May 7, 2018

The Role and Significance of Russia's Strategic Nuclear Forces in the Kremlin's “Hybrid” Wars

Victor Hvozd

President of the “Borysfen Intel” Centre

The spread of the practice of using the methods of “hybrid” wars by countries of the world in the realization of their interests and in the course of inter-state conflicts does not in any way reduce the importance of traditional forms of warfare, both with the use of conventional armed forces and missile-nuclear weapons. As experience shows, in most cases, “hybrid” wars quickly develop into direct military confrontation between the parties. An indication of this was the invasion of Russian troops into the territory of Ukraine at the end of August 2014 after the actual defeat of self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas.

Given these circumstances, most countries maintain a high level of readiness of their armed forces and implement measures for their development and modernization. The same applies to “nuclear” countries that continue to strengthen and improve national nuclear capabilities at tactical and strategic levels. At the same time, the forms and methods of using both conventional and nuclear forces are brought in line with current realities, including with using of their capabilities in “hybrid” wars.

Thus, a significant component of Russia's “hybrid” wars against the United States and Europe, as one of the mechanisms for implementing its current course, is nuclear blackmail, which is also an actual return to the policy of the former Soviet Union. In this regard, the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces' (SNF) assigned tasks are as follows:

  • deterring opponents from using military force and other critical actions in response to Russia's “hybrid” warfare by maintaining and increasing combat capabilities of the missile-nuclear component of the Russian Armed Forces;
  • supporting Russia's policy and actions in the “hybrid” wars, as well as intimidating (blackmailing) its opponents and exerting pressure on them by demonstrating Russian nuclear capabilities and readiness for its combat use;
  • using some elements of the RF's nuclear triad in the non-nuclear versions in local conflicts and in conducting various types of military operations of small and medium intensity in case of “hybrid” wars turning into military confrontation of the parties;
  • creating opportunities for drawing other countries into Russia's sphere of influence and expanding its military presence outside the Russian territory by providing a “nuclear umbrella” to its allies and partners.


These tasks are directly or indirectly enshrined in the conceptual documents of the Russian Federation concerning the military sphere.

According to Russia's Military Doctrine, adopted in 2014, Moscow “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”.

Such Moscow's intentions were confirmed by President V. Putin in his annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on March 1, 2018, on the eve of the presidential election in the country. According to the leader of the Russian state, in response to the US and NATO harassment of Russia's interests and creation of threats to its security, the RF is forced to increase its military capabilities by adopting a significant number of new types of military weapons. At this, the emphasis was placed on missile and nuclear weapons.


In order to ensure practical fulfillment of the tasks of the RF SNF since the beginning of 2010 (after the Kremlin switched to a policy of confrontation with the West), the leadership of the Russian Federation has significantly intensified measures to strengthen the missile and nuclear component of the country's Armed Forces.

Thus, since 2011, the RF has been taking steps to rearm the Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) with new mobile and silo-based multiple warheads “Yars” intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As of the beginning of 2018, one missile division of each of the three missile armies of the RF RVSN have already been rearmed with “Yars” missiles — a total of 12 missile regiments. By the end of 2026, all the units of the RVSN are planned to be rearmed with “Yars” missiles. At this, the total number of missile systems in the RVSN will remain at the level of 400 pieces. Besides, new missile systems are being developed, including the heavy “Sarmat” ICBMs and the prospective strategic missile complex “Avangard” with a fundamentally new gliding wing unit (capable of flying in dense atmospheric layers at hypersonic speed).

Rearming of the Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) with new “Yars” ICBMsRearming of the Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces (RVSN) with new “Yars” ICBMs

In addition, since 2012, 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 ballistic missiles R-30 “Bulava” (with a multiple warheads and a range of 8–9 thousand km) — 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 new type ballistic missiles.

Since 2015? Russia has restored the production of Tu-160M strategic aircrafts of the long-range (bomber) aviation. This spring there were flight tests of the first of the new Tu-160M aircrafts, which was built in 2017 at the Kazan Aviation Plant. On the basis of existing components it is planned to build several more such planes, and then about 50 — of completely Russian production. New bombers will be built on an improved project Tu-160M2. Modernization of the existing Tu-22M3, Tu-95MS and Tu-160M aircraft is underway.

In order to maintain and improve the readiness of the RF SNF for combat use, as well as demonstrations of force against the United States and NATO, the operational and combat training of all components of the Russian nuclear triad, including practical launches of ballistic and cruise missiles, were substantially intensified. Such measures have become of particularly large scale and intensive since the beginning of Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine and turning to an open confrontation with the West in 2014.

In particular, in 2017, about 130 command-staff and tactical exercises were conducted with bringing to the routes of the military patrol of the “Topol-M” and “Yars” ICBM mobile launchers (up to 30 units during one exercise). At this, more than 10 training-combat launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles were conducted.

At the same time, since 2007, the intensity of flights of strategic (long-range) aircrafts has sharply increased as part of the resuming of their combat patrol (duty) in operational areas, and exercises and demonstrations of military force have got intensified.

Thus, Russians conduct systematic flights of strategic (long-range) bomber groups of one to three pairs of Tu-95MS or Tu-160M over the Barents, Norwegian and North Seas, as well as the North and East Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Similar flights of one or two pairs of Tu-95MS are also carried out over different areas of the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally, groups of Tu-95MS, Tu-160M and Tu-22M3 planes also appear above the Baltic and Black Seas.

During the flights, missile attacks on military, administrative and economic objects of the USA and other NATO countries, and from 2014 — of Ukraine, are mastered. In order to blackmail Russia's opponents, various provocations are carried out, including demonstration simulations of attacks on the capitals of European countries, the approach of the bombers to the borders and military bases of the USA (Alaska and California), NATO and Ukraine, as well as flights over the areas of military exercises and US carrier strike groups.

An example of this are the demonstrative actions of Russia's strategic (long-range) aviation on the North-Western, Ukrainian and Black Sea directions since the beginning of 2018. In particular, on January 15, 2018, two Tu-160 strategic bombers flew over the waters of Barents, Norwegian and North Seas. A month after this — on February 15, 2018, a group of Tu-95MS strategic bombers, accompanied by Su-30 fighters, practiced conditional launches of cruise missiles from the Crimea’s seacoast against the mainland of Ukraine. And on March 22, 2018 a group of Tu-22M3 bombers carried out a provocative flight over the Crimea and along the coast of Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria, and further to the Black Sea Straits and the Turkish seacoast. At this, the minimum approach to the border of Ukraine (including the city of Odessa) was about 40 km.

Demonstrative actions of Russia's strategic (long-range) aviationDemonstrative actions of Russia's strategic (long-range) aviation

The intensity of trainings of the strategic (long-range) aviation has also increased, including tactical trainings at the level of long-range aviation regiments, operational-tactical at the level of divisions and strategic — within the framework of the entire aviation component of the RF SNF. During the trainings the following tasks were practiced: combat alert of a unit; redeployment of airplanes to advanced and alternate airfields; piloting in simple and complicated meteorological conditions; refueling in the air; command and control of combat operations from land command posts and airborne early warning A-50’s aircrafts; strategic bombers' flights on military patrolling; targeting flights with breaking through the enemy's air defense and strikes on its positions and objects with conditional and real use of on-board weapons.

A new form of operational and combat training of the strategic (long-range) aviation of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation is also “a sudden inspection” of long-range aviation units and groups with comprehensive practicing of all of the above-mentioned issues. Thus, a sudden inspection of Russia's strategic (long-range) aviation with redeployment of bombers to the advanced airfields and their combat patrolling was conducted at the end of February 2014 on the eve of Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine. After this, sudden inspections of the strategic (long-range) aviation of the RF Armed Forces as one of the forms of demonstration of military force by Russia, have become systematic.

They have also intensified military patrolling by the RF Navy's strategic ballistic missile submarines. From January 2014 to March 2015, this figure had increased by 50 % compared with 2013. And in 2016, the intensity of the activities of the submarine fleet of Russia has become even greater. In fact, at combat patrol, there were strategic ballistic missile submarines from the Pacific and Northern Fleets (one from each).

In addition to conducting their own exercises, all components of the Strategic Nuclear Forces of the Russian Federation are involved in trainings of other branches and services of Russia's Armed Forces. In this regard, most illustrative is the participation of the Russian nuclear triad in the SCPEs of the Armed Forces of Russia of the “West”, “Caucasus”, “Center” and “East” series. In the given context, the most significant was the participation of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces in the exercises “Caucasus-2016” and “West-2017”, during which various scenarios of armed conflicts between Russia and the USA and NATO were mastered, including a large-scale war with the use of missile and nuclear weapons.

Thus, in September 2017, during the exercise “West-2017”, three practical launches of the ICBMs were conducted, namely: two “Yars” missiles (mobile and silo-based) from the “Plesetsk” cosmodrome (Arkhangelsk region), and “Topol-M” missile from “Kapustin Yar” test site (Astrakhan region). After the official completion of the exercise, on October 26, 2017, four practical launchers were conducted simultaneously, including “Topol-M” from the “Plesetsk” test site and three RSM-54 “Sineva”, including two — from a submarine of the Pacific Fleet in the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk and one — from a submarine of the Northern Fleet in the waters of the Barents Sea.

In addition, strategic bombers Tu-160, Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 were involved in the exercises, which launched air-borne cruise missiles Х-101/Х102 against targets at the “Kura” and “Pemboy” (northeastern part of the Komi Republic) and “Terekta” (Kazakhstan) test ranges.

Participation of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces in the exercises “Caucasus-2016” and “West-2017”Participation of the RF Strategic Nuclear Forces in the exercises “Caucasus-2016” and “West-2017” 

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 has allowed Moscow not only to significantly increase the range of strategic bombers, but also to create preconditions for expanding its military presence in the world.


An indicative step of the leadership of the Russian Federation was the involvement of strategic (long-range) aviation in the RF Armed Forces' military operations against Georgia in August 2008 and in Syria between November 2015 and December 2017. The above-mentioned was aimed at practicing a number of purely military and military-political tasks, in particular: obtaining practice of real combat use of the long-range aviation; increasing combat capabilities of the grouping of the RF AF involved in the operation; moral influence on opponents; demonstration of Russia's readiness and ability to use the components of its Strategic Nuclear Forces; confirmation of Russia's importance as a leading world power with a powerful, including nuclear, military potential at the level of the United States.

At this, Russia's use of strategic bombers in the military conflict with Georgia in August 2008 was a classic example of Moscow's “hybrid” wars' turning into a direct armed confrontation with its opponents. Thus, the reason for Russia's attack on Georgia was the actual failure of Russia's efforts to control South Ossetia and the success of the Georgian side in restoring the country's territorial integrity with the use of peaceful political and economic methods. Given these perspectives, Russia resorted to an open armed aggression against Georgia, which was presented as “coercion to peace”.

Due to the short-term nature of the Russian-Georgian conflict, Russia's use of strategic (long-range) aviation against Georgia was limited. Thus, was recorded only one case of reconnaissance and combat flight of three Tu-22M3s, during which they struck at Georgian targets near the city of Tbilisi. One of the aircrafts was shot down by the “Buk” anti-aircraft missile system of the Air Defense of Georgia.

Significantly larger was the scale of activity of Russian strategic (long-range) aviation during the RF AF's military operation in Syria, aimed at providing support to the Assad regime under the guise of fighting the so-called “Islamic state”. In total, strategic bombers conducted 66 strikes on Syrian territory. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, the objects of such attacks were positions, places of concentration, bases and warehouses of Islamist armed units. However, in reality, a significant part of the strikes was on the forces of moderate opposition and peaceful settlements. This made further actions of Russia's long-range aviation in Syria an element of Moscow's “hybrid” policy in order to maintain and strengthen its positions in the regions of the Middle East and North Africa.

The activities of the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces are actively covered by Russian media and are being commented on by politicians as a manifestation of Russia's power and grandeur, which seems to have regained its role in the world at the level of the former USSR and can resist any aggressor. At this, Russian mass media publications and statements by political figures on the subject are getting intensified and increasingly acute (including open threats against the USA and NATO) as the West exerts pressure on Russia. At the same time, they purposefully keep silent about the problems of the Strategic Nuclear Forces and technical conditions of their weapons, especially of the strategic (long-range) aviation.


In general, the above-mentioned circumstances determine the priority of the Strategic Nuclear Forces for the leadership of the Russian Federation as one of the main instruments for implementing its neo-imperial policy. In this regard, the SNF is not just the main component of Russia's Armed Forces, it is also a mechanism for supporting and conducting Russian policy, including in the “hybrid” sphere.