Today's WorldView • Analysis
China and Russia draw closer, but how close?
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Global nuclear arsenal expected to grow for first time since Cold War

A vehicle transports a nuclear missile during a Victory Day rehearsal in Moscow on June 17, 2020. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg News)
3 min

The world’s nuclear arsenal is set to increase over the next decade as states modernize weapons stockpiles and sharpen the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies, an arms research group said in a report this week.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released on Monday its annual overview of international security and global arms production, warning that the post-Cold War decline in nuclear arsenals appeared to be ending.

“The risk of nuclear weapons being used seems higher now than at any time since the height of the Cold War,” director Dan Smith said in a statement, despite what he described as “significant gains” in nuclear arms control and disarmament over the past year.

All of the world’s nuclear-armed states are “increasing or upgrading their arsenals and most are sharpening nuclear rhetoric and the role nuclear weapons play in their military strategies,” said Wilfred Wan, director of the institute’s weapons of mass destruction program. “This is a very worrying trend.”

The report pointed to the conflict in Ukraine as a driving factor, noting that Russia “has even made open threats about possible nuclear weapon use” in the context of the war.

Soon after invading Ukraine in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered nuclear forces on alert — marking the first time such a directive was made since the Russian Federation was established in 1991.

Other nations are watching Russia’s actions and listening to its rhetoric and could respond by boosting existing stockpiles or pursuing new arsenals, said Philipp Bleek, an associate professor of nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

“When we look back historically ... this might end up being an inflection point,” he said. “One where we can point to a shift that’s happening now around the Ukraine conflict that led to more nuclear weapons and a bigger role for the weapons in international conflict.”

The war has already stalled nuclear arms control talks between Russia and the United States, which together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Russia has an estimated 5,977 nuclear warheads, roughly 550 more than the United States, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

As of January, the total number of nuclear warheads worldwide had dropped slightly from last year, from 13,080 to 12,705, the report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said. Stockpiles in Russia and the United States declined in 2021, it said, “due to the dismantling of warheads that had been retired from military service several years ago.”

According to the report, none of the other seven nuclear-armed states are pursuing arms control negotiations.

In January, the five nuclear-armed permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — issued a joint statement committing to disarmament and affirming that nuclear war “must never be fought.” Yet all five “continue to expand or modernize their nuclear arsenals and appear to be increasing the salience of nuclear weapons in their military strategies,” the report said.

In a plea last week, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urged participants at the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore to take seriously the threat of nuclear weapons.

“Amid the crisis in Ukraine, the use of nuclear weapons by Russia is being discussed as a real possibility. We must not repeat the scourge of nuclear weapons,” Kishida said Friday.

“The threat of nuclear weapons, let alone the use of them, should never be tolerated,” he said. “As the prime minister of the only country that has suffered the devastation of atomic bombings, I strongly appeal for this.”