Russia's Nuclear History
Although nuclear research had taken place in the Soviet Union in the late 1930s, it took the atomic efforts of an adversary to push the giant nation toward its own pursuit of the bomb.
Soviet espionage indicated in 1942 that both Nazi Germany and the Americans were at work trying to develop a super bomb. The news prompted Joseph Stalin, the iron ruler of the Soviet Union, to step up the communist state's effort to build a bomb.
Much of the Soviet's early developments were fueled by espionage. Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who fled to England and worked for the British at the American testing facility, largely kick-started the Soviet effort by supplying them with detailed information on the design of the "Fat Man" bomb the Americans used against the Japanese city of Nagasaki.
"When I learned the purpose of the work I decided to inform Russia and I established contact through another member of the Communist Party," Fuchs said in a later confession.
Fueled by these stolen nuclear secrets and headed by the brutal head of the secret police Lavrentii Beria, the Soviet nuclear effort moved forward with great speed. The day after the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Stalin authorized Beria to develop a Soviet bomb as soon as possible.
Within a year of organizing the nuclear effort, the Soviets activated
their first reactor and by 1949 detonated their first atomic
bomb in the Kazakhstan region of the country.
the atomic bomb was a success, a young Russian physicist
was already at work on a way to develop a much more powerful
bomb. Andrei Sakharov, a brilliant young physicist, began
working on an idea he called the "Layer Cake," where by
layering the fissile material in the bomb with other material
to generate fusion reactions, he could boost the power of
Sakharov, who would later become one of Russia's most well known dissidents, later explained how he was recruited to the project, saying, "no one asked whether or not I wanted to take part in such work. I had no real choice in the matter, but the concentration, total absorption and energy that I brought to the task were my own."
As Russia continued its work, the Americans were also working on a higher end, hydrogen weapon and in 1952 detonated a massive bomb in the South Pacific. Within a year of the American test, Sakharov's layer cake was ready and the Soviets successfully detonated their own super bomb.
In 1953 the Soviet nuclear effort was to undergo a massive overhaul. With its research and development successful, it was a political shakeup that was to fundamentally change the communist giant's approach to the bomb. In March, Stalin died and within months, Beria was arrested and executed.
With Beria's removal, the Soviet nuclear program moved under the auspices of the military.
According to historians and analysts, the new Soviet leaders under Nikita Khrushchev made the growing nuclear arsenal part of its diplomatic and military strategies.
When the British and French governments aided a 1956 Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula and seizure of the Suez Canal, the Soviets, who were helping Egypt, warned London and Paris that its nuclear-tipped missiles could reach either European capital.
"We were strong enough to keep troops in Hungary and to warn the imperialists that, if they would not stop the war in Egypt, it might come to the use of missile armaments from our side. All acknowledge that with this we decided the fate of Egypt," Khrushchev ally Anastas Mikoyan told a Communist Party conference later that year.
This newfound nuclear bravado, and a growing concern about a surprise nuclear strike by the Americans, led almost directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Citing the presence of American nuclear missiles in neighboring
Turkey and the threat of another U.S.-backed invasion of
Cuba, the Soviet leadership decided to base nuclear missiles
on the Caribbean island only 90 miles from the American
An American U-2 spy plane photographed the bases under construction, triggering a U.S. naval blockade of the island and a diplomatic showdown between America and the Soviets.
As Soviet ships headed toward the blockade, negotiators in both Khrushchev's and President Kennedy's administrations worked furiously to defuse the situation before shots were exchanged and the situation spun out of control.
"You are disturbed over Cuba. You say that this disturbs you because it is 90 miles by sea from the coast of the United States of America. But Turkey adjoins us; our sentries patrol back and forth and see each other," Khrushchev wrote to President Kennedy in an effort to defuse the crisis. "Do you consider, then, that you have the right to demand security for your own country and the removal of the weapons you call offensive, but do not accord the same right to us? You have placed destructive missile weapons, which you call offensive, in Turkey, literally next to us. How then can recognition of our equal military capacities be reconciled with such unequal relations between our great states?"
In the end Khrushchev's argument won out, although Kennedy would not announce the decision to remove the missiles from Turkey for several more months. But for both sides the nuclear brinkmanship had brought the two sides too close to the abyss.
Although the Soviet strategists and military experts would continue to expand the potential tactical use of nuclear weapons on the field of battle, after the Cuban Missile Crisis Soviet leaders approached the issue of strategic nuclear arms as one to be dealt with diplomatically.
They agreed to improved and direct communications between the White House in Washington and the Kremlin in Moscow. The Soviets also entered into talks aimed at limiting the number of nuclear weapons, although this was partly a ploy to cap the American stockpile that was much larger than the number of Soviet warheads.
"In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Soviet military planners began to reorient tactics away from reliance on nuclear weapons toward reliance on new conventional weapons," according to the Federation of American Scientists survey of Soviet tactics.
This renewed focus on conventional arms allowed Soviet diplomats to intensify the nuclear negotiations with the United States and other powers. By the late 1960s, the Soviets and other powers agreed to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Soviets also implemented during this time a pledge never to use their nuclear weapons to launch the first strike, saying they would only be used in response to an attack.
By 1972, Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and American President Richard Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.
"Both agreements essentially froze the two countries' existing stockpiles of strategic defensive and offensive weapons. A period of détente, or relaxation of tensions, between the two superpowers emerged, with a further agreement concluded to establish ceilings on the number of offensive weapons on both sides in 1974," a Library of Congress report on the period concludes.
The Soviets' willingness to negotiate was fueled partly by its recently achieved parity with the United States when it came to the size of the nuclear warhead stockpile. Also, as the 1970s and 1980s dragged on, the mounting cost of the nuclear race was weighing more and more on the government-controlled economy of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet strategy was also based on the concept of MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction -- that no one side could "win" a nuclear war. So, when President Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative to be able to destroy in-bound nuclear missiles, the Soviets balked, insisting the United States abandon any plan that could nullify the existing deterrent. Repeatedly in the waning days of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to tie nuclear arms talks to America ending its pursuit of a missile defense system.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the nuclear policy
of the nation also appeared to collapse. Suddenly the Soviet
Union's nuclear arsenal became separate stockpiles controlled
by Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The Russian
Federation focused much of its nuclear effort on negotiating
the return of its nuclear weapons to its control.
The 1992 Lisbon Protocol outlined a series of steps for Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan by which those countries would return warheads and missiles to Russia and sign on to the NPT as non-nuclear states. Russia and the United States, in a post-Cold War decision, would help fund the transfer in an effort to keep the nuclear weapons from proliferating.
In addition to continuing to scale down its nuclear arsenal, Russia took other steps that tied its planning to its nuclear posture. With its finances in disarray, its borders collapsing and its conventional military in tatters, the Russians renounced the pledge taken in the 1960s to never use its nuclear missiles in a first strike.
"From the perspective of the Russian military, reliance on nuclear weapons was a logical response to the glaring inadequacy of conventional forces premised on the idea that nuclear weapons had greater utility than simply to deter a large-scale nuclear attack," Dr. Nikolai Sokov, a senior researcher at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, wrote in August 2004. "Official documents suggest, however, that reliance on nuclear weapons is seen as a temporary 'fix' intended to provide for security until conventional forces are sufficiently modernized and strengthened."
In the post-Soviet era, Russian planners and officials have focused on a more cost-effective, but still potent, nuclear arsenal and in many ways returned to the thinking of the 1950s where its nuclear arsenal is yet another military and diplomatic tool capable of securing it superpower status and deterring its enemies.