air defenses. Our ground forces would be terribly outgunned at least at first, and the Russians may be able to massively derail our ability to rapidly bring in reinforcements, particularly in terms of tanks, artillery and other heavy equipment.

The Russian military may rapidly escalate to the use of clean, low-yield nuclear weapons in the theater of combat. On top of the sheer explosive power of such weapons, tactical nukes could prompt radiation that mortally wounds many soldiers in the immediate vicinity. This is the grim reality of facing off against an aggressive enemy with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, coupled with an overwhelming advantage in terms of tactical nuclear weapons.

— Michael J. Szanto is an international affairs analyst. He grew up in Highland Park and went to Northwestern University.