(Oslo) As the war in Ukraine reignites fears over nuclear weapons, the number of operational warheads around the world increased last year, fired in particular by Russia and China, according to a new report.

At the beginning of 2023, the nine official and unofficial nuclear powers held 9,576 nuclear warheads ready for use, i.e. a power equivalent “to more than 135,000 Hiroshima bombs”, indicates the Nuclear Weapons Ban Monitor published on Wednesday by the Norwegian NGO Norsk Folkehjelp.

This represents an increase of 136 operational warheads in one year, to be put on the account of Russia, which has the largest arsenal on the planet (5889 heads), as well as China, India, South Korea North and Pakistan.

“This increase is worrying and continues a trend that began in 2017,” commented report manager Grethe Lauglo Østern.

Produced in collaboration with the Federation of American Scientists, the report emerges at a time when Russia is agitating the nuclear threat in connection with its invasion of Ukraine and Western arms shipments to Kyiv.

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he had the Minsk agreement to deploy “ tactical ” nuclear weapons in Belarus, a country located at the gates of the European Union and led since 1994 by Alexander Lukashenko, his closest ally. .

“There is nothing unusual here: the United States has been doing this for decades. They have long been deploying their tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of their allies,” Vladimir Putin said in an interview broadcast on Russian television.

About a hundred American weapons called “tactical” because of their range or lesser power have been deployed for years in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, according to estimates by various independent observers of the world’s nuclear arsenal, such as Sipri in Sweden.

This announcement was sharply criticized by Ukraine and its Western allies, NATO denouncing “ dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric ” and the EU threatening Minsk with new sanctions if this deployment were carried out.

In the shadow of the conflict in Ukraine, North Korea is increasing its firing of ballistic missiles, tests likely to increase its ability to carry out nuclear strikes.

In this greatly deteriorated geopolitical situation, fears of recourse to the use of these devastating weapons are today culminating at record levels since the end of the Cold War three decades ago, show opinion polls carried out in many countries.

The total stock of atomic weapons, which also includes those withdrawn from service, continues, on the other hand, to decline: their number has fallen from 12,705 to 12,512 in one year.

“This is only the case because Russia and the United States annually dismantle a small number of their oldest nuclear warheads that have been taken out of service,” noted Hans Kristensen, an official with the Federation of Scientists. Americans.

Between them, Russia and the United States, the second nuclear power with 5,244 warheads, account for about 89% of the total nuclear arsenal, the report said.

If the introduction of new warheads does not stop, “ the total number of nuclear weapons in the world will also soon start to rise again for the first time since the Cold War ”, added Ms. Lauglo Østern.

The eight official nuclear powers are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, while Israel is endowed unofficially.

The number of nuclear warheads had peaked at a record high of more than 70,000 in 1986, according to Sipri, before declining massively from the end of the Cold War.