As dramatic strikes on the capital of Kyiv in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to flex his muscles further by placing the Russia’s considerable nuclear defences on ‘high alert’ on Monday (February 28).
Questions around how many nuclear weapons exist in the world and which countries have nuclear warheads have grown as a result, with many fearing that President Putin’s move heightens the risk of all out war and nuclear threats.
And while Russia predictably has a large share of the world’s nuclear weapons, it is not alone – with many other countries including the UK, North Korea and Israel known to have nuclear weapons themselves.
But as reports on Tuesday morning (March 1) imply Russia’s use of vacuum, thermobaric bombs in Ukraine, the country’s own formal lack of nuclear weapons is gaining more attention.
So, here are the countries with nuclear weapons, which countries have the most nuclear weapons, why Ukraine doesn’t have any and what a vacuum bomb is.
What are nuclear weapons?
Nuclear weapons are those designed to be particularly destructive and obliterative in their force, impact and reach with explosions incurred by nuclear reactions.
Examples include atomic bombs, such as those which devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively, which explode through the process known as nuclear fission.
But nuclear weapons such as hydrogen or thermonuclear bombs see explosions take place through a combination of nuclear fission and fusion reactions.
Due to the scale and force of nuclear warheads, which can directly kill millions on impact and more through radiation poisoning, their use and ownership is extremely closely controlled and observed.
Yet thousands still exist in the world despite more than 80% of the world’s nuclear weapons being abandoned since the conclusion of the Cold War – when soured relations and increased tensions between the Soviet Union and Western NATO countries led to a pervading threat of nuclear war.
What is a vacuum bomb – and are thermobaric weapons nuclear?
Vacuum bombs, also known as thermobaric weapon, differ slightly to nuclear weapons in that when dropped, they withdraw oxygen from the air around them to create an explosion with a longer blast wave at a much higher temperature which means they have the potential to vaporise human bodies.
Rather than using a mix of fuel and oxygen within the bomb itself, thermobaric weapons consist largely of fuel – meaning that they carry more energy and can be particularly destructive when launched in field operations to destroy bunkers, tunnels and foxholes.
According to Reuters, Ukraine's US ambassador Monday accused Russia of attacking Ukrainians with cluster bombs and vacuum bombs.
Ambassador Oksana Markarova told reporters after meeting with U.S. Congress representatives that Russia had used thermobaric weapons in Ukraine.
"They used the vacuum bomb today," she said. "...The devastation that Russia is trying to inflict on Ukraine is large."
Meanwhile, human rights groups like Amnesty International have warned that the country’s confirmed use of cluster bombs in densely populated, residential areas may constitute a war crime.
While there has been no official confirmation of vacuum bomb use in Ukraine, Amnesty confirmed that a 220mm Uragan rocket dropped cluster munitions on a nursery and kindergarten in Sumy Oblast which was being used for shelter by locals.
“There is no possible justification for dropping cluster munitions in populated areas, let alone near a school,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.
“This attack bears all the hallmarks of Russia’s use of this inherently indiscriminate and internationally-banned weapon, and shows flagrant disregard for civilian life.”
Which countries have nuclear weapons?
The countries known to have nuclear weapons include Russia, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, North Korea, France, Israel, India and Pakistan.
However, knowing approximately how many nuclear weapons countries known to hold them has, with the majority of countries possessing them keeping the details close to their chest.
And while there are fears over nuclear warhead numbers increasing worldwide, a number of large nuclear powers have shed their amount of nuclear warheads.
The US has 80% less nuclear warheads than the estimated 19,000 held in 1991 as the Soviet Union fell, Russia has 85% less than the near 30,000 it had in 1991 and the UK holds almost 50% less of the nuclear weapons it had in the same year.
The amount held by Israel, though, has grown by 60% from 56 in 1991 to an estimated 90 in 2022.
Which country has the most nuclear weapons?
With President Putin placing Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on ‘high alert’ as the impact of further sanctions, boycotts and international condemnation takes hold, the move has been decried as widely designed to cause alarm due to Russia’s status as the world’s biggest nuclear power.
Russia is believed to hold approximately 6,000 nuclear warheads – more than half the 13,080 estimated to exist as per 2021 estimates from the Arms Control Association.
Calculations of the number of nuclear weapons circulating differ across organisations, however, with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) determining the amount existing worldwide to be slightly lower at 12,700.
As per early 2022 estimate data last updated on February 23, one day prior to Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine, from the FAS, Russia’s total nuclear warhead inventory comes to 5,977 – with 4,477 in its stockpile of reserves and 1,500 retired.
Meanwhile, the US is thought to hold 5,428 nuclear warheads, with a military stockpile of 3,708.
China has the third highest amount of nuclear weapons according to FAS estimates with 350 in total, with France following close behind with 290 and the UK believed to have 225.
Why doesn’t Ukraine have nuclear weapons?
As a former member of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was one of the several countries under the shadow of the Iron Curtain until the late 20th century when the USSR dissolved.
In the years following Ukraine’s declaration of its independence in 1991, the country continued to hold a considerable amount of nuclear warheads – some 5,000 of which are believed to have been left on Ukrainian soil by Soviet leaders.
However, despite once being the owner of the world’s third largest arsenal, Ukraine began to relinquish this in the years following its independence by getting rid of smaller nuclear weapons, returning the remaining amount to Russia in 1996.
Its decision took place as part of Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to gain security assurances from Western forces that its sovereignty would be respected in exchange for Ukrainian nuclear disarmament.
The efforts culminated in the signing of the Budapest Memorandum in Moscow, 1994, with Russia, Ukraine, the UK and US coming together to pledge that the country would be free of any future threats to its independence and be able to get speedy access to the UN Security Council for aid should this occur.