Cover image: Nuclear Russia: The Atom in Russian Politics and Culture (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023) by Paul Josephson.

Putin did not initially handle well his image as an all-powerful, masculine, military leader, determined to protect Russia from any danger. When the “Kursk” submarine sank on August 12, 2000, in the Barents Sea, killing all 118 personnel on board after a torpedo fuel explosion that was initially blamed on collision with a foreign boat, Putin continued his vacation at a Black Sea resort, and he authorized the Russian Navy to accept British and Norwegian offers of assistance only five days after the accident. This recalled the earlier Soviet treatment of accidents: to be silent. The Russians mishandled the accident and misled the public about what had occurred and what, if anything, they had done in the emergency response; a Norwegian operation to recover the bodies found that the sailors had lived sometime before suffocating or burning to death. Fortunately the reactor was intact. Once the submarine was hauled into a Naval base, the fuel, roughly 1.2 tons of enriched uranium in the twin reactors, was removed and taken by train to Maiak.

I myself was fortunate to go to Severodvinsk on many occasions in the 2000s, as a member of the Portsmouth, New Hampshire-Severodvinsk sister city organization, before the authorities closed that ZATO to foreigners again as a result of the government’s increasingly hostile foreign policy toward the United States, the west, and NATO. I learned firsthand how important the military atom remains to the nation, even if accidents have taken lives of heroic sailors and nuclear waste has been a part of daily life. Russia built 248 nuclear submarines and five naval surface vessels (plus nine icebreakers) powered by 468 reactors between 1950 and 2003.

Even today there are over forty ZATOs in Russia with one-million-plus residents that house Russia’s military-industrial complex including its weapons production and waste facilities: Cheliabinsk-65 (now Ozersk, home of the major Soviet plutonium production facility), Tomsk-7 (now Seversk, home of a fuel reprocessing factory and of a major nuclear accident in 1993), Krasnoiarsk-26 (now Zheleznogorsk, home of another plutonium processing facility), Sarov (Arzamas-16, where bombs were designed), the ship-building center Molotovsk (today Severodvinsk, on the North Sea), and many others that indicate the historical importance of the atom in Russian culture and politics.

Putin will not make this mistake of being distant from the atom—or accidents—again. Putin instead has avidly pursued the nuclearization of the nation, in particular of the Arctic, with a return to Soviet-era nuclear doctrine that justifies first use of nuclear weapons if the situation determines it. This is reflected precisely in building and testing nuclear submarines and missiles, for example, the launch of the “Krasnoiarsk” submarine in July 2021 from Sevmash, like others to be built to carry cruise and ballistic missiles. A promised hypersonic cruise missile, the Tsirkon (Zircon), for the first time from a submarine, followed soon thereafter. Putin announced “an array of new hypersonic weapons in 2018 in one of his most bellicose speeches in years, saying they could hit almost any point in the world and evade a U.S.-built missile shield.” 

Russia remains prepared for nuclear war, even as the United States and Russia signed the New START treaty (April 2010) to limit offensive strategic weapons. According to data from New START, Russia deploys 1,444 strategic warheads on 527 ICBMs, SBLMs, and heavy bombers. Russia’s arsenal includes five ICBMS, three of which were developed during the Soviet period, and two of which were developed in the Russian Federation. They include (by NATO designation): SS-18s, SS-19s, SS-25s (the Soviet ones), the SS-27 [the world’s first mobile ICBM] and SS-29. They are MIRV-ed with between six and ten warheads, and Soviet missile service life has been extended by fifteen years several times. Russia is striving to retire its Soviet-era heavy ICBMs with many warheads and replace them with smaller solid fueled missiles with fewer warheads, and the total number of deployed warheads has decreased. New START required Russia to cut its strategic nuclear arsenal to 1,550 operational warheads and 800 deployed and non-deployed launchers by February 2018, and it did so. 

But since the early 2000s the treaties that limit arms or require cuts in numbers have been buffeted by a variety of challenges including continued misunderstandings among leaders and negotiators of the nuclear nations. From the US side, fears that Russia has continued to mislead the United States or taken advantage of existing treaties led the country unilaterally to take advantage of existing language with withdraw from several of them, in two major cases under Republican presidents at the urging of neo-conservatives who boast about strength and power, and who do not truly seek arms control. In 2002 George W. Bush abrogated the 1972 ABM treaty claiming that it prevented the United States from defending its own people from attack, and asserting that the Russians had violated aspects of it, but in fact to push ahead with the Strategic Defense Initiative [“Star Wars”] defense system that most practicing physicists believe has no possibility of operating as intended. Sixty billion dollars have been spent and there has not been a step toward the initial goal of rendering nuclear weapons obsolete and impotent as claimed by supporters.

And second, signed in 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 US and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. But in September 2019 Donald Trump abrogated the INF treaty. As reported by the Arms Control Association, “For several years, the United States has alleged that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty by testing and deploying a banned missile system, and Washington pinned its treaty withdrawal squarely on Russia. ‘Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise’, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in announcing the US move. ‘Over the past six months, the United States provided Russia a final opportunity to correct its noncompliance. As it has for many years, Russia chose to keep its noncompliant missile rather than going back into compliance with its treaty obligations’.” Since 2014, the United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty by testing, possessing, and fielding an illegal ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), known as the 9M729. The US DOD has begun to test its own GLCM.

For its part, Russia, too, has become increasingly bellicose and assertive in its nuclear doctrine, in some respects returning to the rhetoric, if not the behavior, of Cold War years. This is not surprising given that Vladimir Putin is a product of the Cold War, a former KGB agent who sees foreign and domestic enemies working together to weaken Russia, and who believes that state power—and resource development—are the keys to Russian survival. He thus sees aggressive intent, not defense, in US nuclear weapons programs, and has determined to overhaul and modernize Russian forces, including nuclear forces. Increased budget outlays for new weapons programs are visible in all branches of the Russian military.

Putin displayed his rancor over the abrogation of the INF treaty. He said, “Now they are leaving the treaty on eliminating the short and middle-range missiles. What’s next? It’s hard to imagine how the situation will evolve. What if those missiles appear in Europe? What do we do then?” Indeed, a number of specialists insist that leaving the treaty will only trigger an arms race with ground-based nuclear missiles returning to Europe for the first time in decades. On top of this, according to new military doctrine, a recently published document reaffirms that the Russian could use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state.” This kind of aggression could include the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia or its allies and an enemy attack with conventional weapons that threatens the country’s existence.

In addition, Putin has asserted that Russia could use its nuclear arsenals if it gets “reliable information” about the launch of ballistic missiles targeting its territory or its allies and also in the case of “enemy impact on critically important government or military facilities of the Russian Federation, the incapacitation of which could result in the failure of retaliatory action of nuclear forces.” In November 2020 Putin said, “We don’t want to burn bridges, but if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid and harsh … We’ll decide for ourselves in each case where the red line is.” Unfortunately, the concept of preempting an enemy’s nuclear weapons that was a central point of Soviet military thought has been reiterated by President Vladimir Putin. All the while, Russia wants to recreate several territorial aspects of the former Soviet empire, and through the annexation of Crimea, a war with Georgia and its unprovoked 2022 war in Ukraine Russia has only exacerbated mistrust and gained international condemnation.

Excerpted from Nuclear Russia: The Atom in Russian Politics and Culture (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023) by Paul Josephson. Used with permission.

Click here to read Paul Josephson’s conversation with Anastasia Shteinert on why Russia should be considered to be a nuclear terrorist threat in Ukraine, how Chernobyl speeded up the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Paul Josephson is Professor of History at Colby College.