November 12, 2019

Over The Abyss

Nuclear Confrontation in the World and the Place of Ukraine


Victor Hvozd

Although the United States and Russia are ready to make some changes to their positions towards improvement, they are, in military terms, in a state of confrontation. Moreover, lately this confrontation has been reaching a new level. This concerns, first and foremost, the active expansion of their preparations for a possible nuclear war. Besides, the has been reshaping. The process began after relations between the West and Russia escalated as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine, when both sides, in fact, followed the Cold War escalation between the USA/NATO and the USSR in the 1950s–1980s: from building up of conventional forces at the European Military Theater — to enhancing their strategic and tactical missile and nuclear weapons.

The United States/NATO and Russia are now completing the first phase of deployment on major operational directions of their troops, as well as the rear infrastructure, which was covered in detail in our previous publications. At the same time, plans are underway to improve the parties' missile and nuclear forces and to work out methods of their combat use, as provided for in the relevant conceptual documents.


For example, the Russian Military Doctrine, adopted in December 2014 after its renewed confrontation with NATO, pays special attention to maintaining the necessary level of its nuclear capability to deter its adversaries. First of all, they refer to NATO, which is bringing its military infrastructure closer to Russia's borders. They also mean the United States deploying a strategic missile defense systems, disrupting the existing balance of forces in the missile and nuclear sphere, implementing the concept of a “global strike” and intending to deploy weapons in space.

At this, Russia “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in case of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”.

The RF Strategic Nuclear Forces
The RF Strategic Nuclear Forces

A number of plans to modernize all three components of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF), including the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN), Naval Strategic Forces (NSF), and Long-Range (Strategic) Aviation of the RF Armed Forces have been approved or clarified on the basis of the Military Doctrine. In particular, the main ones were the state arms programs for 2011–2020 and 2018–2025.

Under these programs, by 2026, it is planned to rearm all the units of the RF Strategic Rocket Forces with new mobile and silo-based multiple warheads “Yars” intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As of mid-March 2019, 109 such missile systems had been received. In total, they are going to get up to 400 missiles.

Despite the lack of finances, consistent measures are being taken to modernize and upgrade the Naval Strategic Forces. For example, in 2014–2018, three Project 955 “Borey” Strategic Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs) have been commissioned in the Russian Navy. Five other similar Project 955A submarines are at different stages of construction.

These submarines are going to be armed with new solid fuel multiple warheads ballistic missiles R-30 “Bulava” — 16 missiles on each of the submarines. As a result of the commissioning of 8 SSBNs, Russia will be able to simultaneously keep deployed and ready to use up to 128 “Bulava” ballistic missiles.

Besides, it is rearming six existing Project 667BDRM Delfin (Delta IV) SSBNs to new ballistic missiles R-29RMU2 “Sineva” (SS-23) and their modifications — R-29RMU2.1 “Layner”. In total, as of March 2019, 108 new ballistic missiles of various types have been adopted by the RF Naval Strategic Forces.

Depending on the pace of adopting new SSBNs of Project 955A, the last three old submarines of the “Kalmar”(Delta III) Project 667BDR, armed with 48 /16x3/ R-29 missiles) will be removed from service.

Along with this, a recent modernization of Tu-95MS and Tu-160M strategic bombers, as well as Tu-160M long-range strategic bombers has begun. In 2017, the first of the new Tu-160Ms was built on the basis of the existing design work. It was also envisaged to resume their serial production in the Tu-160M2 version, but due to lack of funds, the plans were postponed.

And that's not all. Russia's plans for the future include the development and construction of: a new missile system with a heavy “Sarmat” missile; “Avangard” missile system with a gliding wing unit; a small-sized nuclear power plant that can be installed in X-101 cruise missile; a new generation unmanned underwater vehicle capable of moving at great depth, at extremely high speeds and to intercontinental distances.


In turn, at the beginning of 2018, the United States promulgated a new Nuclear Doctrine (“Nuclear Posture Review”), which outlined the main directions of the United States' efforts to strategically restrain its adversaries. First of all, Russia, China and North Korea are among such adversaries who challenge the influence and interests of the United States, undermine American security and seek to change the balance of power in the world.

In this regard, US nuclear weapons play a decisive role in deterring a nuclear attack and preventing a large-scale war against the United States of America using conventional weapons. The conclusion is also drawn about the need to improve all components of the US nuclear triad in order to bring it in line with new threats to US security.

The US nuclear triad modernization programs
The US nuclear triad modernization programs

At the same time, in contrast to Russia, the USA adheres to a more pragmatic position, based on the cost/performance ratio of measures to modernize its nuclear potential. For example, in the opinion of US experts, the already existing in the USA Strategic Nuclear Forces can under any circumstances destroy any enemy. At this, in terms of their technical characteristics, weapon systems of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces outclass similar systems of all other countries, which does not necessitate creation of new strategic weapons.

In view of this, the main directions of the USA’s activity in the missile and nuclear sphere is to maintain the combat readiness of the deployed “Minuteman III” land-based ICBMs, in particular, to equip them with new engines. Work is also underway to preserve for combat use the existing fleet of В-52Н, В-1В and В-2А strategic bombers; to increase the accuracy of target destruction; to equip ICBMs with low-yield nuclear warheads or conventional warheads; to extend the service life and to increase the reliability of the existing high-yield nuclear warheads.

At the same time, new systems and facilities of the SNF are being developed and under preparation for production, including: “Minuteman IV” ICBM (should be developed by 2029); Columbia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, with a higher displacement than of the Ohio-class SSBNs (production should begin in 2021 and taking into service — in 2031); B-21 heavy bombers (planned to be built by 2025).

The United States is already working to create promising military equipment, hypersonic and high-precision missiles included. The possibility of the USA's deploying nuclear weapons in space is not excluded. In particular, in August 2019, separate US Space Command was created within the US Department of Defense.


However, neither Russia nor the USA limits itself to improving nuclear and missile weapons. From 2007–2008, after Putin's transition to a policy of confrontation with the West, Russia and then the United States returned to the direct use of their strategic nuclear forces as a tool of mutual restraint, pressure and blackmail. At this, the tasks of strategic nuclear forces, which were characteristic of the Cold War period, were renewed. In particular, this means: constant combat duty with targeting the ICBMs at specific enemy objects (it was stopped during the “perestroika” in the USSR); demonstration flights of strategic aviation with simulation of cruise missile launches; conducting large-scale military exercises to rehearse nuclear war between the USA and Russia. All such activities have been intensified since 2014.

For example, since 2015–2016 Russia and the USA have resumed the practice of simultaneous/symmetrical strategic command-post exercise (SCPE) of their strategic nuclear forces, which usually take place every October.

As a rule, such exercises were conducted by Russia within the framework or against a single operational background with “West”, “Caucasus”, “Center” and “East”  SCPEs. Since 2018, they have acquired the status of a separate “Grom” strategic command-post exercise. In its turn, “Global Thunder”, an annual command and control exercise of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces have always had a separate status. In this regard, most illustrative were exercises of strategic nuclear forces of Russia and the United States, which took place in October 2019.

Strategic command-post exercise of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces “Grom-2019” Strategic command-post exercise of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces “Grom-2019”
Strategic command-post exercise of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces “Grom-2019”

In particular, against the background of practicing of the whole complex of tasks of the combat use of the SNF of Russia, the special feature of the “Grom-2019” SCPE was the launch of 16 strategic and operational-tactical ballistic and cruise missiles. By different components of theRF SNF were launched: “Yars” ICBM; intercontinental submarine-launched ballistic missiles RSM-50 and “Sineva”; strategic air-launched cruise missiles X-101. Besides, the “Iskander-M” operational-tactical ballistic missiles and the “Kalibr” sea-based cruise missiles were launched. Launching so many missiles within the framework of one exercise never occurred since the times of the USSR.

The whole complex of issues related to the combat use of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces was rehearsed during the “Global Thunder 2019” command and control exercise. Its special feature was the US strategic aviation's actions in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

For example, one of the episodes of the exercise was simulation of missile attacks on the northwestern regions of Russia from the airspace of Poland by six strategic bombers of the US Air Force. Missile were launched from a distance of 1.2–1.5 thousand km to the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Two B-52H strategic bombers took off from the Fairford Royal Air Force Base in the UK, another two B-52H and two B-2A strategic bombers took off from the Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, and made a non-stop flight to a place of combat use. For the first time, the B-2A strategic bombers were involved in practicing such tasks in the eastern part of the European Military Theater.

Also, for the first time, as part of the exercise, two B-52H strategic bombers from the Fairford Royal Air Force Base flew over the Black Sea and simulated missile launches at Russian military sites in Crimea and the North Caucasus. They approached to Crimea and Sochi (including V. Putin's Sochi residence) for a distance of 50 km.

Command and control exercise of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces “Global Thunder 2019” Command and control exercise of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces “Global Thunder 2019”
Command and control exercise of the US Strategic Nuclear Forces “Global Thunder 2019”

In fact, this was a respond to the systematic provocative flights of Russia's Long-Range (Strategic) Aviation to the United States (approaching US military bases in Alaska and California), European NATO countries (along the northern seas), and the Baltic and Black Sea regions.


At the same time, Russia and the USA and NATO are expanding the geography of their strategic aviation basing, as well as areas of combat patrols of mobile ground missile complexes.

In recent years, Russia has restored advanced airfields for deployment of Long-Range (Strategic) Aviation in the Arctic. Besides, lately, Russia has been given the opportunity for its Strategic (Long-Range) Aviation to use airfields/airbases in Belarus (“Orsha”), Egypt (“Cairo”), Iran (“Hamadan”), Venezuela (“Libertarian”), Nicaragua, Vietnam and Indonesia (“Biak”).

This made it possible to increase the range of strategic bombers and their time in the airspace.

Russians are also considering a possibility of extending patrolling areas of Russian “Yars” mobile complexes to Belarus.

For their part, the United States is taking steps to modernize aviation infrastructure in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic States, which should enhance the capabilities of their strategic aviation.

And, finally, Russia, following the example of the United States, resumed the use of Long-Range (Strategic) Aviation in local conflict zones. For the first time since the war in Afghanistan, Russian strategic aviation was used against Georgia in 2008 and rebels in Syria in 2015–2017.

All these aspects also apply to the tactical nuclear forces of Russia and the United States. However, this is the subject of special research.


…Ukraine again has found itself at the intersection of global world problems, namely — at the center of the nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US…

The intensification of the Russia-US confrontation in the nuclear and missile sphere is provoking strategic destabilization in the world. This is evidenced by the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The continuation of New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is also at threat.

All these problems are especially troubling because of the emergence of new nuclear countries, which not only have no relevance to the aforementioned treaties but completely abandon any obligations related to their  weapons. Besides, nuclear blackmail and threats to use nuclear weapons, to which some countries resort without regard to the consequences of such actions, reduce the critical threshold for the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse.

As for Ukraine, it again has found itself at the intersection of global world problems, namely — at the center of the nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US. On the one hand, this again makes it hostage to the conflict of Russian-American interests, and on the other hand, gives it a new role and different importance in the system of international relations.