Nuclear War Threats: A Russian Apocalypse Now?

Pro-Nuclear War State TV

Russian state TV has sent shockwaves throughout the West after pundits declared the likely outcome of the Ukraine War as nuclear catastrophe.

On April 27th state TV channel Russia-1 (the most popular TV channel in Russia), aired a discussion panel of political pundits weighing up the current situation in Ukraine and Russia’s geopolitical fate.

The program included assertions that Western supporters of Ukraine “are today’s collective Hitler”. Pundits also claimed that “De-Facto, we are in a state of World War 3”. However, this rhetoric quickly escalated with claims made by the Head of Russia Today. Margarita Simonyan stated that “Either we lose in Ukraine, or the Third World War starts… I think World War 3 is more realistic, knowing us, knowing our leader”. To the shock of outside observers, she concluded the idea “that everything will end with a nuclear strike, to me, is more probable than the other outcome. This is to my horror, on one hand, but on the other hand, with the understanding that it is what it is.”. Television presenter Vladimir Solovyov added “But we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.”.

Another concerning development in Russian state TV’s rhetoric regarding nuclear war was a discussion with retired Colonel, Yury Knutov. Knutov stated that “For some reason, they [United States] believe that Russia can be choked for as long as it takes, until it surrenders, and Russia will never respond or use its nuclear weapons or its nuclear potential… They themselves are creating the situation when there is a threat to the existence of our nation and our military doctrine prescribes that it gives us the right to use nuclear weapons.”.

Nuclear War and Mutually Assured Destruction

The long-standing international recognition of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) has historically allayed fears of nuclear war. MAD asserts that someone will eventually back down or compromise in a game of nuclear brinkmanship, as nuclear powers are ultimately unwilling to sow the seeds of their own destruction through their efforts to destroy their adversary. However, the MAD doctrine relies on the assumption that both nuclear powers are led by rational actors who prioritise their own survival above the destruction of their enemy. These recent discourses on Russian state television have disturbingly brought this assumption into question.

Putin himself has not engaged in this rhetoric. However, it is an extremely troubling development that state controlled media are starting to direct this messaging to the Russian people. It is even more troubling that Putin is complementing these narratives of an imminent existential threat in recent speeches to the Russian people. This was notable during his address to Russian armed forces and the wider country on Victory Day. Putin’s Victory Day speech included references to NATO plans for “an invasion of our historic lands including Crimea”. He went on to describe the “moral degradation” of the West and how defending Russia was a “sacred thing”. This rhetoric came after a parade of Russia’s military hardware, including multiple nuclear missiles through Red Square.

Questioning the Nuclear War Rhetoric

Now a finding out whether Russia constitutes a serious nuclear threat has become a leading priority within Western national security establishments. However, it may be possible to evaluate the sincerity of Russia’s suicidal nuclear rhetoric through scrutinising Russia’s historical discourses. This allows us to find any precedent for the Kremlin’s apocalyptic media campaign.

Soviet Nuclear War Rhetoric

The Cold War brought the Soviet Union and the West to brink of nuclear war on multiple occasions. Despite this, Soviet regimes in the nuclear age did not present themselves as willing to instigate nuclear Armageddon.

Alike to the current regime, Soviet leaders and media presented the West as the principal instigators of nuclear escalation. Moreover, Soviet regimes only discussed a willingness to use nuclear weapons in the face of an existential threat. However, unlike the Putin regime, Soviet political discourses never presented MAD as an acceptable outcome. Guided by a staunch commitment to Marxist-Leninist doctrine, such suicidal and destructive rhetoric would be considered blasphemous. The inevitable victory of international communism and world peace is incompatible with the apocalypse.

Nuclear Stalin

Joseph Stalin (1927-1953)

  • As the first Soviet leader of the nuclear age, Stalin worryingly believed in the inevitability of war between the imperialist forces of capitalism and socialist regimes. He believed that capitalism naturally fosters aggressive expansion.
  • After the US successfully tested nuclear weapons Stalin stated to the US ambassador that the creation of nuclear weapons “would mean the end of war and aggressors”. However, he feared a post-war US global domination as the sole nuclear power.
  • Following the Soviet Union’s successful atomic testing in 1949, Stalin believed that he had temporarily staved this off. Nevertheless, he still felt the need to rebuild the USSR’s strength to combat American military hegemony.
  • With the onset of the Korean War (1950-53), Stalin was reluctant to employ aggressive rhetoric against the US, especially relating to nuclear weapons. Stalin concealed his involvement in the conflict, due to his fear of a direct war with superior NATO forces.
Nuclear Malenkov

Georgy Malenkov (1953-1955)

  • Although Malenkov had a limited influence on international politics, he notably engaged in strong anti-nuclear war rhetoric.
  • In the first 5 months of Malenkov’s tenure the Soviet Union had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb in August 1953. This achieved ‘nuclear parity’ with the US.
  • Malenkov famously stated that a Third World War would mean “the destruction of world civilisation” due to the existence of nuclear weapons. Western governments interpreted this as the Soviet Union accepting mutual deterrence as a means of maintaining peace.
Nuclear Khrushchev

Nikita Khrushchev (1956-1964)

  • Khrushchev was the USSR’s premier at one of the heights of Cold War tensions. Therefore, Khrushchev and other regime actors on multiple occasions discussed their willingness to use nuclear weapons in a US first strike scenario. They also threatened the nuclear option if they faced an existential threat in a conventional war against the “imperialists”.
  • However, Khrushchev was also explicit in his aversion to such an outcome. He stated that “the survivors [of nuclear war] would envy the dead”. He also declared that “Bombs do not choose. They will hit everything.”
  • Khrushchev’s statement “We will bury you!”, led to a perception in US audiences of a direct threat of nuclear war. However, this statement was taken out of context by US media outlets. In fact, it refers his belief of the inevitable victory of communism. Khrushchev’s full sentence was “whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”.
Nuclear Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982)

  • Leonid Brezhnev’s premiership is most notable for his pursuit of détente with the West. He aimed to limit the nuclear arms race and thereby reduce the likelihood of nuclear war.
  • One of the fruits of this pursuit was the signing of the SALT 1 treaty (1972) with President Nixon. This limited the production and development of IBCMs and missile interception systems.
  • Statements by Brezhnev include: “Only he who has decided to commit suicide can start a nuclear war in the hope of emerging a victor from it”. Additionally he declared, “It is madness for any country to build its policy with an eye to nuclear war”.
Andropov

Yuri Andropov (1982-1984)

  • Despite his short period of premiership, Yuri Andropov, oversaw another event which put humanity on the brink of nuclear war.
  • During the Able Archer NATO exercise (1983) the USSR placed its nuclear arsenal on high alert, ready to pre-empt a potential NATO nuclear strike. However, this closeness to nuclear war was only brought to light post-facto and did not lead to any public Soviet response.
  • Andropov’s statements about nuclear war include: “The present U.S Administration continues to tread an extremely perilous path…it is time they stop thinking up one option after another in search of the best way of unleashing nuclear war in the hope of winning it. To do this is not just irresponsible, it is madness”. He also stated that “Responsible statesmen have only one choice – to do everything possible to prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Any other position is short-sighted; more so, it is suicidal.”.
  • His comments largely reflected the soviet belief that nuclear escalation was the result of aggressive or provocative US nuclear policy. In comparison, the Soviet Union dedicated itself to avoiding such escalation due to MAD and its commitment to peace.
Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-1991)

  • Mikhail Gorbachev acted as a radical reformer, introducing progressive policies that arguably led to the disintegration of the USSR.
  • His revolutionary liberalism extended to his views on nuclear war and nuclear weapons. Gorbachev’s introduction of “new thinking” sought to renew relations with U.S. Part of this “new thinking was removing the mutual view of one another as an existential threat.
  • Through public statements, Gorbachev successfully lobbied for the INF treaty with the U.S in 1987. The treaty agreed to destroy all intermediate-range ballistic missiles of a specific class. He also pressed for a “universal accord that such weapons should never again come into being”.
  • President Reagan and Gorbachev jointly expressed that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” at the 1985 Geneva Summit.

Imperial Russian Apocalyptic Rhetoric

Tsar Alexander I

Nuclear weapons are obviously a far cry from Imperial Russia. But Russian notions of an impending apocalypse are not limited to the time after the advent of weapons of mass destruction. Instead, apocalyptic rhetoric was religiously fuelled, based on Christian beliefs about the apocalypse. This apocalyptic vision prophesised a war between the forces of anti-Christ and the armies of the God-fearing, ending the world as we know it and bringing “forth the blessed millennium of Christ”.

These fears of an impending apocalypse within Imperial Russia arose after Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Significant mystics and Christian writers within Europe at the time viewed the French revolution as godless and sacrilegious. This is due to the devotion of leading revolutionaries to secular values and de-Christianisation. For these religious thought leaders, the remarkable success of Napoleon’s armies in conquering Europe was a clear indicator of Napoleon’s status as the anti-Christ.

The Russian Orthodox Church charged Napoleon with “devising a diabolical plan of uniting all Jews to destroy Christianity and proclaim him[self] the new messiah”, capitalising on contemporary anti-Semitism and religious prophecy. After the invasion, Napoleon became known as dubbed the “son of Satan” and the “Gallic Beast” throughout contemporary Russian literature.

Holy Russia

Instead, Russia perceived itself as the last bastion of traditional religiosity, unmarred by the ‘sinful’ and ‘godless’ values of the enlightenment. The most influential Russian literary magazine at the time, Syn otechestva, published a proclamation describing Russians as God’s chosen people. It stated that Russians “are given power and might, with the torchlight of Faith to destroy perfidy and ungodliness. … But through these cruel temptations, He wanted to fortify us in our faith and piety, our devotion to the Tsar, and our love for the Fatherland… God is with us, since we are for God”.

As the divinely anointed leader of imperial Russia, Tsar Alexander I was increasingly presented as the prophesised God-chosen King of the North. He was prophesised to fight the King of the South (the Anti-Christ), leading the armies of the faithful against Napoleon’s godless crusade attempting to destroy ‘Holy Russia’. The prominent Russian poet Gavrila Derzhavin described the historic Battle of Borodino as the Battle of Armageddon. He presented Napoleon as “the embodiment of Lucifer” and Alexander I as the prophesised ‘Last Emperor’, reasserting order during end times. After order is reasserted, Derzhavin writes “the Kingdom of God will descend unto us”.

As a consequence of the prolific writings and proclamations of prominent figures, Russians increasingly adopted this apocalyptic vision. Both the Russian people and potentially the Tsar himself came to believe that it was Russia’s holy mission and destiny to defeat the armies of the ‘false messiah’. They believed this would spark the return of Christ and the longed-for messianic age.  

Conclusion: Nuclear War?

Putin attending the Russian Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral after his inauguration in May 2018

A review of apocalyptic discourses that have cropped up throughout Russian history reveal the current apocalyptic statements made by Russian state TV is a peculiar blend of Soviet and Imperial rhetorical legacies.

Alike to Soviet nuclear discourses, the rhetoric of the Putin regime ascribes responsibility for nuclear escalation to the West. Alike to Imperial Russian apocalyptic discourses, Putin’s regime proclaims the fundamental sacredness of Russia and its people. Moreover, it denounces the moral degradation of the West. Furthermore, state funded pundits declare the divine salvation of the Russian people in the event of a nuclear apocalypse.

Perhaps this strange fusion reflects the mix and match ideology of the Putin regime. The ideology is heavily influenced by both the Soviet worldview and the Tsarist principles of ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality’. Unencumbered by the ideological rigidity of Marxist-Leninism, while borrowing religious values from Russia’s imperial period, Putin is able to use state actors to explicitly suggest a willingness to engage in mutually assured destruction if Russia loses its current war.

As a result, excluding the possibility that Putin has developed a near suicidal ambition, and the claims that Putin is secretly dying and therefore willing to take us all down with him, it is highly likely that Russia’s current apocalyptic rhetoric is nothing more than a new form of nuclear coercion that is consistent with the ideological character of his regime.

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Ethan Lierens
Ethan Lierens
Ethan is a graduate in History and Politics from the University of Exeter. Following his bachelor’s degree he completed a master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London. His research focuses are disinformation campaigns, post-soviet politics and conflict in the Middle East. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ethan-lloyd-lierens-31a2b4154

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