MOSCOW -- With tensions between Russia and the United States at their highest since the Cold War, there have been alarming signs coming out of Moscow that suggest the country is ready for war.
Almost no one believes the Kremlin is actually preparing for a military conflict with the United States. Most analysts instead see it as a show, intended to boost support at home and to deter Western countries from intervening militarily in Syria.
There are some unsettling things Russia has done, however, to give the impression that war is looming:
Beware the ‘Nuclear Dimensions'
As the confrontation between the United and Russia has worsened over Syria, and amid speculation Washington might launch airstrikes against Syrian government forces, Russian state-controlled media has gone into high gear, asking Russians whether they are prepared for nuclear war.
“If that should one day happen, each of you must know where the nearest bomb shelter is,” a report on the state-controlled network, NTV, noted, before taking viewers on a tour of a nuclear bunker in Moscow.
State outlets, already solidly anti-American in their coverage, have unleashed themselves further, indulging in bitter denunciations of America duplicity, bombastic promises of merciless defenses and freely bandying the nuclear card. Russia’s main current affairs show, hosted by a man known by critics as the country’s “propagandist-in-chief,” warned American "impudence" could take on “nuclear dimensions,” then spending 40 minutes taking viewers through a panoply of potential nuclear options Russia possesses if the United States were to intervene too strongly in Syria. The host, Evgeny Kiselyov, described how three Russian missile frigates this week had sailed toward Syria to head off potential U.S. airstrikes against Syrian military targets.
"Incidentally," Kiselyov told his audience, the ships missiles "also [come] in a nuclear version. Which version is aboard our missile frigates right now isn't known.”
Check Your Gas Masks
This month Russia held a large-scale civil defense drill across the country, meant to prepare people for disasters, among them nuclear catastrophe. The drill, which Russian authorities claimed affected 40 million people, and particularly the way it was presented on state television, resembled Soviet-era exercises, with scenes of schoolchildren flooding out in evacuations and being taught to hurriedly pull on gas masks.
Who’s in Charge Here?
Russia’s defense ministry has announced how the country would function in time of war, clarifying which government bodies would take command. The answer was largely it would, taking control of governor’s offices, local administrations and the police. The military simulated that scenario during a huge exercise in southern Russia.
The Sound of Saber-Rattling
The maneuvers took on harder forms as well. This week, Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad, its northern European enclave between Poland and Lithuania that put the weapons within striking distance of Western capitals. Moscow has threatened before to deploy the Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad, in response, it says, to the establishment of the U.S. anti-missile shield being erected in Eastern Europe. But this week’s deployment came sooner than expected, with analysts suggesting that indicated the Kremlin wanted to play it as part of the broader saber-rattling display in the confrontation around Syria.
From Land or Sea
Russia also conducted a series of intercontinental ballistic missile tests this week, launching three missiles in a single day. Two of the nuclear-capable missiles were launched from submarines off Russia’s Pacific coast, the third was fired from an inland launch pad, RIA Novosti reported.
What a Catastrophe Might Look Like
Still, despite the threats, the display has sometimes shown its seams. In the NTV report warning people to identify their nearest fallout shelter, the presenter interviewed a retired colonel "showing several possible scenarios of the catastrophe" on a map.
The “map” turned out to be a U.S. video game based on nuclear conflict.
Every Neighborhood Needs a Good Bomb Shelter
Most Russians don’t take the war talk seriously, laughing off the idea on the street. Most take a more realistic view of whether there's actually need to find a bomb-shelter. A photo being shared on social media showed an apartment block in suburban Moscow where pranksters or enterprising fraudsters had posted a flier asking residents to donate cash to build a neighborhood bomb shelter.
“Hurry,” the flier said. “Places are limited.”