Earlier this month, as fighting raged in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian rebels and forces loyal to the Western-backed government in Kyiv, Dmitry Kiselyov, the pugnacious, middle-aged journalist who heads Russiaâ€™s main state news agency, gazed defiantly into a TV studio camera. â€œWhat is Russia preparing for?â€ he asked. As if in reply, the director cut to an ominous backdrop image of an intercontinental ballistic missile emerging from an underground launch silo.
â€œDuring the era of political romanticism, the Soviet Union pledged never to use nuclear weapons first,â€ Kiselyov told the audience of Vesti Nedeli, his current affairs show, one of the countryâ€™s most widely watched programs. â€œBut Russiaâ€™s current military doctrine does not.â€ He paused briefly for effect. â€œNo more illusions.â€
There was nothing out of the ordinary about this reminder that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a â€œthreatâ€ 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 Kremlinâ€™s top attack dog.
Last spring, as Washington warned of sanctions over Russiaâ€™s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, Kiselyov boasted about his countryâ€™s fearsome nuclear arsenal. â€œRussia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the U.S. into radioactive ash,â€ he declared.
Why is this happening?
â€œI wouldnâ€™t take these statements about nuclear war literally,â€ said Pomerantsev, whose book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, dissects the Kremlinâ€™s media manipulation tactics. Talk of impending nuclear conflict is â€œone of Putinâ€™s mind-benders,â€ part of what he called an attempt to convince the West that the former KGB officer is this â€œcrazy, unpredictableâ€ leader whom it would be advisable not to push too far.
But the lines between fantasy and reality can all too often get blurred.
â€œThere is always the danger that games somehow slip into reality â€“ you start off playing with these narratives, and you end up stumbling into a real conflict,â€ said Pomerantsev.
The Kremlinâ€™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.