October 31, 2023

Assessing the Evolving Russian Nuclear Threat

Executive Summary

  • Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its nuclear rhetoric has become more permissive, more inconsistent, and more instrumental. Russia has also placed greater emphasis on military exercises involving nuclear-capable weapons, and it has altered policies and planning for its nuclear forces.
  • Although it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions as the war in Ukraine is still ongoing and the lessons that Russia draws from it uncertain, the changes in Russia’s approach to nuclear weapons since its invasion suggest that Russia is likely to adopt a more assertive nuclear force posture, especially with respect to its non-strategic nuclear weapons, in order to signal that the country will no longer be a status quo power and increase the credibility of its nuclear threats. Russia is also likely to increase its efforts to test NATO cohesion—potentially through greater nuclear provocations and/or by signaling an insincere willingness to engage in forms of arms control or cooperative threat reduction—and continue to look for opportunities to leverage nuclear weapons to signal great-power status.
  • In a future war with NATO, Russia would likely perceive the need to use nuclear weapons earlier in the conflict, either to seek victory against superior NATO conventional forces through nuclear first use on the battlefield, or to prevent defeat by those NATO forces. Moreover, since 2022, it has become increasingly difficult for U.S. and Russian policymakers to discern each other’s red lines, raising the risk of unintended escalation. Heightened Russian nuclear rhetoric at home could also alter the public’s views of acceptable nuclear use, eroding a potential constraint on Kremlin decision-making. Finally, changes since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicate both reduced Russian commitment to nonproliferation as its image increasingly becomes that of a rogue actor in international affairs, and diminished opportunities for nuclear arms control, for now.


Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 reignited concerns about Moscow’s vast nuclear arsenal and the conditions under which the Kremlin might be willing to use these weapons. Moscow has gone to great lengths to stoke such concerns. At the start of the war, the Russian president publicly asked military leadership to place nuclear forces on higher alert (although there was no evidence of changes in Russian force posture). Over the course of the war, various figures inside the Kremlin have engaged in threatening nuclear rhetoric. Russia likely took these actions to coerce the United States and European countries to limit their support for Ukraine, divide the alliance by introducing concerns over escalation management, and prevent escalation to a direct conventional war with NATO, which the Kremlin continues to view as a superior military force.

Russia’s nuclear posturing largely comports with expectations for how it might conduct itself during a period of inter-state conflict, tracking with assumptions by Western analysts that Moscow would leverage nuclear weapons to limit vertical and horizontal escalation, and to deter Western countries from greater involvement in the war. Russia’s actions during the current conflict have in many ways been consistent with previous behavior, mirroring its history of using nuclear signaling to complicate Western thinking, raise concerns over the risk of escalation if certain weapon systems or capabilities were introduced, and generate alarm about what Russia might do if it were losing on the battlefield. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin made several statements threatening nuclear use, and Russia conducted two strategic nuclear exercises rather than the usual one annual exercise.

Despite these continuities in Russian behavior, some aspects of the current situation are distinct. First, Russia’s conventional military is being severely degraded in Ukraine. The Russian military has lost a significant percentage of its ground forces and experienced troops, and it has employed much of its available stockpile of longrange precision guided weapons. For example, according to Oryx Blog, which tracks Russian losses, as of August 2023 the Russian military has lost 11,638 pieces of equipment, including 2,218 tanks. Consequently, the Russian armed forces’ conventional options have grown particularly constrained, especially vis-à-vis the United States, and NATO writ large. The significant degradation of Russia’s conventional forces in Ukraine combined with sanctions and export controls that will hinder the reconstitution of Russia’s forces (foreseeably for the next 5–10 years) will likely mean that the Kremlin will rely more heavily on non-conventional instruments, including nuclear weapons. In the words of the U.S. intelligence community’s 2022 annual assessment released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Moscow will become even more reliant on nuclear, cyber, and [counter-]space capabilities as it deals with the extensive damage to Russia’s ground forces.”

Russia’s economic challenges amplified by Western sanctions will contribute to this trend, because nuclear weapons will represent a relatively cost-effective option for deterrence. Senior officials in the Russian military have acknowledged this probability. In a 2023 article published in Voennaya Mysl (Military Thought), a leading military theory journal of the Russian Armed Forces, Commander of the Strategic Missile Forces Colonel General S. V. Karakaev noted that “nuclear weapons also make it possible to ensure the protection of Russia with a much smaller amount of allocations for defense, which is extremely important in the current economic situation of the country.”

The degradation of Russia’s conventional forces is also likely to lead the Kremlin to perceive itself as militarily vulnerable. Russia is likely to remain weak for some time, but no less hostile or aggressive in its foreign policy. NATO’s enlargement to include Finland and Sweden, along with the strengthening of its Eastern Flank, will contribute to Russian perceptions of vulnerability and widen the conventional military gap that Russia may attempt to offset with nuclear weapons. Finally, Putin may grow to feel less secure in his position as the challenges Russia faces begin to mount over time. These pressures include sanctions, export controls, outflow of labor, and the growing cost of the war. It is impossible to assess how the failed insurgency by Yevgeny Prigozhin in June 2023 has affected Putin’s personal calculus on his hold on power. Putin’s own sense of his security in power is an important determinant of Russia’s future approach to nuclear weapons, given the centrality of his decision-making authority when it comes to nuclear weapons use.

These changes in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—a conventionally degraded Russia facing economic constraints, a stronger NATO, and a more vulnerable Putin—are likely to affect Russian attitudes toward the use of nuclear weapons. The new dynamics suggest that Russia may perceive nuclear weapons as increasingly more useful and therefore assign them a more important role in its security policy. It is therefore essential to carefully examine Russian statements, actions, and other indicators that Russian views on nuclear weapons may be changing. It is also critical to assess how any such changes might affect Russian actions moving forward, and to identify the implications of those changes for the United States and NATO.

This report addresses these issues. The first section documents changes in Russia’s rhetoric, exercises, and nuclear forces posture. The second section identifies how those changes are likely to translate into nuclear-related actions that Russia might take in the coming months and years. The third section articulates the implications of those actions for the United States and NATO.

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  1. Andrew Roth et al., “Putin Signals Escalation As He Puts Russia’s Nuclear Force on High Alert,” The Guardian, February 27, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/27/vladimir-putin-puts-russia-nuclear-deterrence-forces-on-high-alert-ukraine.
  2. Pavel Baev, “Apocalypse a Bit Later: The Meaning of Putin’s Nuclear Threats,” Brookings, April 1, 2015, https:// https://www.brookings.edu/articles/apocalypse-a-bit-later-the-meaning-of-putins-nuclear-threats/; “Major Russian Exercises Conducted since 2014 in Its European Territory and Adjacent Areas,” European Leadership Network, February 2016, https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Major-Russian-exercises-TABLE_ELN.pdf.
  3. “Attack on Europe: Documenting Russian Equipment Losses during the Russian Invasion of Ukraine,” Oryx, February 24, 2022, https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html.
  4. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community,” annual report (ODNI, February 8, 2023), https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ATA-2023-Unclassified-Report.pdf.
  5. Sergei Viktorovich Karakaev, “On the Issue of the Use of Strategic Missile Forces in the Wars of the Future,” Military Thought, no. 2 (2023), 13, https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/k-voprosu-o-primenenii-raketnyh-voysk-strategicheskogo-naznacheniya-v-voynah-buduschego.


  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

  • Michael Kofman

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Michael Kofman serves as a Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses' Russia Studies Program, and a Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Woodrow Wilson Internation...

  • Nicholas Lokker

    Research Associate, Transatlantic Security Program

    Nicholas Lokker is a Research Associate for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. His work explores the development of the political and security order in Europe, focusi...

  • Heli Hautala

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Heli Hautala is an Adjunct Senior Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program. She specializes in Northern European security and in Russia. Heli joined the Finnish Foreign S...

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