Back in March 2014, just after the Russian invasion of Crimea, Russia’s most famous state television broadcaster presented the international situation in stark terms. “Russia,” Dimitry Kiselyov told his millions of viewers, “is the only country in the world that really can turn [the] USA into radioactive ash.” Against a backdrop of mushroom clouds and throbbing nuclear targets, he spoke ominously of how President Barack Obama’s hair was turning gray — “I admit this can be a coincidence” — and the increasing desperation of a White House that truly feared that nuclear war might break out at any moment.
Now it’s October 2016, and Kiselyov, who also heads Russia’s state-owned news agency, is at it again. “Impudent behavior toward Russia” has a “nuclear dimension,” he warned ominously on Oct. 9. In the same program, he again featured photographs of Obama. Kiselyov said that there had been a “radical change” in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and he added a threat: “Moscow would react with nerves of steel” to any U.S. intervention in Syria — up to and including a nuclear response. “If it should one day happen, every one of you should know where the nearest bomb shelter is. It’s best to find out now,” another television channel has advised.
What a difference two years makes: The U.S. government, and the U.S. public, brushed off Russia’s nuclear narrative the first time it was presented. But this time around, the language sounds different. We are in the middle of an ugly presidential election. More important, we have a Republican presidential nominee who regularly repeats propaganda lines lifted directly from Russian state media. Donald Trump has declared that Hillary Clinton and Obama “founded ISIS,” a statement that comes directly from Russia’s Sputnik news agency. He spouted another debunked conspiracy theory — “the Google search engine is suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton” — soon after Sputnik resurrected it.
Now Trump is repeating Kiselyov’s threat, too. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton,” he said this last week. Just like Kiselyov, he has also noted that Russia has nukes and — perhaps if Clinton is elected — will use them: “Russia is a nuclear country, but a country where the nukes work as opposed to other countries that talk.”
Why is Russian state media using such extreme language? And why is Trump repeating it? The Russian regime’s motives aren’t hard to understand: It wants to scare Russians. The economy is much weaker than it was, living standards are dropping and with it support for President Vladimir Putin. A ruling clique that stays in power thanks to violence and corruption is by definition nervous, and so it is using its media monopoly to frighten people: Only Putin’s regime can protect you from U.S. aggression.
The regime surely wants to scare us, too, and persuade us to abandon Syria. If the United States and Europe throw in the towel, then Russia will be free to help Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime impose the same kind of “solution” that Russia used in Chechnya more than a decade ago: Kill tens of thousands of people, flatten the landscape, destroy all political alternatives and then start again, with a Russian-backed dictator. In the interim, the war has its uses: It has increased the destabilizing flow of refugees to Europe, broadening political and economic chaos that Russia believes serves its interests.
The Russians also have a major interest in our election. Since last summer, when Russian hackers tried to spoil the Democratic National Convention with leaked emails, it’s been clear that Russia prefers the Republican nominee, a man who has repeatedly stated his admiration for Putin and his dislike of U.S. allies. From personal experience, the “political technologists” who design the regime’s information campaign know that fear and hysteria can persuade people to vote for an authoritarian candidate. It costs them almost nothing to try to create fear and hysteria in the United States. It might not work — but it might pay off big.
There is one more possible motive. Whatever the outcome on Nov. 8, political uncertainty will follow. The months of transition, a change of White House staff, perhaps even the violent backlash that Trump may incite. This could be an excellent moment for a major Russian offensive — a land grab in Ukraine, a foray into the Baltic states, a much bigger intervention in the Middle East — anything to “test” the new president.
If that’s coming, Putin needs to prepare his public to fight much bigger wars and to persuade the rest of the world not to stop him. He needs to get his generals into the right mind-set, and his soldiers ready to go. A little nuclear war rhetoric never fails to focus attention, and I’m sure it has.
Anne Applebaum writes a biweekly foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. She is also the director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute, an independent nonpartisan policy, advisory and advocacy organization based in London.