Everything You Wanted to Know About Russia's Nuclear Weapons and Strategy

Tom Nichols

Key point: American policymakers and citizens need to better understand Russia's nuclear program.

Americans don’t think very much about nuclear weapons, and they certainly don’t think very often about their own arsenal, at least until something goes wrong with it, like the recent scandals involving the U.S. ICBM force. The Obama administration completed a nuclear posture review in 2010, a document that supposedly lays out the purpose and future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Like previous U.S. reviews conducted in 1994 and 2002, it sank without a trace. The fact of the matter is that nuclear weapons and their mission simply do not matter much to post–Cold War American leaders.

Nuclear weapons, however, certainly matter to the Russians. Nuclear arms have always been the source of superpower status for both Soviet and Russian leaders. This is especially true today: the Soviet collapse left the Russian Federation a country bereft of the usual indicators of a great power, including conventional military force or the ability to project it. Little wonder that Moscow still relies on its nuclear arsenal as one of the last vestiges of its right to be considered more than merely—in President Obama’s dismissive words—a “regional power.” (Or in the caustic words of Senator John McCain: “A gas station masquerading as a country.”)

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