Russian television warns of nuclear war amid US tensions
MOSCOW - 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.
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. In the same week, Russia test-fired 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles.
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.
But 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-fueled reports and exercises may have several purposes, but none of them were to prepare the populace for major conflict. The nuclear threats, while frightening, reflected an sense in Russia that they could be made without real fear of being taken sincerely.
"The ease with which people in this country use the nuclear threat in their aggressive rhetoric is truly amazing and of course alarming," Maria Lipman, a veteran Russian analyst and editor-in-chief of Counterpoint journal.
That relative unconcern is perhaps reflected in that the war talk does not appear to have much traction among Russians. What's more Baunov said, anti-Americanism not especially high among ordinary people currently, limited he said to official discourse.
That discourse, rather than heralding war, Baunov said, was meant to deter Western countries from intervening in Syria and in particular perhaps was meant to prevent the U.S. from responding too strongly to suspected Russian interference in the U.S. elections. Moscow, he said, is trying to set the field ahead of an incoming U.S. president, whoever wins.
"They want to touch bottom and then to try to go up," he said. "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 fevered rhetoric on television and pointed deployments of nuclear launch vehicles recalled the height of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, when Russia too sought to guarantee against Western intervention and buttress support for its actions at home. This time, 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 still 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.
Lipman warned the two countries' perilously diverging goals in Syria and an escalating logic in their exchanges, could see that confrontation spiral unpredictably out of control. "I think this is unprecedented," she said. "One reckless move could turn what until know has still been a Syrian conflict into something I don't even want to think about."
Beyond geopolitical clashes, though, 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 ordinary Russians it appeared an overly familiar show. Though often describing themselves as outraged by U.S. behavior in Syria, most seemed inured to the suggestions of possible nuclear doom, taking a more realistic view of the television warnings. 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.