With diplomatic relations 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.
“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 scolding over Syria,” the show’s host, Evgeny Kiselyov, told his audience. “Impudent behavior,” from the U.S. he said, can take on “nuclear dimensions.”
Anti-Americanism is not rare on Russian state news, nor is an inclination for the apocalyptic. 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 exclave, Kaliningrad, putting them within striking distance of Western capitals.
Such moves have further raised the temperature with the West, already exceptionally high with the U.S. accusing Moscow of trying to interfere in its presidential elections and Russia accusing the U.S. of supporting terrorists in Syria. Relations were already at a low since the Ukraine crisis broke out in 2014, and the renewed clash over Moscow’s military campaign in Syria has sent them to fresh depths.
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 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 Defense Ministry has bluntly warned the U.S. not to intervene, threatening to shoot down any aircraft targeting Assad’s forces.
But few analysts expect such an intervention from the U.S.
“The good news is no one really wants a war,” said Pavel Felgengauer, a military analyst in Moscow. “But it’s going to be a good show.”
Many ordinary Russians, though describing themselves as outraged by U.S. behavior 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 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.
“In reality, nothing has changed,” Baunov said. “There is no peak in anti-American mood here among people.”