Skip to content
What’s Behind Dmitry Medvedev’s Nuclear Saber-Rattling?
Go to my account

What’s Behind Dmitry Medvedev’s Nuclear Saber-Rattling?

The former Russian president is threatening the West over calls for an international tribunal over the invasion of Ukraine.

After the shock of the Bucha massacre and the steady drip of new Russian atrocities in Ukraine, there is growing interest to set up an international tribunal or some kind of investigation into these crimes. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commented on this possibility at a legal forum on July 30:

“It is also senseless to attempt to create tribunals or courts to investigate the circumstances of certain events via particular supranational bodies … I’m not talking here about the practical matters of such steps. This is all gibberish, to be honest. Do these states and individual politicians really believe in the possibility of criminal tribunals against the country with the largest nuclear arsenal? I somehow cannot recall a single successful attempt to arrange such a trial for the numerous military campaigns conducted by the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.” 

Here we see a pretty typical example of Russian whataboutism mixed with some nuclear bluster. A few days later Medvedev followed it up with a much more frank clarification in a Telegram post. He wanted to make sure that people realized that, “These proposals are not only legally void. The idea of punishing the country that has the largest nuclear arsenal is absurd in itself. And it potentially threatens the existence of mankind.”

So Medvedev went from bluster about Russia’s strength to a barely veiled threat of nuclear attack. A nuclear attack in response to what? To an investigation or tribunal of Russian atrocities. Russia is well on the way to transforming itself into a large North Korea with oil and gas reserves, but it is jumping ahead a bit to the phase where every criticism is met with atomic threats. 

Medvedev further wrote that what was really going on with this talk of tribunals and investigations was another plot by the U.S., which he accuses of “sow(ing) chaos and devastation around the world under the disguise of ‘true democracy’” and that America “knows how to brutally and primitively impose his will, using money, spineless vocals, which are called ‘allies’ for decency’s sake, and weapons of the highest quality.”

All of American history, from the time of the conquest of the Indians, is a bloody war of annihilation. … This has become a signature style of American politics. No matter who is in power there. During WWII, the US destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in this manner—only to justify the huge expenses from the nuclear “Manhattan Project.” … Vietnam and Korea, Yugoslavia and Iraq, Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria are well aware of how disastrous the consequences of such (US) invasions are—the list is long, and is constantly updated. America has killed more than 20 million people in 37 countries since the end of WWII, according to a study published in Global Research. Think about that—more than 20 MILLION!”

Medvedev is referring to this article posted on the notorious pro-Russian conspiracy-theory mongering website Global Research, a site that regularly posts the most deranged left-wing conspiracy theories against the U.S. This article gets to the total of 20 million by counting as many deaths as possible from any conflict remotely connected to U.S. involvement or interest and then attributing all those deaths to the U.S. For example, the article attributes all the deaths in the Iran-Iraq war, on both sides, to the U.S. Vietnam? 7.8 million deaths. Korea? 1.8 to 4.5 million.

Medvedev has no shame attacking the U.S. intervention in the Korean war and laying at its feet every death of South Koreans, North Koreans, and Chinese. Never mind that the USSR was supporting the North Korean regime, among the most loathsome in history. This is crackpot left-wing stuff, and in that world the North Koreans are the good guys.

Critiques of American interventions and other foreign actions are not hard to find, and they are increasingly popular on the U.S. right. Let this Medvedev screed serve as another reminder that Russia’s elite are still steeped in left-wing ideology. They are not like the American isolationists or even the Putin fanboys who imagine Russia fighting against the evil woke liberal order. The Russian elite is largely Soviet-revanchist, and still resents the U.S. for saving South Korea, Europe, etc. from their clutches or their allies in the 20th century.

Medvedev is not a moralizer. Even after he has made the accusation of 20 million dead he doesn’t call for righteous revenge against the U.S. or justify the actions of Russia—he goes straight to whataboutism again:

“Who is going to subject us to a show trial? Those who kill people and commit war crimes with impunity, but who do not meet real condemnation from the international structures that are financed by them? Those who so firmly believe in their exceptionalism and impunity? Those who believe they have the right to judge others, but to be beyond the jurisdiction of any court? … The USA and their useless mongrels should remember the words of Scripture: ‘Judge not, lest you be judged;’ (Matt 7:1-2) so that one day it won’t be to their house that ‘the great day of his wrath has come, and who can stand?’ (Rev 6:17)”

After quoting what is by far the all-time favorite Bible verse of unrepentant sinners, what is this weird insertion of Revelation’s apocalyptic vision of the judgment of the rulers of the nations? Is Medvedev implying that America can avoid judgment for its sins if it overlooks the sins of others? Or is he making an apocalyptic, atomic allusion as another threat?

It’s not worth reading too much into a kleptocrat’s biblical exegesis. This latest post is deranged even by the standards of Medvedev’s Telegram posts, which have grown increasingly demented of late. This might all be an act to serve part of some deeper propaganda messaging purpose of Russia, or perhaps something that Medvedev needs personally: e.g., he is afraid of his own reputation as a less hard-line Kremlin denizen and is trying to make sure everybody realizes he is not getting soft. Both are possible, but it does look like the calls for a tribunal or investigation have struck a nerve with Medvedev. 

Medvedev knows the truth of the matter: Russia’s elite, including him, are more vulnerable to getting locked out of or even punished in the West. The Russian elite are much more entwined with Western banks, real estate, and daily comforts than anything experienced before in Russian history. In the 19th century, the top of the Russian nobility would travel extensively in Europe and speak French at home, but usually their wealth was based on estates and serfs in Russia. Today’s Russian elite don’t have serfs—they have oil and gas wells, money laundering, and other extractive, shady, or downright criminal industries they cannot fully enjoy without access to the West. As the joke goes: Without Latvian banks, Austrian lawyers, and London real estate brokers the Russian elite could not function. They own apartments all over Europe and vacationed there constantly before the war. They park their cash in Wyoming and Switzerland and have plans to retire to France or flee to Spain once the game is up or if they get on the bad side of one of Putin’s pals. I lived for several months in Oxford, England, once upon a time, just a block away from a posh preparatory school. I was not surprised at all when I regularly overheard large clumps of these students hanging out after school speaking in their native Russian.

Investigations and trials that establish the culpability of senior members of the Russian government (who are in turn tied to every profitable part of the Russian economy) will have ripple effects down the elite, as Ukrainians can demand reparations, more sanctions are imposed, or folks like Medvedev will be totally unable to visit their homes in St. John’s Wood London, or even have them confiscated.

Medvedev has likely already been directly affected by this change. According to some reports circulating in Russian and Ukrainian language media, Medvedev’s son Ilya was working in the U.S. up until June, when his visa was revoked and he had to return home. A few days later Medvedev issued another one of his Telegram rants lamenting the “double lawlessness” of Western officials who go after the families of government officials. 

Now Ilya won’t be able to have a life as a subsidized L.A. crypto-bro, and he won’t be able to buy property for his parents in Canada. Instead he has very publicly found a job in Putin’s United Russia party. The interesting question here: Why does Medvedev seem so angry that his son was brought back from living in the American genocidal hellhole? Medvedev publicly pushes the crackpot idea that the U.S. killed 20 million people in the 20th century, so why on earth would he allow his son to be influenced by the great satan? Medvedev and the other members of the Russian elite are usually hypocritical around this point. This is not to say they are not anti-American, that they don’t dream about the destruction of our country and fantasize about a reborn USSR that can subjugate and humiliate the West. They do, but in the meantime they want to get as much lucre and vacation time out of their decadent enemies as they can. 

The Russian elite might be the worst offender when it comes to this hypocrisy of anti-Western deeds and words combined with dependence on Western institutions and laws, but it is not alone. Iranian and Chinese kleptocrats also bank and vacation in the West and send their children to study there, to say nothing of the dependence of their industries (especially military industries) on high-end imports from European and American firms. How did we get to this point when the criminal rulers who hate us most are all so linked to our societies? It didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be cured overnight. After Russia’s invasion of Georgia, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and use of nerve agents in England, why on earth is anyone still exporting high-end stuff to them or importing so much gas? There are mercenary reasons (people who want that cheap gas, for example, or to get fat fees from helping stash those stolen funds). But also remember there was a whole generation of well-educated Russia experts who told us that liberalization is just around the corner, that if we opened our heart to Russia along with our financial systems, the ruling elite would all become happy pro-Americans and everyone could be happy and get rich. 

Those who warned about the coming showdown with Russia were told that the “1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back.” The West conducted a big experiment about liberalization and access after the Cold War, but it is clear that it failed with regards to Russia and China. Under the Obama administration we doubled down on that Russia bet with the “reset” policy, and Medvedev was a major figurehead of the new Russia that we could do business with. During this whole time Russian propaganda was pouring out invective against us and our allies. We were told: This is just for the hardliners. Or: This will go away soon after we integrate them. 

Now, a little over a decade later, Medvedev is threatening nuclear war over investigations into atrocities he may have had a hand in committing. To understand the Medvedev “transformation” from pro-Western integrator to nuclear saber-rattler, perhaps we should skip down a few verses from Medvedev’s quote from Matthew: “Do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”