Moscow, Russia – A Russian state television news segment on Tuesday urged citizens to stockpile non-perishable goods and water as the impending threat of a “catastrophic” conflict with the United States intensified over potential western military strikes against the Syrian government.
A newscaster for Russia’s Vesti 24 mockingly told viewers, “who succumb to panic and decide to spend all their savings,” to stock their bunkers with basic supplies, such as rice, sugar, salt, oatmeal and other products that maintain a long shelf life, as an image of mushroom cloud from a nuclear explosion was shown on the screen behind him. He went on to explain that at least 30 liters of water would be required for drinking water, food preparation, and personal hygiene.
The news anchor then added—in a likely attempt to mock the United States— “It should be noted that real panic isn’t here but across the ocean,” pointing out that sales of bomb shelters in the United States “took off” after Trump’s election.
The broadcast was seemingly precipitated by allegations that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in Douma, a claim the Syrian government vehemently denies, and which resulted in the US, UK, France and Saudi Arabia threatening a coordinated military response against the Syrian government.
Russia and the Syrian government have denied a chemical weapons attack took place, instead claiming the attack had been staged by the White Helmets, a self-purported Syria civil defense group hailed as heroes in the western world, but who many accuse of acting as civil defense for the Islamist rebel groups operating under the auspices of being “moderate rebels.”
On Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov announced that they have "irrefutable" evidence that a hostile intelligence agency of a foreign government staged the alleged chemical attack.
“We have irrefutable evidence that it was another staging, and the special services of a state which is in the forefront of the Russophobic campaign had a hand in the staging,” Lavrov said at a news conference with his Dutch counterpart Stef Blok on Friday.
Russia’s Chief of the General Staff of Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, warned nearly a month ago that Syrian rebels were preparing to utilize chemical weapons— to be blamed on the Syrian government— as a justification for U.S. strikes on Damascus, and cautioned that “in the event of a threat to our military servicemen’s lives, Russia’s Armed Forces will take retaliatory measures to target both the missiles and their delivery vehicles.”
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Additonally, during an interview on Tuesday, Alexander Zasypkin, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, reiterated Gerismov’s warning, stating, “If there is a strike by the Americans, then the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired.”
Seemingly in response to the Russian warnings, Trump issued a retort of his own on Twitter Wednesday: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’”
Trump also noted that the US/Russia relationship is now “worse now that it has ever been” and scolded Moscow for aligning themselves with “gas killing animal” Bashar al-Assad.
"There is a major war scare here in Moscow. Russia is expecting a U.S. strike in Syria. The Russian chief of military Valery Gerasimov promised a response against U.S. platforms launching missiles," Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Newsweek. "The U.S. needs to keep in mind not only the adversarial position of Russia, which of course is the case, but the Russian nuclear potential...An escalation in Syria that affects Russia may lead to a military conflict with Russia, which has an escalation trajectory towards a nuclear war."
There are reports of a dispute within Trump’s national security team about the scope of the response in Syria, with Trump and newly minted National Security Advisor John Bolton favoring broad strikes, while Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford favor more limited action. There is a clear disconnect between the more aggressive posture of civilian leadership and the more nuanced approach of the Pentagon, as the DoD is wary of potential escalation of the Syrian conflict into a regional, or potentially even global war that has the potential to go nuclear.
Additionally, while addressing Congress on Thursday, Mattis acknowledged that while he believes chemical weapons were used by the Assad government in Douma, the US has no actual evidence to support this contention outside of “media and social media indicators.”
Reuters reports that the Kremlin announced on Thursday that the US and Russia were actively using a crisis communications link in an effort to avoid an accidental clash over Syria that could spiral out of control.