by Anna Nemtsova · April 14, 2018
Trump’s tweet about U.S. missiles blasting past Russian defenses in Syria left many Russians thinking the Motherland might be next. Plus: oligarch sanctions and military exercises.
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast
SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia—Cossacks are famous fighters, and right now they are among many in Russia who are preparing for an imminent war with the United States, or at least they say they are.
On Thursday, the leader, or “ataman,” of the Russian Orthodox Cossack organization Irbis, Andrei Poliakov, was looking for the best place to burn an effigy of Donald Trump, an event scheduled for Monday of next week. And Poliakov may not be the only one.
President Trump’s tweet last week telling Russians to “get ready” for U.S. missiles in Syria prompted fear and fury all over this country. Nationalists in Russia and the Chechen region called on the world to “stop this animal Trump, this clown” from threatening Russia with war. All too soon, Trump’s statement was torn out of the context in which it was made, about punitive action against the Assad regime in Syria for the use of chemical weapons, and quickly interpreted as a threat to every household in Russia.
So, speaking at his St. Petersburg office decorated with icons and swords, the ataman told The Daily Beast that Cossacks, who once lionized Donald Trump as a great friend of Russia, now have no words left to describe him. “By burning Trump’s effigy and the U.S. flag we’ll express what we really think about the war that the United States has declared to Russia.”
Poliakov explained that Cossacks have seen themselves historically as patriotic Russian soldiers, always ready to defend the state’s interest. “When the war with the United States begins, Cossacks will fight in special units, just as they do today, fighting as private Russian troops in Syria,” the ataman said. “When both Russia and America nuke each other, survivors in our country will suffer from the shortage of water, of food supplies, of gas, millions of refugees will crowd roads from all over the country, move to villages, just to find some shelter,” Poliakov said, describing the nuclear war between Russia and United States as if the U.S. airstrikes were hitting St. Petersburg’s graceful architecture at that very moment.
Earlier this week Chechen rapid reaction units joined the Russian National Guard, aviation units, the nuclear fleet—Atomflot—in military exercises in the Russian Arctic region north of Murmansk. The planning for the drills obviously came long before Trump’s tweets, but the timing reinforced public concern. The exercises involve simulation of airstrikes, as well as terrorist attacks on Russian icebreakers. The Chechen units Flying Squad and Terek practiced dealing with military operations in Arctic conditions. Visitors at the Murmansk Park Inn met Chechnya’s controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in town for the week. And at least 10 Russian special operations units will be continue their exercises for the next several weeks aboard a nuclear powered icebreaker.
On Saturday morning, official Moscow was just as angry as Chechens and Cossacks, blaming Washington for striking Damascus just at the time when Syria had a chance for a peaceful future. Russian Ministry of Defense reported that at least 100 missiles hit Syrian capital on Friday. “First, the Syrian people was subjected to Arab Spring, then Islamic State, now to ‘smart’ American missiles. A strike was carried out on the capital of a sovereign state, which for many years has been trying to survive under the threat of terror,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told reporters.
According to Alexander Turchinov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Russia is preparing for a massive military operation involving 260,000 soldiers and 3,500 tanks along the entire border of Ukraine and Crimea. “Russia is preparing its troops for a large-scale continental war,” Turchinov said.
When Trump won the elections, many in Russia toasted his victory. “Because he is ours, our guy!” state officials in “Trump Pence” T-shirts told The Daily Beast on election night, hoping that the new American president would improve Moscow’s relations with Washington. Right after Trump’s victory, the Cossacks of Irbis made the U.S. president an honorary member of their organization. Today after both countries have expelled scores of each other’s diplomats, sanctions not only have not been lifted, they have been made tougher, and nobody in Moscow hopes that Trump will be able to save peace. May claim the events of what Russians now refers to now as “Black April 9” changed everything.
On that date, last Monday, as a result of new U.S. sanctions against oligarchs and officials loyal to President Vladimir Putin, dozens of Russia’s richest businessmen lost a combined value of up to $12 billion; the ruble suffered its biggest daily fall in over three years—and state propaganda’s anti-Western campaign went into high gear.
Many of the sanctioned names had been included previously on the so-called Oligarch List of about 200 issued by the U.S. Treasury in January, which purported to identify people and entities close to Putin without actually imposing penalties on them. Several of the names on the list were actually his critics.
“The most painful thing for the regime is this randomness of the list, anybody can be included on it tomorrow,” senior Russian analyst Konstantin Eggert told The Daily Beast, reviewing the new list of heavily sanctioned names on Friday. “It is significant to see Putin’s son-in-law [Kirill] Shamalov’s name on the list. It means that the punitive measures are hitting those on the list closest to President Putin.”
Beginning from August last year, when President Donald Trump ordered Washington officials to identify the most significant figures of the Russian regime, Yuriy Krupnov, a pro-Putin analyst and adviser, began calling on the Kremlin to take action to protect the country. Today Krupnov feels frustrated. “Nothing has been done to make Russia stronger, the level of investments into the economy is at its lowest point since 2015,” Krupnov said. “Now the U.S. treats Russia as an adversary and Russia looks too weak.” (Krupnov was careful to point out the word “adversary,” not “enemy, the word used by the U.S. military in Soviet times.)
Krupnov interpreted Washington’s logic as follows: “The list is full of major instruments that allow Putin’s power to function, such as the VTB bank. Washington is choking off Putin’s resources,” Krupnov said and pointed out that the sanctions damaged the reputation of major Russian companies, including Rosoboronexport, the state’s main exporter of weapons. “Now Rosoboronexport will be persona non-grata in the entire world—so Washington tries to paralyze Putin’s power and control the regime.”
While authorities saw the new Washington’s blacklist, as one more hostile step, Russian critics of Vladimir Putin’s policies welcomed the sanctions. “This list is far from being complete, I believe that the entire Russian elite is to blame for allowing the KGB to take over power in our country,” Evgenia Albats, editor in chief of opposition New Times magazine told The Daily Beast. She drew a parallel with the isolation felt by Moscow and the Russian people almost three decades ago after the Soviet Air Force shot down a South Korean passenger plane.
Meanwhile, on Friday Russian lawmakers proposed retaliation measures for the U.S. sanctions: a ban on all U.S. imports. Critics of the Duma’s new project insist that by banning U.S. goods, authorities would hurt millions of Russian consumers enjoying McDonald’s restaurants, Apple computers, iPhones and Boeing airliners.
Earlier this year President Putin noted that the Russian military had used 215 new types of weapons in Syria, including the latest multiple rocket launchers and armored vehicles. But while the Russian forces are testing their hardware in the frozen Arctic and the bloodied battlefields of Syria, the Ministry of Emergency Situations is preparing civilians for the combat in the streets of Russian cities. This week the ministry’s specialists were checking bomb shelters in St. Petersburg. President Trump’s warning message about U.S. missiles, and their ability to get by Russian defenses, made many here feel fundamentally insecure. Natalia, a surgical nurse, told The Daily Beast: “The information war has already begun on the TV channels, that means the real war with America is on its way. This is the beginning of the end.”