With diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Washington at their lowest point since the Cold War, one could be forgiven for being alarmed by recent Russian news broadcasts. For the past month, Russian media outlets have been punctuated with reports asking people whether they are ready for nuclear war, reports AP.
“If it should one day happen, everyone 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 scolding over Syria,” the show’s host Evgeny Kiselyov told his audience. "Impudent behaviour,” from the US he said, can take on “nuclear dimensions."
Anti-Americanism is not rare on Russian state news, nor is an inclination for the apocalyptic. Besides the intensity of the warnings, more notable has been how Russian government ministries have joined in the alarms in recent weeks. Since September, Russia has conducted a nationwide civil defence 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 Kaliningrad, the enclave in northern Europe that puts them within striking distance of Western capitals.
Such moves have raised the temperature further in a confrontation with the West, already exceptionally high with the US directly accusing Moscow of trying to interfere in its presidential elections and Russia accusing the US of supporting terrorists in Syria. Relations were already at a low since the Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014, but the renewed clash over Moscow's military campaign in Syria has sent them to fresh depths.
The blood-curdling statements and military posturing, however, do not herald imminent war, analysts said.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Aleksander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow centre. "It's not preparation for war."
Baunov said the civil defence drills and the heated programming on television were directed more at the US, to deter it from interfering with Russia's military campaign in Syria or responding too strongly to suspected Russian efforts to interfere with the US elections.
“They want to touch bottom and then to try to go up," he said, adding that he feels Moscow was trying to set the tone for the incoming US 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 US have risen dramatically since Washington indicated it was considering launching airstrikes against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a cease-fire brokered by Moscow and Washington was abandoned and Assad and Russian aircraft unleashed a devastating bombardment on the city of Aleppo. Russia’s defence ministry has bluntly warned the US not to intervene, threatening to shoot down any aircraft targeting Assad regime forces.
But few analysts expect such an intervention from the US
"The good news is no one really wants a war," Pavel Felgengauer, a Moscow-based military analyst said. "But it's going to be a good show."
Many ordinary Russians, though describing themselves as outraged by US behaviour in Syria, appear largely inured to the warnings of imminent nuclear doom. Photos appeared on social media from a suburban apartment block where pranksters or enterprising fraudsters had pinned flyers to a stairwell asking residents to begin donating cash for the construction of a local bomb shelter.
"Hurry, places are limited," the flyer said.
"In reality nothing has changed," Baunov said. "There is no peak in anti-American mood here among people."