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A top Russian propagandist says war with NATO is starting and Moscow will show ‘no mercy.’ Experts say the threat is ‘nonsensical’

April 21, 2022, 1:58 PM UTC

“Not only Ukraine will have to be denazified,” warned prominent Russian TV host Vladimir Solovyov in a widely shared clip that echoed the Kremlin’s false assertion about Ukraine being governed by neo-Nazis. “The war against Europe and the world is developing a more specific outline, which means we’ll have to act differently and to act much more harshly.”

Solovyov, whose über-patriotic thoughts are carried on top state TV channel Russia-1, is never shy about making provocative statements—just this week, he claimed the U.K. was preparing a nuclear strike on Russia. But this, coming from a man so widely seen as a mouthpiece for President Vladimir Putin that his villas in Italy have been attacked by pro-Ukraine protesters, appeared to be a threat of a wider war.

“De facto, we’re starting to wage war against NATO countries,” he said. “We’ll be grinding up NATO’s war machine as well as citizens of NATO countries. When this operation concludes, NATO will have to ask itself, ‘Do we have what we need to defend ourselves? Do we have the people to defend ourselves?’ And there will be no mercy.”

So how seriously should this threat be taken? First, it’s important to understand its context.

Heavy weapons

In the past couple of weeks, as Russia withdrew from northern Ukraine and started throwing everything at the seizure of the country’s eastern Donbas region, some NATO countries began sending Kyiv heavy weaponry, such as tanks and artillery.

Solovyov was claiming that NATO would also start sending people to operate the equipment, which Russia would take as effectively meaning war between Russia and NATO—the outcome that the West has been desperately trying to avoid over the past two months, for example by refusing to institute and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Russia also just tested a new nuclear-capable missile called Sarmat—or, as some in the West call it, “Satan II.” The launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile came as no surprise (it was first tested in 2017), but its significance at the present moment was obvious.

“This truly unique weapon will strengthen the combat potential of our armed forces, reliably ensure Russia’s security from external threats, and provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country,” Putin said as he hailed the launch.

This may have just been posturing ahead of Russia’s annual Victory Day parade—more tests are needed before the Sarmat ICBM can be made available to Russia’s military later this year—but again, it was implicitly a threat to the West. It certainly amused the Russia-1 pundits appearing on Solovyov’s panel, who chuckled at the thought of wiping out New York City.

“Nonsensical

However, experts say Russia’s nuclear arsenal—the world’s largest—is just about all the country’s military has going for it right now.

“It’s nonsensical,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, of Solovyov’s threat against NATO countries.

“The best units of the Russian army [are] struggling and taking huge losses trying to take a part of Ukraine,” O’Brien told Fortune on Thursday. “The Russian armed forces, beyond their nuclear weapons, represents no threat to NATO at the moment. This is all propaganda aimed at Russians to pretend that Russia remains a strong and powerful nation, not a heavily damaged military and economy with a lot of nuclear weapons.”

That view was cautiously echoed by Marion Messmer, codirector of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), a London-based think tank. “I don’t think Russia could afford a further escalation of the war,” she told Fortune. “It’s not clear that Russia would win that escalation.”

Messmer said the propagandist’s increasingly heated rhetoric was “of course worrying,” but two things reassured her that it did not in fact represent a new threat: the fact that Solovyov was addressing a domestic Russian audience, who have long been told that NATO is a critical threat to Russian security, and the fact that Russia stuck to international norms when conducting its Sarmat test, by first notifying other countries such as the U.S. so as to avoid any misunderstandings.

“Russia didn’t act as aggressively as it could have,” Messmer said, adding that the test was nonetheless timed so as to send a signal to the West.

Sending military personnel to Ukraine is “not something NATO is planning at all at the moment,” Messmer noted. “If I had to make a prediction I’d say [Solovyov] is essentially trying to set up an argument for the Russian population to justify why Russia is acting in such a brutal way.”

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