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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Saber Rattling

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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin's Nuclear Saber Rattling May Be Designed To Deter US Action In Syria
Last Friday, October 7, while the U.S. media (and a not-insignificant portion of the world) was consumed by comments made in 2005 by Donald Trump in which he appears to advocate sexual assault, the Russian propaganda machine was in overdrive. We compiled a long list of news stories and statements by Russian officials that suggested that the relationship between the West and Russia was reaching a record low, and tensions were more elevated than they have been in recent memory:

There were even items that did not make that list -- like the fact that the U.S. government has officially accused the Russian government of interfering in its Presidential election. 

But today that tension has increased even further.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Russian military claims to have conducted three different ballistic missiles tests: two ballistic missiles were fired from submarines, and one Topol intercontinental ballistic missile was fired from the ground.  

This comes less than a week after Russia made its most provocative move -- the landing of Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad: 

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Russia transfers nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad

Russia has moved nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into the Kaliningrad enclave bordering Poland and Lithuania, the Russian defence ministry said on Saturday, adding it was part of routine drills. "These missile units have been deployed more than once (in the Kaliningrad region) ...

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Oct 13, 2016 00:07 (GMT)

There are more signs that Russia is ramping up their saber-rattling propaganda effort. Take, for instance, Russian lawmaker and Putin-ally Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who told Reuters that if Americans vote for Donald Trump they are voting for peace, but if they elect Hillary Clinton they will only bring war:

"Relations between Russia and the United States can't get any worse. The only way they can get worse is if a war starts," said Zhirinovsky, speaking in his huge office on the 10th floor of Russia's State Duma, or lower house of parliament.

"Americans voting for a president on Nov. 8 must realize that they are voting for peace on Planet Earth if they vote for Trump. But if they vote for Hillary it's war. It will be a short movie. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakis everywhere."

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Putin ally tells Americans: vote Trump or face nuclear war

MOSCOW Americans should vote for Donald Trump as president next month or risk being dragged into a nuclear war, according to a Russian ultra-nationalist ally of President Vladimir Putin who likes to compare himself to the U.S. Republican candidate.

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Oct 13, 2016 00:11 (GMT)
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself made interesting statements today. The Russian government has always denied sending troops into the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. But today, Putin nearly admitted sending Russian troops into the Donbass when he said that Russia was "forced, I want to stress, forced to defend the Russian-speaking population in the Donbass, forced to respond to the desire of the people living in Crimea to return to being part of the Russian Federation."
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Putin Claims Russia Was 'Forced To Defend Russian-Speaking Population In Donbass'

Meanwhile heavy shelling is reported today near Mariupol and Avdeyevka

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Oct 13, 2016 00:16 (GMT)

Why admit this now? It plays into the Russian government that Putin is the peacemaker while the West, led by Barack Obama, is the aggressor. The subtext is also obvious -- if Russia was "forced" to protect ethnic Russians living abroad in Ukraine then, then it could be "forced" to respond to Western aggression now.

The Russian government its efforts to project power in the Middle East, a campaign which kicked into high-gear last week

Then there are more subtle rumors. The Russian independent website reported that the Russian government has instructed high-level Russian officials to bring home any children who are currently abroad because of an unspecified security threat and worsening international relations. Furthermore, the advisory was to bring them home immediately, even if students are in the middle of a semester.

This particular rumor has been dismissed by some Russian officials who claim they have not heard of it, but the rumor, or at least the discussion of the rumor, has spread to Russian state-owned news agencies like TASS and to international news agencies like The Daily Star and The Daily Mail, both UK publications. 

Sources Say Kremlin Urges Officials to Bring Children Home from Abroad; Spokesman Denies

LIVE UPDATES: Sources told Znak that the Kremlin has issued an advisory to Russian officials telling them to bring their children studying abroad back to Russia. But the Kremlin and MPs deny the story.

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Oct 13, 2016 00:32 (GMT)

Is The Threat Real? And Why Is It Happening Now?

It's a common assessment that all of these threats coming from the Russian government amount to nothing more than saber rattling, with either domestic or foreign political motives (or both) rather than military ones.

The danger, of course, is that Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and its military is performing increasingly aggressive maneuvers all over the globe.  Even if the Russian government is all talk, that does not mean there could not be an accidental encounter. This also raises another question -- how far would Russia have to push before the world takes these threats seriously? 

Still, it is worth noting that there are several possible motives that might explain why the Kremlin to rattling its sabers now.

The first and most obvious: the U.S. election is approaching in less than a month, and it has not been going the Kremlin's way. Clearly, the Russian government would prefer a Trump win. Trump has said that Russia should be given latitude to operate in Syria, Trump has hinted that sanctions against Russia could be dropped and Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea could be recognized. Trump has suggested that the U.S. could drop its support for certain NATO allies. Beyond this, Trump has hired a revolving-door of advisors who have either strong ties to the Kremlin (Richard Burt, Carter Page, Michael Flynn) or, in the case of Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, have worked for Putin's (now ousted) ally in Ukraine.

Clinton, on the other hand, has suggested she would oppose Russia's agenda in Syria and Ukraine. Clinton is often characterized by analysts as more anti-Russian than Obama, while Trump is viewed as the opposite. With Trump behind in the polls, and with many Americans outraged at Russia's literal hacking of the electoral process, the American election may very much be on Putin's mind.

But there is likely another more immediate concern -- Syria. Putin has based so much of his reputation and legacy on the preservation of the Assad regime, but now Russia's bombing of civilians, hospitals, and rescue workers, in northern Syria in particular, is under intense scrutiny. There have even been renewed calls for the establishment of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, a plan which may, depending on how it was implemented, prevent the execution of Russia's air campaign in the north, particularly in Aleppo province. Russia's saber rattling is a threat from the Kremlin that they will not allow this to happen without a fight.

Ironically, however, the strategy could backfire. If Russia is perceived as the aggressor, and if its actions are viewed as out of control, it's possible that the American people will demand that their president stand up to the Kremlin's military machine. 

And if that happens, it's possible that the person who is likely (according to experts) to become the next President may be more than happy to meet their demands.