Analysis of the Narrative „The West provokes Russia, but also fears it: Narratives about nuclear war threats in the Serbian media“

January 2023

As part of the Regional Initiative in Combating Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

The West provokes Russia, but also fears it: Narratives about nuclear war threats in the Serbian media

Since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, the increased possibility of using nuclear weapons has been periodically analyzed by the public. The main triggers of this topic were moves by the Russian government, such as putting nuclear weapons forces on high alert or changing military doctrine. For now, most analysts estimate that the risk of a nuclear conflict has not increased significantly, and Western officials have repeatedly criticized Russia’s “de-tabooing” of this topic as an example of irresponsibility.

In the pro-government and pro-Russian media in Serbia, on the other hand, narratives have often appeared that the West will be responsible if Russia uses nuclear weapons. The fact that Russia uses threats in these media is not presented as risk or irresponsibility, but rather as a reflection of its power.

Also, two opposing narratives have often been conveyed – that the West is afraid of Russia’s nuclear weapons and that the West and Ukraine are provoking Russia to use it. Contradictions appear both in the persistent emphasis on Russia’s willingness to use atomic weapons, on the one hand, and in Russia’s denial that it contributes to the probability of conflict. Both narratives are based on statements of Russian officials.

“Putin: Whoever attacks Russia with nuclear weapons will be wiped from the face of the earth” is an example of a news with a narrative about Russian nuclear supremacy, which was published by the portal of Radio-television of Vojvodina (RTV) in December 2022. The news agency Reuters is cited as the source of the text, although there is no news with this statement on its website; it was actually published by the conservative Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post.

In September 2022, the pro-Russian portal Webtribune published an analysis by Yakov Kedmi, a pro-Kremlin commentator. He stated that it turned out “that Russia’s advantage over the United States in nuclear weapons is greater than the West believed, which discouraged the American military.” According to Kedmi, Pentagon intelligence officers unexpectedly discovered that the Russian Federation is superior to the United States in both tactical and strategic nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, it has been known for years that Russia has a slightly larger stockpile of nuclear weapons than the US, but that the two powers are almost equal, according to global criteria. According to data available on the website of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), Russia possesses 5,977 nuclear weapons, while the US possesses 5,428. China is in third place with 350.

Webtribune continued to contribute to the narrative that the West is afraid of Russian weapons. “Putin’s warning has U.S. officials tiptoeing,” was the September 2022 headline, in which the text of The Hill, a well-known source of critical views of the U.S. used by many pro-Russian media, was transmitted.

“As the authors remind, on September 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that in the event of a threat, Russia will use all defense methods, including nuclear weapons. He emphasized that this was not a bluff, but a serious warning. In the US, the Russian leader’s words were taken seriously, but Washington did not make clear comments on what the response would be if Moscow was forced to take extreme measures,” the text states.

A few days later, the same portal quoted the Chinese media Sohu, according to which the US would not have the courage to react even if Russia used nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“The Russian side is well aware that the US always adheres to the principle of ‘America First.’ Washington does not have the courage to give a meaningful response,” the article states.

The largest number of pro-Russian articles in this period, however, pointed the finger at the West and Ukraine as responsible for the possible outbreak of a nuclear war.

When announcing partial military mobilization in September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if the West continues with “nuclear blackmail”, Moscow would respond “with the might of its vast arsenal”. The headline of this article stated that “after Putin’s announcement, the real war begins”, even though the invasion had been going on for seven months at that point.

On several occasions, the United States of America has been singled out, beforehand, as the culprit of a potential nuclear war.

“America has been looking for an external enemy for many years, writes the Russian “dikGAZETE”… The USA is trying to paint Russia black, despite being the first to declare the Cold War and dropping atomic bombs on innocent people. And yet, the collective West is trying to convince the whole world that the nuclear threat comes from Russia. Rest assured that the Americans will push this button, not the Russians,” the Webtribune reported in October 2022.

Earlier, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, said that Washington was pushing the situation towards a “clash of the greatest nuclear powers, fraught with unpredictable consequences”, although there were no changes in the conditions for the use of Moscow’s nuclear weapons. He also said that American officials are frightening their own and the world’s public with “fictional nuclear threats” from Russia, as reported by the media in Serbia.

Press Secretary of the Russian president, Dmitry Peskov, later confirmed Antonov’s findings, which was also reported by the Serbian edition of Sputnik.

“This is a discussion about the acceptability of arms deliveries to Ukraine, which will enable attacks on Russian territory, even in addition to that, Kiev has weapons with which it constantly targets Russian territories, and I mean our new regions (Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson). This is potentially extremely dangerous, it will mean the transition of the conflict to a qualitatively new level, which, of course, does not bode well from the point of view of global and general European security,” Peskov told reporters.

Besides the USA, Ukraine has also been accused of provoking a nuclear conflict in December 2022. “Attack on the Russian military base paves the way for Russia to use nuclear weapons” is the title of the Webtribune text referring to the Ukrainian sabotage of Russian military airports which “gives the Russian Federation a legitimate opportunity to use nuclear weapons against the Kiev regime.”

The text states that the main document regulating the use of nuclear weapons in Russia is Decree of the President of the Russian Federation No. 355 of June 2, 2020, and that the actions of the Ukrainian army meet the conditions for the use of this type of weapon. The source is not mentioned in this text, so it is unclear whether this analysis is the conclusion of the portal itself.

Author: Aleksandar Ivković