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Russia's rhetoric stokes fears at home and abroad

What comes after pariah in the league of nation states? Fiona Clark looks at where the rhetoric around Russia's actions in Syria could lead.

It will please you to know that all of Moscow’s 12 million or so inhabitants can, apparently, be accommodated in bomb shelters under the city should world war three break out. Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, toured some of the facilities this week and was assured they were ready to go. 

Could the tension be any more palpable? As the bombs rain down on Aleppo and the West accuses Russia of everything from war crimes to attempting to pervert the democratic process in the US by leaking Hillary Clinton's hacked party emails, Russia continues to make provocative moves.

It's shifted its nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave that borders Poland and Lithuania. It says it's done this before and it's only a drill, but that's not making the neighboring NATO countries very happy.

It's talking about re-establishing its military bases in Cuba - just 140 kilometers away from the US coast. It's uncertain if Cuba would welcome the moves as relations with the US appear to be improving and the amount of money it will make from tourism will far exceed that of Russia's rent, but with the Cuban Missile Crisis still within living memory it's inflammatory talk.

It's accused the US of failing to stick to the rules governing the destruction of plutonium, so it won't either, and in what can only be described as a perverse logic that links two entirely unrelated matters, it wants the US to pay it compensation for the money it's lost due to the sanctions imposed upon it and repeal the Magnitsky list which sanctions individuals who were involved in the death of the whistle-blowing lawyer.

Meanwhile Britain's flamboyant foreign minister, Boris Johnson - in what must be a world first - has called on anti-war protesters to gather outside the Russian Embassy and vent their anger over the Russia's continued bombardment of Aleppo which is destroying homes, hospitals and humanitarian aid convoys, and killing a lot of children. Johnson reminded parliament that the targeting of civilians and hospitals was a war crime and that he'd like to see those responsible pursued and criminal charges laid. French President François Holland has expressed a similar view. He said he'd like to talk to President Vladimir Putin about Russia's role in Syria at an upcoming meeting in France. As soon as he made the comment the Russian leader promptly cancelled his visit.

PR wars

Russia for its part is denying any role in bombing of the humanitarian convoy last month claiming its analysis of footage from the scene shows that the trucks caught fire as the result of a "militants carrying out a massive offensive in Aleppo."

Syrien Trauer und Zerstörung in Aleppo (Reuters/A. Ismail )

As Russia and the US prepare to meet for yet another round of peace talks the reality on the ground is that actions speak louder than words

And where seemingly endless news footage of babies being pulled from rubble is driving sentiment against Russia, it has now started to fight back on the media front. Its English-speaking press, Russia Today, is airing, albeit belatedly, stories showing that there are others who are fighting on the ground in Aleppo and doing equally heinous things. It's shown the bodies of two children allegedly killed by a mortar fired by anti-Assad militants in the government-held area of Western Aleppo. The story shows two other children who were injured on their way to school being treated in a hospital and a deaf child, who lost part of his legs, trying to describe what happened.

The point of the story is to show that the areas that Russian and the Syrian government are bombing is harboring terrorists who are killing small children in other parts of the city. In other words, Russia's actions are justified as they are aimed at removing these militants. Whether the means justify the ends is an entirely different question but there is some merit in reminding people that there are many players in this conflict and victims on both sides that we often don't see, although those that watch the body count say that the toll exacted by the Russian and the Syrian government far exceeds that of all other groups involved in the conflict combined, including the coalition and the "Islamic State" group.

Russophobic hysteria

While no-fly zones are discussed over Syria which could see Russian and coalition forces shooting each other down, Russia is seething that the Saudis can get away with killing 140 people at a wake in Yemen with barely a smack on the wrist and that no one is calling for a protest against those who supply weapons to Saudi what allow them to undertake such airstrike - namely the US and the UK. It's still talking about the 2008 US bombing of a wedding in Afghanistan that killed 63 people and the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and NATO's targeting of a convoy of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo that killed around 50, as though it were yesterday. It believes the West can get away with whatever it likes and that it is the victim of what it calls mounting "Russophobic hysteria" and double standards. But what it fails to get, is that the US usually admits when it makes a mistake and says sorry - small comfort to those killed and their relatives, but it's a lot more than a trail of denials and defensive posturing.

All this rhetoric is taking its toll at home with hysteria about an imminent war rising. Rumors are circulating that Russia wants to recall the children and relatives of government officials who are studying or living abroad. The government has denied any knowledge of the move, but the British media claims it due to deteriorating East-West relations.

History has proven that citizens in fear are good nationalists so these rumor mills may serve Putin well. But as Russia continues to move its military hardware around like pieces on a global chessboard, relationships are deteriorating to the point that prominent figures like former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev are claiming this is the lowest point in East-West relations since the Cold War.

Whether this is all about Putin demanding respect, or shoring up Russia's oil and gas or political interests in Middle East, or the US trying to do the same, is almost irrelevant now - someone, somewhere is going to have to give some ground. With a US election just around the corner, that probably isn't on the cards, but both sides are going to have to drop the inflammatory rhetoric or this won't end well for anyone.

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