Tensions between the two nuclear-armed superpowers are rising, raising the specter of a nuclear war. The relationship between the two nations has deteriorated thanks to a variety of different geopolitical events, not least the struggle to contain the ongoing conflict in Syria. Now the situation has got so bad that Russia’s media sources are warning the population about the chance of nuclear war.

Vladimir Putin Russia
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Aggressive rhetoric adds to tensions

“Schizophrenics from America are sharpening nuclear weapons for Moscow,” read the headline of an article published by Zvezda, the defence ministry TV channel. The piece went on to argue that the U.S. would attempt to punish Russia for challenging Washington’s will in the Middle East.

According to an announcement from an emergencies ministry official on Friday, authorities have built underground shelters that can house all 12 million residents of Moscow. Officials have carried out at least two drills designed to improve readiness for a nuclear strike since President Vladimir Putin returned to power in 2012.

Sources at the Russian Foreign Ministry have accused the U.S. of “distorting” Russian policies on nuclear weapons in an attempt to justify a future strike. The claims were made after U.S. secretary of defense Ash Carter said that Washington was changing its “nuclear playbook” to prevent “terrible attacks” by Moscow.

With 8,400 warheads Russia has the most nuclear weapons of any country in the world. By way of comparison, the U.S. has a total of 7,500.

Syria the latest source of tensions between Russia and U.S.

Russia’s nuclear doctrine allows for a first strike if there is a loosely defined threat to statehood. Rhetoric emerging from Russia has become increasingly aggressive, and Dmitry Kiselyov, head of state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, has said that Russia is the only nation that can turn the U.S. into “radioactive ash.”

Experts believe that these comments are aimed at a domestic audience. However it appears that Putin is increasingly surrounded by hawkish figures that would not shy away from war with the West. This weekend Russian authorities said that there would be “terrible, tectonic” consequences if the U.S. stepped away from Syrian peace talks and made strikes against President Assad’s forces.

Defense spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said that opposition forces fighting Assad were international terrorists under the control of the United States.

Plutonium deal suspended as problems increase

During Putin’s latest presidential term, Russian society has become steadily more militarized. He has reinstated large-scale military parades in Moscow and the praise of the armed forces in state media.

The situation has deteriorated due to perceived threats from the United States. Defense secretary Ash Carter recently accused Russia of “nuclear saber-rattling” and said that the U.S. needed nuclear weapons to deter Russia and other nations from making a first strike.

Moscow claimed that Carter’s words were essentially a threat that Washington would use nuclear weapons against Russia if U.S. allies attacked Moscow. The Kremlin said that retaliatory measures would be taken to maintain security.

In another sign of worsening relations, an agreement between the two nations related to weapons-grade plutonium has been suspended. Russia has suspended the deal on the disposal of surplus plutonium, claiming that the U.S. had created “a threat to strategic stability, as a result of unfriendly actions.”

The deal is part of efforts to cut nuclear stockpiles, and each country is meant to burn 34 tons of plutonium in reactors to dispose of it. The combined 68 tons would make around 17,000 nuclear weapons.

Withdrawing the deal is the latest sign of how relations between the two nations are deteriorating.