Margarita Simonyan is no stranger to public outrage. But the veteran propagandist and editor-in-chief of Russian broadcaster RT managed to leave pretty much everyone at a loss for words on Monday when she claimed that if Russia detonated a controlled thermonuclear explosion over Siberia, it would knock out communications systems around the world without causing any real damage.
Simonyan went on to explain that triggering a nuclear explosion taking the world back to “about 1993” — a bizarre pitch to make to a Russian audience — would be the humane thing to do, adding that at the very least she would no longer have to explain to her kids “why they don’t have gadgets while all the other children do”.
Simonyan’s comments were met with reassuringly fierce criticism from Russian politicians and officials, with even the Kremlin appearing keen to distance itself from her bizarre ramblings.
The Simonyan plan
The forum Simonyan used to share her thoughts on the upside of a nuclear detonation was Monday’s edition of her TV show, Q.E.D., in which she speaks directly to the camera for 20 minutes straight. Simonyan began by discussing current events in Russia, the “special military operation” in Ukraine, recent drone attacks near Moscow and, inevitably, her favourite theme, the threat posed to Russia by the West. The fact that the West would stop at nothing in its campaign against Russia, she said, was making a Russian nuclear ultimatum “ever more imminent”.
She then quoted the late Vladimir Zhirinovsky — never a good sign — reminding her viewers that the far-right politician who came to prominence for his unhinged rhetoric had urged Russia to immediately make a first nuclear strike on Washington DC should it ever be under threat.
“We wouldn’t even have to strike Washington,” Simonyan continued, warming to her theme.
“A smart person recently told me something I neither knew nor would I have guessed: If we conduct a nuclear explosion … over our territory, somewhere in Siberia for example, there’ll be no issues on the ground. Nothing terrible at all. No nuclear winter or catastrophic radiation levels that would kill everyone around.”
“What would happen though is that all radioelectronics, all digital equipment, and all satellites would be disabled,” she added, an outcome she described as “the most herbivorous option”.
‘No end to moral decay’
The mayor of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Anatoly Lokot, was one of the first elected officials to respond to Simonyan’s pronouncement, and chose to do so in a surprisingly respectful manner for somebody who represents 1.5 million Siberian residents.
"As a physicist by training, I suppose I’ll comment. There is nothing good about terrestrial thermonuclear explosions. The consequences can be felt for hundreds if not thousands of years,” Lokot said, before stressing that humanity had to approach “the issue of thermonuclear testing and any explosions that produce thermonuclear energy with the utmost responsibility”.
Photo: Anatoly Lokot/Novosibirsk Mayor’s Office
State Duma Deputy Maria Prusakova, who represents a district in Siberia, informed Simonyan that Siberians had found her comments to be terribly offensive and “strongly recommended” her to air such views in her own kitchen rather than discussing issues she had no knowledge of in public.
A slightly less diplomatic reaction came from Nikolay Korolyov, an aide to Moscow politician Yevgeny Stupin. “I thought I had seen every possible manifestation of propaganda but it turns out that there is no end to this moral decay,” he said.
Photo: Nikolay Korolyov
“Aside from being plainly barbaric and ridiculous, these remarks violate Russian law”, Korolyov continued, adding that he had filed complaints against Simonyan with the Russian Investigative Committee and the Interior Ministry, demanding that her “comments be analysed” and that she be held “administratively or criminally liable”.
Viktor Sobolev, a member of the State Duma Defence Committee, said that “nuclear sabre rattling” was becoming more common and cautioned Russians to “avoid making this kind of statement”.
“Yes, we do have them, they are in good condition and are ready to be launched. But only if the collective West makes a first strike,” Sobolev said.
Photo: Viktor Sobolev
However, he did agree with Simonyan that the effects of detonating a single bomb would be negligible. “There will definitely be no radioactive contamination. What could just one bomb over Siberia do? Nothing at all. It all depends on the power, quantity and altitude of the explosion.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov urged the public to remember that Simonyan was not a government official, and as such “her words do not always reflect official positions”. As Kremlin slapdows go, it was fairly mild, but a slapdown it was nevertheless. Peskov also stressed that Moscow was still upholding the moratorium on nuclear tests declared in 1991.
This is not the first time Simonyan has made alarming public comments about Russia’s supposed willingness to use nuclear weapons. In April 2022, she told Russian TV that Putin’s government would rather perish in a nuclear war against the rest of the world than recognise a military defeat in Ukraine.
“We can either accept losing to Ukraine or start World War III. I personally think that the third world war option is more realistic,”
Simonyan said, adding cryptically that “the most improbable thing — an ultimate nuclear strike — seems the most probable nonetheless.”
On the eve of Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions last September, Simonyan again confided to the rest of the world the fact that she thought nuclear war could break out at any moment.
“Based on what is happening and is going to happen, this week marks either Russia’s swift victory or the advent of a nuclear war. I can’t seem to find any other option,” she wrote.
In June, she told Russian TV that a war between Russia and NATO would last all of 15 minutes, after which the next species to go to war with itself would be “dinosaurs”, suggesting that thermonuclear testing isn’t the only subject she hasn’t entirely grasped.
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