Last Sunday the 1st of May, Dmitry Kiselyov, 68, a pro-Kremlin journalist, made a TV broadcast threatening to wipe Great Britain off the map in a catastrophic nuclear strike.
Britain, he said, is "so small that one Sarmat missile will be enough to sink it once and for all". On the screen showed an animated missile from Russia hitting Britain and wiping it off the map. Kiselyov went on to discuss another option – exploding a thermonuclear weapon off Britain’s coastline and drowning the UK in a radioactive tsunami. Another graphic showed Britain being washed away along with Ireland, which was apparently collateral damage.
Kiselyov’s alarming broadcast was not an isolated incident. Russian TV anchors are making incendiary claims with increasing frequency as the war in Ukraine rumbles on.
As head of state owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya, Kiselyov is one of the chief propagandists for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has previously said that gay people should not be allowed to donate blood, sperm or organs. In 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea, Kiselyov was an easy target for EU sanctions because of his bellicose rhetoric - “Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the US into radioactive ash,” he said on Sunday news programme News Weekly at the time.
The week after his latest bout of apocalyptic sabre rattling, Kiselyov was pictured at the five-star Jumeirah Al Qasr hotel in Dubai with his eighth wife Maria. He was taking some much needed rest and relaxation in the favourite holiday destination of wealthy Russians after his most recent nuclear threat, leaving Western media to desperately decode how serious he was while he chilled in the sun.
His threat was by no means the only one.
On the 27th of April, Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of RT, one of the Kremlin’s highest-profile mouthpieces, told a panel show that, “The most incredible outcome, that all this will end with a nuclear strike, seems more probable to me than the other course of events."
“This is to my horror on one hand”, she said, “but on the other hand, it is what it is.”
Prominent anchor Vladimir Solovyov – who the Kremlin claimed was the subject of a foiled assassination plot by Ukraine – was equally sanguine, "We will go to heaven, while they will simply croak," he said.
That same week, on the Channel One programme 60 Minutes, panellists discussed how quickly London, Berlin and Paris could be hit with nuclear missiles, complete with animated maps.
And last week, Russian news agency RIA Novosti claimed that Ukrainian soldiers were “disciples of otherworldly forces” trying to “consecrate their weapons” with blood to make their weapons do more damage.
It appears that Russian TV has reached a new fever pitch as the invasion of Ukraine has dragged on. But for Francis Scarr, a journalist for BBC Monitoring, who watches “Russian state TV so you don't have to”, the developments are shocking, but not surprising.
“It’s not new,” he says. “Since 2014 [when Russia annexed Crimea] it’s been a feature of Russian state TV.” Scarr says he has watched about three or four hours of Russian state TV a day since the invasion started.
He points out that Kiselyov already suggested that Russia could turn the US in “radioactive ash” yet again in December 2021. “I think the difference now really is just how intense it is.”
“It has been pretty extreme for years.”
Olga Lautman, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, who grew up watching Russian TV, agrees. “I wasn’t shocked, because over the past decade they have run so many simulations of sending a nuclear weapon to the US.”
“To me, [what we’re seeing on Russian TV] is not crazy. It's just the intensity of it now.”
But, on another level, things have changed. Early in the war, Russian TV framed the invasion of Ukraine as a “special operation” that people didn’t need to pay too much attention to. Now, Russians are being encouraged to view Russia as a victim of NATO aggression.
“It’s quite surreal to watch,” says Scarr, “because sometimes they will say, quite literally, ‘we just wanted to carry out our “special operation” and how dare they [the West], they have come back with full-scale war against us’.”
“What we're seeing is trying to mobilise the population in a way that I'm not used to seeing,” says Scarr, who has been watching Russian TV professionally for four years.
State TV has also started issuing warnings to anyone at home who opposes the war, threatening to put them in concentration camps. Last week, Karen Shakhnazarov, head of the state-backed Mosfilm film studio, told a panel show on Russia-1, “The opponents of the letter Z must understand that if they are counting on mercy, no, there will be no mercy for them. It's all become very serious. In this case, it means concentration camps, re-education and sterilisation.”
This is another change in the mood music on state TV, Scarr says.
“Before, they would discourage people from taking an interest in politics and global affairs. Now it’s very much, ‘we need you to rally around our leader’. That’s the main change I have spotted.”
Fortunately, the infographics of the UK being nuked into the North Sea are part of this internal propaganda effort rather than a projection of the Kremlin’s plans. “It should be taken with a pinch of salt, because it’s meant for domestic messaging,” Scarr says.
"This is about convincing the Russian public that they are under attack from the West, and that they need to defend themselves."
“State TV is really well funded by the government. A lot of programmes are very slick, in a way that Soviet propaganda wouldn't have been,” says Scarr.
Russia reportedly spent 102.8 billion rubles (£1.2 billion) on state media in 2021, including 6 billion rubles for Channel One.
According to pollsters, state TV is the main source of news for 70 percent of Russians and has become more popular since the war began, says Scarr.
“It is watched. This is what people need to realise. This isn't for fringe nutcases. This is the main source of information for people…There's no independent Russian TV that's criticising Putin. It is really under his control.”
It is tempting to look at the bombastic shock-jocks of Western media and wonder if the likes of Kiselyov are really that noteworthy. But Scarr says he’s not the Russian equivalent of Tucker Carlson. “Those things exist in the US and elsewhere, but they are not the norm, they are the exception,” Scarr says. “In Russia they are the norm. It’s literally all like this.”
Lautman agrees. “This is the norm. It’s a circus show… It's laughable but at the same time you see patterns that stick.”
However wild Russian state TV is now, Lautman says it could get worse. “They’re running out of things to invent,” she says. But, she adds, “there’s always room for more craziness.”