Potemkin Village

Is Vladimir Putin bluffing when he threatens to use nukes? Some people say he’s gone mad, but what if he’s bluffing? How can you tell the difference? The answer is in a few numbers.

Denis Pombriant

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Russia doesn’t have serviceable nuclear weapons. They certainly have nukes and have demonstrated them to the world, but that was decades ago, and they have fallen into disrepair because they are too expensive to maintain, and Russia is too poor to afford it. Perhaps a small subset of Russian nukes remains serviceable, but do they know which ones? And do they want the world to know this?

Is Putin playing Cool Hand Luke with nukes? Source: the movie

This statement comes from some research and basic analysis, but I am not a nuclear scientist or diplomat nor am I in any way affiliated with the US government or any of its regulatory or military bodies. I am a civilian and a rank amateur. That said, here’s what I found.

My thesis is that Russia can’t risk launching any of its nukes because it can’t be sure they’ll work. I am sure the warheads are fine, the fissile material in them has a roughly 30,000-year half-life. Good enough for these calculations.

But the rockets that would heave these monsters of destruction are delicate things that require frequent attention and maintenance. Many of these rockets have some liquid fuel component meaning that they rely on liquid oxygen as the oxidant and jet fuel or kerosine as the propellent. Some might use solid fuel boosters which require less maintenance, but they might still need liquid oxygen. They could also use other chemicals as oxidizers but that misses the point.

The fuel tanks on a rocket are thin to save weight and liquid oxygen (at minus 297.3 degrees Fahrenheit) can turn almost anything brittle when applied to it. It takes time, maybe 30 to 60 minutes to ready a missile for flight because those tanks have to be filled or at least topped off. But if the tanks have not been maintained, they could leak and cause the whole device to explode in its silo or shortly after launch.

A few years ago, after numerous failures of its liquid fuel rockets, North Korea switched to solid fuel rocket motors made in the former Soviet Union, but it’s not clear how many of Russia’s 5,977 working nukes of…

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Denis Pombriant

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.