Russia’s Nukes Probably Don’t Work — Here’s Why

Wes O'Donnell
6 min readMay 19
An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 1:13 a.m. Pacific Time, Oct. 2, 2019, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The test demonstrates the United States’ nuclear deterrent is robust, flexible, ready, and approximately tailored to deter twenty-first century threats and reassure our allies. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. J.T. Armstrong) Public domain.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a curious thing happened: Putin’s modern, lethal fighting force turned out to be a broken-down, two-bit shadow of its former self.

There are many reasons for this, but the biggest seems to be unbridled corruption at a level that shook even the most hardened analysts in Western defense intelligence.

Particularly egregious was the poor maintenance on display with most, if not all, of Russia’s war machines.

Looking back now, with the benefit of time (and watching Russia flounder around in Eastern Ukraine for over a year), it’s easy to see how funds intended for operations and maintenance might have been diverted.

Hell, this story of a Russian army commander stealing engines from Putin’s prized T-90 tanks is a perfect example.

Plus, maintenance is expensive.

The entire military budget of the Russian Federation, about $70 bn, is around the same amount that just the U.S. Army spends on maintenance and operations alone.

Given the size and complexity of the Russian pre-invasion ground force, there clearly was not enough money to go around to maintain the thousands of vehicles in Russia’s arsenal. And that’s before corruption and diversion of funds — throw in the wholesale theft of rubles intended for maintenance and we should have known from the beginning that Russia would stumble in any large-scale conflict.

But fixing a broken vehicle is only half the battle. Something called “preventative maintenance” (PM) is equally as important to ensure that combat systems are in peak fighting condition.

For instance, military trucks in storage need to be turned over and moved once a month to avoid direct sunlight from rotting the tires. This movement also helps exercise the central tire air inflation system (CTIS) to see if lines have leaks or vermin nests blocking the system.

Open-source images from Ukraine show countless Russian vehicles that look like they haven’t been “exercised” in years.

The tire sidewalls give it away. In this image, the right rear tire fell apart because the rips in it were too big for the CTIS to keep aired up.

Wes O'Donnell

Army & Air Force Veteran | Global Security Wonk for War is Boring, GEN, OneZero, Soldier of Fortune | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Founder of Warrior Lodge