'No more illusions'... Putin's nuclear option
T-shirts bigging up Armageddon are hugely popular in Russia as the
Kremlin pumps up rabid nationalist feeling. Should we be scared?
Published 22/02/2015 | 02:30
Earlier this month, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine between
pro-Russian rebels and forces loyal to the Western-backed government
in Kiev, Dmitry Kiselyov, the pugnacious, middle-aged journalist who
heads Russia's main state news agency, gazed defiantly into a TV
studio camera. "What is Russia preparing for?" he asked. As if in
reply, the director cut to an ominous backdrop image of an
intercontinental ballistic missile emerging from an underground launch
''During the era of political romanticism, the Soviet Union pledged
never to use nuclear weapons first," Kiselyov told the audience of
Vesti Nedeli, his current affairs show, one of the country's most
widely watched programmes. "But Russia's current military doctrine
does not." He paused briefly for effect. "No more illusions."
There was nothing out of the ordinary about this reminder that Russia
reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a "threat" to
its statehood. Since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, which has
massive geostrategic importance for Russia, state-controlled TV has
engineered an upsurge in aggressive anti-Western sentiment, with
Kiselyov as the Kremlin's top attack dog.
Last spring, as Washington warned of sanctions over Russia's seizure
of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Kiselyov boasted about his
country's fearsome nuclear arsenal. "Russia is the only country in the
world realistically capable of turning the US into radioactive ash,"
Kiselyov's blood-curdling comments will have had the Kremlin's
implicit backing, analysts say. "This threat of nuclear war should be
taken seriously," said Sergey Markov, a political strategist. "In
Russia, we believe that Ukraine has been occupied by the US. And that
this occupation is not about democracy, or even money, but that it is
the first step in a war against Russia. The US is seeking to undermine
our sovereignty, neutralise our nuclear potential, and steal our oil
and gas. Under these circumstances, the danger of nuclear
confrontation is very real."
Some 5,500 lives have been lost in the almost year-long conflict in
Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels in the east have carved out two
self-declared "people's republics". The crisis was sparked by the
February 2014 overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor
Yanukovych, in what Kremlin officials say was a coup orchestrated by
the US. In addition, President Vladimir Putin has spoken of what he
called a "Nato legion" fighting alongside the Ukrainian army.
While there is no proof that Nato forces are in action in Ukraine, US
officials have suggested that Washington could supply weapons to Kiev
to assist its battered army. The proposal sparked a furious response:
Viktor Zavarzin, of Russia's defence committee, warned of the
"irrevocable consequences" of such a move.
In turn, the West has accused Russia of providing both troops and
weaponry to the rebels, a charge Putin has consistently denied.
A ceasefire thrashed out by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and
Germany - the second attempt to bring peace to the devastated region -
was set to come into effect this week at one minute past midnight.
Amid these tensions, Kiselyov is not the only one pushing the
possibility of nuclear confrontation with the West. Russia's Zvezda TV
channel, owned by the defence ministry, has also been preparing its
audience for the worst.
"Russia and the US are on the verge of nuclear war," read a headline
on its website last week. The article cited an analyst from the
Moscow-based Politika think tank, Vyacheslav Nikonov, which said a
nuclear exchange between the two former Cold War-era foes was
increasingly likely because the US wanted Russia to "disappear" as an
independent country. "This is not in our plans," he said.
Russia has the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, with
8,400 warheads compared with a US total of 7,500. A day after last
week's peace talks in Belarus, Russia's nuclear forces staged
large-scale exercises, soon after navy nuclear combat drills in the
Arctic. All of which causes concern in the West. Michael Fallon, the
UK Defence Secretary, said earlier this month that he was worried
Russia had "lowered its threshold" for the use of nuclear weapons,
while "integrating nuclear with conventional forces in a rather
The prospect of nuclear war is also being talked up by pro-Kremlin
movements. In a clip posted online last month, a Kalashnikov-wielding
member of the Moscow-based, pro-Kremlin National Liberation Movement
(NOD) vows global nuclear devastation in the event of the defeat of
Russia's interests in Ukraine.
"If we lose, we will destroy the whole world," intones a young NOD
activist named Maria Katasonova. She sweeps a circle with her arm, and
the screen is filled with a virtual image of an explosion as the
planet is consumed in an atomic inferno.
"Russians will not sit by and watch as their country's sovereignty is
threatened by the US," Katasonova told The Sunday Telegraph last week.
"If our country is in genuine danger, we really will use nuclear
Katasonova is a follower of Alexander Dugin, a hardline nationalist
thinker who has called for the destruction of the US. Dugin -
described as "Putin's brain" by the respected US-based Foreign Affairs
journal - is something of a fanatic. He combines political activities
with occultism, and often speaks of his belief that the world must be
"brought to an end".
So what's going on? Is Moscow really preparing its people for the
unthinkable - nuclear confrontation? Or is all this simply North
Korean-style bluff and bluster? How many minutes are left until the
Kremlin's doomsday clock strikes midnight?
"It is, of course, a disgrace and an embarrassment to my country that
such things are being said on national television," said Lev
Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights activist and Soviet-era dissident.
"But statements about nuclear war are mainly for domestic
While Putin denies that regular Russian troops are fighting in
Ukraine, he has hailed the hundreds, if not thousands, of apparent
volunteers who have travelled to what the rebels call "Novorossiya" -
"New Russia". A number of these fighters have become folk heroes back
home; in particular, Igor Strelkov, the ultra-conservative enthusiast
who spent much of last year commanding rebel forces in Ukraine's
"I think these people frighten the Kremlin even more than they scare
me," said Ponomaryov. "The authorities are afraid that they could one
day turn their weapons against them, and the government will do
anything to keep them on side."
State television's war rhetoric is not confined to the nuclear. In
recent days, one Kremlin-run channel has discussed how long it would
take for Russian tanks to "reach Berlin", while in east Ukraine,
bloody and bruised government soldiers were abused by a notorious
rebel commander in front of Russian television cameras.
But state-run media's fever-pitch, anti-Western TV programming is not
only pandering to the radicals, it is also creating them. "Nationally
televised broadcasts, such as those presented by Dmitry Kiselyov, have
scared people, and led to increased hostility in society," said Lev
Gudkov, who heads the independent, Moscow-based Levada-Center polling
"We have seen a drastic change in the collective consciousness of the
Russian people over the last year or so."
The figures are startling. The number of Russians who believe their
country and the US are now mutual enemies has increased tenfold in a
year to 42pc, according to an opinion poll. The total professing a
negative attitude to the US has almost doubled.
The statistics are backed by everyday incidents, from the racist image
of a banana-munching President Barack Obama laser-beamed on to the
wall of the US embassy in Moscow, to the t-shirts with slogans hailing
Russia's nuclear missiles, on sale across the country.
Although state media broadcasts have clearly had a pernicious
influence on society, putting the country on a war-footing and
boosting Putin's approval ratings, Peter Pomerantsev, a UK journalist
who worked in Russian TV in the 2000s, believes they are mainly
intended for a Western audience.
But the Kremlin's masters of reality have uncorked the atomic genie.
It is to be hoped they show the same aptitude when it comes to putting
it back in the bottle.
© The Telegraph