Imagine Russian school children practicing putting on gas masks and transporting dummies onto stretchers. TV stations show Russian emergency workers in hazmat suits working on bomb shelters. Huge numbers of the population rehearse what to do in case of a nuclear attack. It sounds like a scene from “The Americans” or a video from Soviet-era Russia. But it’s not. This is what’s been going on in Russia in the past few weeks.
Russia is engaged in mass-scale nuclear attack preparations. Moscow is upgrading its civil defense plans, including making an inventory of all underground spaces to ensure it could shelter 100 percent of the population if a nuclear bomb hit. Current bomb shelters are being rehabbed and ventilation systems checked. Forty million Russians were involved in a drill simulating what to do in the event of a chemical or nuclear weapons strike.
This might seem surprising or unthinkable. But if you’ve been paying attention to the escalation of tensions between Russia and the United States, this fits perfectly into Russia’s intensifying belligerence and assertion of power.
It’s Been Getting Worse for Years
In the last few months, Russia’s relationship with America has begun to fray. But this mounting antagonism began much earlier, with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and incursion in the Ukraine in 2014. Russia was testing how the West, including Europe and the United States, would react to it making land grabs in Eastern Europe. To its delight, the West did nothing. This set the stage for Russia to begin increasing its global show of force, and was a precursor to the inevitable invasion of one of the Baltic States.
Tensions further rose when Russia began fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the ongoing brutal civil war. Under the auspices of attacking ISIS, Russia’s air force has helped Assad pummel Syrian rebels and civilians, creating a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. Despite numerous efforts at diplomacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the diplomatic process has completely deteriorated. Adding to the chaos, after a mistaken American strike on Syrian troops, Russia threated to shoot down American planes if its troops felt threated.
As a reaction to crumbling negotiations in Syria, Russia declared earlier this month that it was withdrawing from a 2000 nuclear security agreement with the United States that called for disposing plutonium. The now-defunct treaty also required Russia not to use any plutonium for nuclear activities.
Russia is also putting its military capabilities on display. This week, Russia launched an advanced hypersonic glider warhead that is nearly undetectable to U.S. anti-missile systems. This was done in preparation of a new nuclear weapon, named “Satan 2,” that could reportedly destroy all of Texas with one strike. Putin has also moved nuclear-ready missiles to the Kaliningrad region that are capable of striking Poland and parts of Germany. In addition, last week, Russian warships heading through the English Channel toward Syria skimmed the Dover coast with machine guns aimed at the shore and fighter pilots sitting at the ready in their jets.
Russia has also been asserting itself in the realm of electronic warfare. The American government has accused Russia of interfering with the presidential election, including hacking the computers of the Democratic National Committee. There’s further fear that Russian hackers will tamper with election results. Russia’s trying to discredit our democratic system, and it seems to be working. Only 43 percent of Americans think their votes will be counted accurately in the presidential election. Donald Trump, of course, is encouraging these fears.
We’re Not Afraid of You
With these acts of hostility Russia is signaling to us, and the rest of the world, that they’re not afraid of confrontation with the West. Does this mean they’re on the cusp of starting a nuclear war? Doubtful. But they certainly mean for us to take them seriously as a major world power, and one that isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. The nuclear attack drills fit neatly into these recent escalations. They’re Russia’s way of saying, “We’re ready. Are you?”
The answers seems to be “no.” In 2012, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney in a presidential debate for having suggested that Russia is our primary national security threat. Obama condescendingly told Romney that the 1980s were calling and they want their foreign policy back. It’s remarkable that just four years ago our president considered the idea of an aggressive Russia laughable.
Fast-forward to today, and Obama’s words seem naïve and ignorant. But it’s not clear that much has changed. Russia is resurrecting Soviet-era tactics and moving, with allies like Iran, to change the international order, and we’re still acting like they’re our partners in places like Syria.
Putin’s recent actions, especially the nuclear attack drills, could also be seen as a way to distract the Russian people from a declining economy. By whipping them up into a national security frenzy, Putin can deflect criticism about domestic policies. This is a tried and true tactic of leaders who fear losing power. Tell citizens they’re under threat of attack, and they’ll rally to the cause of their country. Their sense of national pride will soar, and so will the government’s approval ratings.
Putin is stoking national pride and anti-American sentiments to keep the loyalty of the people, and this isn’t hard to do. The Russian people already hold overwhelmingly negative views toward America and are nostalgic for the Soviet era. But just because these drills and other displays of force are being used to manipulate the Russian people doesn’t mean they don’t also represent a genuine threat to America and other NATO allies. The two scenarios aren’t mutually exclusive, as some seem to think.
While Russia is preparing for a nuclear attack and beefing up their military presence, the American people view ISIS, not Russia, as the number one threat to their country. Russia was ranked seventh—below climate change. Are Americans ready for a belligerent Russia, or do they, like Obama in 2012, scoff at the very idea?
The Russian government and its people seem to think the Cold War is back (or that it never really ended). But our own disbelief in this threat won’t change the fact that Russia aims to misbehave.