Anne Applebaum writes: 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 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 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. [Continue reading…]