The sense of alarm was palpable on Russian state TV this week. Images of nuclear explosions flashed on an oversize screen as Evgeny Popov, host of the popular program 60 Minutes, talked about reports that Donald Trump may reverse a decades-long moratorium on nuclear testing.
“Of course it’s a bad idea,” said Popov. “If tomorrow the United States conducts a nuclear test, the day after tomorrow China will conduct a nuclear test, followed by Israel, then us [Russia], then France, then the U.K. and then—who knows—maybe Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran?”
Popov wondered out loud why Trump isn’t being impeached for contemplating such measures, which surely will have global repercussions. And this after Russia cheered him on throughout his actual impeachment and trial a few months ago.
It was as if Russian state media—which mirror the Kremlin’s thinking—suddenly realized with a shock that this American president they talk about as their agent, almost their creation, is a monster beyond their control.
Previously, the Kremlin saw Trump’s erratic actions as net benefits for Moscow. The Russians could list quite a few self-described victories: partial withdrawals of U.S. forces in the Middle East; America’s internal destabilization; the weakening of the U.S. position of global leadership; undermined trans-Atlantic unity with NATO allies; dismissal of the charges against shell companies that financed a Russian troll farm that interfered in the 2016 presidential election; and symbolic coronavirus gestures designed to portray Russia as a friendly nation.
But this nuclear test threat has the Kremlin rattled.
The proximate cause of all this worry was a report in The Washington Post about the Trump administration considering a renewal of underground nuclear tests for the first time since 1992. This has not been confirmed by any U.S. government agency, but the Russians appear to accept the Post report as a trial balloon they need to shoot down. And the furor it has provoked in Moscow suggests the Kremlin’s intelligence services may have more information on the subject.
According to the article in the Post, renewed testing would be a response to low-yield tests being conducted in secret by the Chinese and Russians, which is something they deny. The idea, according to the Post, is to get Russia and China to enter a trilateral arms-control agreement with the United States. But China has no interest in such an agreement and Russia does not intend to pressure Beijing into entertaining that idea.
Russian state media see the report as part of Trump’s pre-election strategy, but worry he could follow through on it by starting a costly and dangerous nuclear-arms race just as the Kremlin braces for the escalating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The initial reaction of the Russian experts was to rejoice at the damage Trump’s nuclear adventurism would inflict upon the United States, but the potential effect on their own country is now starting to sink in.
Having helped Trump’s 2016 candidacy and supported his presidency, the Kremlin seems to have painted itself into a corner. It’s not like they could turn to Joe Biden for reassurance. Russian shills have been promoting smears and conspiracy theories about him in Ukraine, and Russian analysts recoil at the notion of a Biden victory. Russian pundits openly describe Trump as someone “stupid enough to start a war,” but roundly reject Biden’s candidacy as an even less appealing alternative.
So Russian state media are wondering who could possibly stop the current American president from embarking on a disastrous nuclear course, and they don’t have an answer.
“Trump’s politics lead to the escalation of tensions worldwide,” exclaimed Alexey Martynov, director of the International Institute of Newly Established States. “He will end up starting a war, as long as he is allowed to do that. And so far, he is being allowed to do whatever he wants, by both the Republicans and the Democrats.”
Political scientist Mikhail Markelov emphasized: “This will cause global chaos... There will be protests and civil wars.” Referring to commentary by U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who compared the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic to a “dagger in the heart of Europe” in an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Markelov protested: “We’re not the dagger in the heart of Europe—America is a pimple on the butt of the world.”
The low level of discourse suggests a high level of hysteria, and anti-American slurs were pervasive in this week’s state-TV programs.
One of the Kremlin’s goals, outlined by analyst Dmitry Drobnitsky, is to develop such financial and political strength that by 2024 Russia would no longer be concerned with the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. But Drobnitsky acknowledged, “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.”
Appearing on Russia’s 60 Minutes, political scientist Andrey Nikulin pointed out, “Trump is simply doing what he promised his electorate in 2016. He is abandoning every treaty.” Then he added, addressing his Russian colleagues on the set, “I have a question: For whom did you root in the Duma [the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia], drinking Champagne and celebrating that he was elected? Wasn’t it this guy?”
Back and forth yelling in the studio ensued and the host angrily retorted: “I don’t want to discuss this any longer. It isn’t interesting.” But the topic resurfaced during another live taping of 60 Minutes on Wednesday.
Discussing foreign policy pursued by the Trump administration, Alexei Naumov from the Russian International Affairs Council said the quiet part out loud. Naumov urged: “Russian hackers, if you’re listening, don’t help Donald Trump with his re-election.”