Russians Test Bomb Shelters, Gas Masks Amid Rising Tensions With West

Russian leader Vladimir Putin with Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu / AP
October 24, 2016

Russian officials have upgraded bomb shelters in large cities in the country and tested gas masks, as tensions between Moscow and Western powers including the United States have continued to escalate.

Recent civil defense drills incorporated measures to protect against nuclear and chemical threats, evidence of preparation for the survival of nuclear war, the Wall Street Journal reported. The civil defense drills involved 40 million Russians across the country and took place over four days earlier this month, in the immediate wake of a breakdown in talks between Moscow and Washington over the conflict in Syria.

The Journal reported:

The country recently held its biggest civil defense drills since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., with what officials said were 40 million people rehearsing a response to chemical and nuclear threats.

Videos of emergency workers deployed in hazmat suits or checking the ventilation in bomb shelters were prominently aired on television when the four days of drills were held across the country. Students tried on gas masks and placed dummies on stretchers in school auditoriums.

The capital's civil-defense plans are also being upgraded, said Andrey Mishchenko, deputy head of the ministry.

Mishchenko reportedly told state-run news outlet RIA Novosti that an inventory of Moscow's underground spaces was conducted "in order to allow us to plan for sheltering 100 percent of the city's population."

Igor Zuyev, who owns a Russian company that builds bomb shelters for companies and private parties, told the Journal that requests for shelters protecting against nuclear bombs and military invasion began increasing following Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, when "the situation started to heat up." Zuyev said that such requests have tripled over the last year.

The United States suspended talks with Russia over Syria after the collapse of another ceasefire agreement brokered by the two countries in September. Russian warplanes have been bombing American-backed Syrian rebels, in support of Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime, though Moscow intervened militarily in Syria under the pretext of combatting the Islamic State.

Russia has also recently reigned in its nuclear cooperation with the United States by suspending a pact aimed at cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium and other nuclear energy research agreements.

Tensions have further frayed after the U.S. government formally accused Russia earlier this month of directing the hack of the Democratic National Committee and other American political organizations in order to influence the presidential election. Moscow has described the accusations as baseless.

Moscow has also criticized NATO's planned buildup in the Baltic states and Poland meant to protect allies against Russian aggression. The alliance has sought to bolster its ability to protect member states that could fall vulnerable to Russian invasion like that which took place in Ukraine more than two years ago.

The same day that the U.S. accused the Russian government of ordering the DNC hack, Russia deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, its small enclave bordering Lithuania and Poland, both NATO member states. Local Russian media reports also indicated this month that Moscow had ordered officials to send home any relatives living in Western countries.