The rhetoric on Kremlin-funded state television is amping up the sense of urgency around Russian President Vladimir Putin’s NATO “ultimatum.” Olga Skabeeva, the host of state TV show 60 Minutes, said Tuesday: “The level of anxiety has reached its maximum. We’re 20 days away from the expiration of the ultimatum and the stakes are rising, even though it seems they couldn’t be any higher.”
One day after Moscow submitted a draft of its Russia-U.S. security treaty, containing demands that NATO roll back its military deployments in Europe and deny membership to Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov threatened that Moscow would raise the stakes if the West didn’t treat its demands seriously. On Monday, he told Interfax that Russia needs answers “urgently, because the situation is very difficult.”
Pro-Kremlin propagandists and state-media experts filled in the blanks with what kind of escalation should be expected. On Sunday’s edition of News of the Week, state-TV host Dmitry Kiselyov explained: “Russia… prepared and handed over to the Americans its written proposals on strategic stability, or, more simply, on the prevention of nuclear war, since we are already at a critical point, to be honest… It’s simple. The U.S. and NATO must roll back from our borders, otherwise we will, figuratively speaking, ‘roll up’ to their borders and create symmetrical, unacceptable risks… If you put a gun to our head, we will respond in kind… The whole point is that the development of the Ukrainian territory by the [Western] bloc is not only Ukraine’s business. This is a complete breakdown of the global balance, which poses an existential threat to Russia. In other words, for Russia it is a matter of life and death… We simply will not allow it, regardless of the cost to us, and regardless of the cost to those responsible for it.”
Kiselyov, notorious for his previous assertion that Russia is the only country that can reduce the U.S. to a pile of radioactive ash, revisited his beloved “argument” to explain why the United States will be willing to entertain Putin’s unreasonable proposition. He asserted that Russia is willing to suffer any consequences and go to any lengths to get what it wants: “Never before has anyone published the texts of the proposed treaties. But never before in the 21st century has the situation been so acute, and the risks so great. Non-standard situations require non-standard approaches. Secondly, we’re holding very strong cards in our hands. Our hypersonic weapons are guaranteed to produce a response that is so unpleasant for America to hear: being reduced to radioactive ash.”
Putin ordered two nuclear-capable long-range bombers to fly into European airspace this weekend, as they were dispatched to patrol Belarus. Just a week ago, Russia warned that it would redeploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons on its Western flank—in striking distance of central Europe—for the first time since they were banned in a 1987 treaty between presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
There have also been grim signs of things to come from the Russian government. A new national standard for “Urgent burial of corpses in peacetime and wartime” has been introduced by the government in recent months. It will come into force on Feb. 1, 2022, and specifies the burial in mass graves to be dug by bulldozers, disposing of as many as 1,000 bodies in a 24-hour time period. Bodies are to be placed “in four layers, either in bags, wooden coffins or zinc coffins, prepared in advance… and subsequently covered with dirt. Then the mass graves will be compacted with a bulldozer, filled with “a mineral binder” and equipped with “devices for the absorption and neutralization of radioactive, hazardous chemicals and biological agents formed during the decomposition of corpses.”
Russia’s government agency responsible for the creation of the new standards did not respond to journalists’ inquiries as to the purpose behind this effort. Military expert Alexander Goltz told newspaper Novye Izvestiya: “Those who prepared these standards thought in terms of either a global epidemic or a global war, in which not only the military, but also the civilian population would die. This is only possible with the use of nuclear weapons.”
Former military spokesman Viktor Baranets concurred and added: “It may turn out that we will have to send troops not only to Donetsk and the Lugansk regions, but also to the greater Ukraine. We have a flaming fuse in the Black Sea region. There are also dangers in the region of Belarus and concerns in the Kaliningrad region. [NATO] has grandiose plans for the immediate capture of the Kaliningrad region, even with the use of nuclear weapons. And how, then, will we bury? One by one, or what?” He added: “We’re getting ready for the major crises.”
Chess legend and a highly knowledgeable critic of the Kremlin Garry Kasparov—who was way ahead of his time with his 2016 book Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped—described the Russian government’s creation of the “mass burial” standard as one of “the signposts on the way to apocalypse.”
Propagandists on Russia’s state-funded television stressed that Moscow is now approaching the West from a position of strength. Discussing the Kremlin’s bold and unreasonable ultimatums to the U.S. and its allies, Kiselyov said: “This is a moment of truth in our relations with America, in which we move on to complete reciprocity… From a position of strength, we simply designate a ‘cause and effect’ relationship. That’s how it will be.” With brazen arrogance of a seasoned mobster borrowed from The Godfather, Russia’s top propagandist concluded: “You, over there in the U.S., NATO and the EU, decide for yourself: Is Russia making an offer that can be refused?”
On Saturday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko discussed Putin’s ultimatum to the United States and NATO with pro-Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Soloviev, who donned a red hoodie emblazoned with a Soviet hammer and sickle emblem. In an episode of Soloviev’s show entitled “NATO’s Capitulation,” Grushko said: “The moment of truth has come. We have reached a red line and our proposals aim to pull us away from this red line and start normal dialogue that will put security interests at the forefront.” He described the Kremlin’s hard-nosed demand to the West as “throwing the rock into their swamp” and explained that Western refusal to play by Moscow’s rules will lead to “a military or military-technical response,” with Russia “creating counter-threats” to the United States and its allies.
On Monday, in response to the question as to whether Russia could deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists: “It’s no secret that the deployment of various kinds of weapons near our borders, which can pose a danger to us, clearly requires adequate steps to balance the situation. Various options are available.”
In past years, Russian lawmakers have been advocating the placement of Russia’s advanced weapons systems in Cuba, Central America, and elsewhere “in America’s underbelly.” Those options likely remain on Moscow’s menu. On Tuesday, state-TV host Olga Skabeeva pointed out: “We’re contemplating placing our nuclear weapons in Cuba or Venezuela.”
Conveying the message that could be summed up as “USSR or bust,” Russia’s national ice hockey team sparked outrage in Europe by wearing Soviet uniforms in Euro Hockey Tour’s Channel One Cup in Moscow on Sunday. The return to Soviet imagery is in total coordination with Putin’s ultimatum to the West that seeks a rematch in the Cold War that was lost by the Soviet Union.
On Monday, Skabeeva surmised: “The United States have to sign off on the notion that their hegemony is over.”
She added: “The declaration about a military response is being made by our Foreign Affairs Ministry… which never happened before. Russia is placing the United States in a no-win situation: either they retreat voluntarily, or we will force them to retreat. At the same time, Russia is not taking any obligations upon itself with respect to the preservation of Ukraine, much less of its sovereignty.”