By Patrick Reevell20 hours ago
With diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington at their lowest point since the Cold War, turning on Russian television can be an alarming experience. For the past month, Russian media outlets have been punctuated with reports asking people whether they are ready for nuclear war.
"If it should one day happen, every one of you should know where the nearest bomb shelter is. It’s best to find out now," according to one particularly fevered report on the Russian state-owned channel, NTV.
Russia’s main current affairs show, hosted by a presenter known by critics as the country’s propagandist-in-chief, recently spent two hours warning that Russia would defend itself with nuclear arms.
"We’ve had it with American abuse over Syria," the show’s host, Evgeny Kiselyov, told his audience. "Impudent behavior," from the U.S. towards Russia, he said, can now take on "nuclear dimensions."
Anti-Americanism is not rare on Russian state news, nor is an inclination for the apocalyptic. But more notable than the intensity of the warnings has been how Russian government ministries have joined in the alarms in recent weeks. Since September, Russia has conducted a nationwide civil defense drill, purportedly involving 40 million people, preparing them for catastrophes -- among them nuclear fallout. Russia’s military announced who would run the country in the event of war and ran an exercise simulating that in the south. The governor of St. Petersburg clarified what bread rations people could expect should Russia come under attack (300 grams for 20 days).
Even more bluntly, Russia announced this week it was moving nuclear-capable ballistic missiles into its Northern European enclave, Kaliningrad, putting them within striking distance of Western capitals.
Such moves have further raised the temperature with the West, already exceptionally high since the U.S. publicly accused Moscow of trying to interfere in its presidential elections and efforts by the two countries to reach a cease-fire deal terrorists in Syria, collapsed amid mutual recrimination and the renewal of ferocious airstrikes by Russian jets on the besieged city of Aleppo. The last time Russian television appeared so belligerent and nuclear conflict was so hotly discussed on it, was in 2014 as the Ukraine crisis erupted; but this fresh crisis builds on that tension and multiplies it, given the accusations that Moscow is targeting the U.S. now directly, and with both countries embroiled in a proxy war in Syria.
The blood-curdling statements and military posturing, however, are very far from heralding imminent war, analysts said.
"It’s ridiculous," said Aleksander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It’s not preparation for war."
Like other Russia observers, he said the atomic-fuelled reports and exercises may have several purposes, but none of them were to prepare the populace for major conflict.
What's more, he and other analysts have said, the war talk does not appear to have had much traction among Russians, since anti-Americanism is not especially high among ordinary people currently. He believes it is limited to official discourse.
Baunov did not think the civil defense drill or the television reports were directed so much at Russians, but more abroad, intended to deter other countries from interfering with Russia’s military campaign in Syria or responding too strongly to suspected Russian interference in the U.S. elections.
"They want to touch bottom and then to try to go up," he said, adding that he feels Moscow is trying to stake out the ground ahead of the incoming U.S. president. "Any responsible politician ... if you are responsible and experienced, it cannot start with further downgrading already bad relations, if they are already at bottom."
The chances of a real military confrontation between Russia and the U.S. have risen dramatically since Washington indicated it was considering launching airstrikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to halt his brutal bombardment of Aleppo and push Moscow and Assad back to the negotiating table. Russia’s Defense Ministry has bluntly warned the U.S. not to intervene, threatening to shoot down any aircraft targeting Assad’s forces.
But few expect the Obama administration to approve such an intervention, which would abandon years of policy avoiding direct military intervention against Assad, at a moment when it also risked provoking an armed clash with Russia.
Nonetheless, the heightened rhetoric, the two countries' perilously diverging goals in Syria, and an escalating logic in their exchanges, has led some to warn the confrontation could spiral unpredictably out of control. "I think this is unprecedented," said Maria Lipman, an analyst and editor-in-chief ofCounterpoint journal. "One reckless move could turn what until know has still been a Syrian conflict into something I don't even want to think about."
There may also be a more prosaic reason for the war talk -- Russia's military budget is currently up for consideration at a time when the economy is in trouble, weighed down by low oil prices and Western sanctions over the Kremlin's foreign military ventures.
"The more tension the better for the Russian General Staff," Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow, said. "Tensions are going to rise and rise and rise."
"The good news is no one really wants a war," he added. "But it’s going to be a good show."
For many Russians, it seems to have already become an over-familiar show. Though often describing themselves as outraged by U.S. behavior in Syria, most people are inured to the suggestions of possible nuclear doom. Still, it did seem to create a certain atmosphere. Photos appeared on social media from a suburban apartment block where pranksters or enterprising fraudsters had pinned fliers to a stairwell asking residents to begin donating cash for the construction of a local bomb shelter.
"Hurry, places are limited," the fliers read.