Russia: Ros Atkins explains history of nuclear weapon build up
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On Wednesday Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that if a third world war were to occur, it would involve nuclear weapons and be destructive. The comments reported by the RIA news agency come several days after Vladimir Putin ordered Moscow’s nuclear arsenal be moved to special alert, owing to what he claimed were “aggressive statements” from the West.
How many nuclear weapons does Russia have?
All figures are estimates but according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Russia has the largest supply of nuclear weapons in the world.
Moscow owns approximately 4,447 warheads – the devices that trigger a nuclear explosion – of which 1,588 are deployed on ballistic missiles and heavy bomber bases.
A further 977 strategic warheads and 1,912 nonstrategic warheads are kept in reserve by the Kremlin.
Hans M Kristensen and Matt Korda, writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: “Of the stockpiled warheads, approximately 1,588 strategic warheads are deployed: about 812 on land-based ballistic missiles, about 576 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and possibly 200 at heavy bomber bases.”
Moscow has been accused by human rights groups – such as Amnesty International – and Ukraine’s ambassador to the US of attacking Ukrainian targets with a mixture of “illegal” cluster and vacuum bombs.
A vacuum bomb, or thermobaric weapon, sucks in oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion.
Typically, it produces a blast wave of a significantly longer duration than that of a conventional explosive and is capable of vaporising human bodies.
Defence expert General Sir Richard Barrons told Sky News: “The sort of equipment [like] an intercontinental ballistic missile – that means it reaches from Russia to the US and obviously into Europe.
“The warhead at the front of it has a yield of between 300 and 800 kilotonnes.
“Three hundred kilotonnes is enough to destroy Washington or London or Paris.”
Could Russia use its nuclear weapons?
Mr Putin’s decision to move Russia’s nuclear weapons to special alert does not signal that the Kremlin intends to use them.
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Ben Wallace, UK Defence Secretary, told reporters last Monday he doesn’t expect Russia’s President to use nuclear weapons in his pursuit of Ukraine.
He said: “We should be worried that a state like Russia believes that the rules don’t apply to them, whether that is invading Ukraine or using nerve agent in Salisbury, but fundamentally a deterrent is what it is, a deterrent.
“As much as he might be ambitious for Ukraine, I don’t think he wants to go into that space.”
Quotes attributed to Mr Lavrov suggest that while the Kremlin is acutely aware of using their nuclear arms as a deterrent, there is also an appreciation for the devastation they would lead to, including for Russia.
Mr Putin himself has warned in the past about the dangers a nuclear war could trigger. In December 2018 he said if nuclear weapons were used in conflict it “would lead to the collapse of the entire civilization and maybe our planet”.
The conflict in Ukraine has now entered its eighth day following a full-scale invasion by Russian forces last week.
More than one million people have now fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations (UN), into neighbouring countries such as Poland and Hungary.
On Wednesday local officials in the port city of Kherson said Russian forces had seized control of the area.
Kherson is the first major Ukrainian city to be taken over since the invasion began.
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