Russian State TV Keeps Threatening Nuclear Strikes—Should We Be Concerned?

Russian TV pushing scenarios of missile strikes on European countries may stretch credibility, but also show the threats of the Ukraine war are both hyperbole and hypersonic.

Hosts and panelists on Russian state television have always peddled anti-western rhetoric but the discussions justifying Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine have taken a more apocalyptic turn.

Last week, on the Russian program 60 Minutes, lawmaker Aleksey Zhuravlyov boasted about the nation's successful test of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as he railed against British support of Kyiv's forces.

As a graphic showed Paris, London and Berlin being destroyed in 200 seconds or less if the weapon were fired from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Zhuravlyov said, "one Sarmat missile and the British Isles will be no more."

Nuclear missile in Red Square
TV hosts in Russia discussing the Ukraine war have been making threats of nuclear strikes. Above, a Russian Yars ballistic nuclear missiles on mobile launchers rolls through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade rehearsals on May 6, 2018, in Moscow. Getty Images

This referred to the weapon which given the "End of Days" tone, is appropriately known as Satan 2. As chairman of the nationalist Rodina party, Zhuravlyov may be a fringe figure but the theme was expanded on by Dmitry Kiselyov, known as the Kremlin's chief propagandist.

He said on Sunday's edition of Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week) that a strike by Russia's Poseidon nuclear underwater drone could drown the UK under a 1500-foot tidal wave of radioactive seawater.

"I am also a little bit perplexed by these statements," said Yevgenia Albats, editor of the independent Russian publication The New Times and long-time host of the Echo of Moscow radio station, both of which fell victim to the clampdown on Kremlin-critical media outlets.

"It is difficult to assess how serious these statements are," she told Newsweek from Moscow. "On the one hand, it is very serious because, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cuban missile crisis, there was a nuclear taboo—an agreement that the countries would not use nuclear weapons as blackmail."

"But certain logic suggests that it is rather a bluff than something real," she said. Putin wants to "sit in the Kremlin forever and he doesn't want to end his rule in nuclear waste—he started the war to consolidate his power not to annihilate his power."

She added that Kiselyov, whom Putin appointed as head of state-controlled media group Rossiya Segodnya, is expressing the views of the Russian Security Council, which is headed by Nicolai Patrushev, the former director Russia's main spy agency, the FSB.

Guests and hosts on programs get talking points from the administration, except for Kiselyov, who she said: "is directly connected with the top brass."

"It is not the first time Kiselyov has said something like that. Obviously, he doesn't open his mouth unless he is told to do that. It is an open threat," she added.

The idea of war spreading beyond Ukraine is a recurring theme on state television in Russia but the violent imagery of their rhetoric of late would not be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster trailer.

During a discussion on the program Vremya Pakazhet (Time Will Tell) last week, panelist Mikhail Konev said that "as soon as the criminal Kyiv regime is wiped off the face of the earth, harmony will return."

However, this willingness to shock may be a reflection of guests and panelists straining to appease Putin and his inner circle, said Konstantin Sonin, a Russian-born political economist at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

"They are trying very hard to guess what the Kremlin thinks," Sonin, a Kremlin critic who in March cut short a sabbatical in Russia after Putin invaded Ukraine, told Newsweek. "They're trying to be proactive, meaning that they are not following orders, but rather they are trying to get something. This is especially visible when the government is uncertain about their course as the Russian government is today. They do not actually know what Putin thinks," he said, "so they are trying to gamble."

 Kiselyov and Putin
Dmitry Kiselyov is among state television hosts who, since the start of the Ukraine war, have described nuclear missile threats to the west. Above, Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) is pictured in 2016 in Moscow with Kiselyov. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Sonin said the influence of such programs on the Russian public is greater when guests are addressing subjects that the audience has no personal experience of. When they talk about the value of the dollar, which people acutely feel, they often take no notice.

But regarding issues such as Black Lives Matter in the U.S., or western threats against Russia, "they are extremely successful," he said, "they could persuade people about anything."

Sonin believes that Russia's political and military leaders carry most of the responsibility for the war but believes that TV hosts have some culpability in whipping up hysteria.

"The Nuremberg trials involved people from Hitler's propaganda machine, and I think this parallel works," he said. "People are basically calling for committing more atrocities in Ukraine. People are calling for a nuclear strike on London. This is a preposterous thing to say."

Whatever is being said on the airwaves, experts have cast doubt on the likelihood of nuclear weapons being deployed by Russia, especially an ICBM like the Sarmat.

"Russia has had the ability to destroy the British Isles for decades if they wanted to but why do that? There is no strategic rationale there," Ryan Musto, a denuclearization expert at William & Mary's Global Research Institute, in Williamsburg, Virginia, told Newsweek. "I think this is a continuation of the nuclear bluster and saber-rattling that Putin has been engaging in since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine."

Even if he believes a missile strike on a western capital was unlikely, he fears that if Putin is backed into a corner, he may detonate a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield to wrest concessions from the other side. This is part of the "escalate to de-escalate" strategy which is attributed to Russian military thinking.

"I don't think it is likely but I do think it is possible and we do see that Putin is not averse to breaking international norms," Musto said. "This might include breaking the so-called nuclear taboo."

At the start of the war, Putin put his nuclear forces on alert and boasted about the launch of the Sarmat which he warned would make adversaries "think twice."

Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted only conventional weapons would be used in Ukraine, the Kremlin propaganda bullhorns have added to the mixed Moscow messaging.

"We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf," said Musto. "When you make the same false claim over and over, people won't believe you much. Constant nuclear saber-rattling reduces deterrence because you soon become unable to truly signal your nuclear intent to an adversary to truly show your red lines."

Historically, during the week before May 9 when Russia celebrates the end of World War II, the main TV channels feature a lot of war movies from the 1950s to the present day. There is anticipation over whether Putin may exploit the patriotic fervor of Victory Day to put his country on a broader war footing, perhaps by declaring mass mobilization, which in turn would be sold to the public on state television.

But Albats says this is unlikely and that the enormous table Putin forced world leaders to sit at the other end of was a symbol of his reluctance to risk his own fate.

"Putin is surrounded by people worth billions, they do not want to die," she said. "Do you really think that the guy who is so afraid of catching Omicron [he uses a long table] so he won't get infected will die in a nuclear war? No."