I’ve been following the New Russian Bellicosity for a while now. Instapundit points to this good, but too short, Strategy Page article that tells it like it is. In other words, he sees it the way I do (emphasis added):
The really bad news is, most Russians are still not aware of how screwed up their Soviet era military was. There are two reasons for this. First, Russians take for granted how their armed forces operates. Russians complain about the brutality and incompetence in the military, but that’s all they’ve ever known. Second, Russians remember fondly that their ramshackle armed forces defeated the Germans during World War II. What the Russians play down is how much the Germans lost World War II in Russia, rather than being beaten. The Germans made a lot of serious mistakes during the war, while the Russians got their act together. What Russians fail to realize is that the Soviet Union was an accidental, and largely imaginary, superpower. Russia has long employed large scale deception, and the Soviet Union continued this on a sustained basis. Military weaknesses (poor training and readiness) were hidden, and strengths (sheer number of weapons and troops) emphasized. But as was seen many times (from Budapest in 1956, to Chechnya in 1994), the Soviet military system produced little in the way of real military power. Soviet weapons, as impressive as they appeared to be, always came out a distant second when they were used against Western ones. The main thing that kept the Soviet military reputation going was the need of Western militaries to make the Soviet Union look strong, in order to justify high Western military budgets.
The one effective weapon the Soviets did have were their nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Better maintained than the rest of the military, enough of this missile fleet would work, if used, to devastate Western nations. Russia still has a large part of that nuclear arsenal. But that does not make Russians feel like a superpower. That’s because Russia no longer has the huge fleet, air force and army. And that’s because this huge force was all an expensive illusion, which was disbanded in the 1990s, once it was obvious what a waste it all was. But the big thing that’s missing is the size of the Soviet Union. Over half the population of the Soviet Union were not Russian, and did not want to be part of the Soviet Union. Most of these people got their wish in 1991, when the Soviet Union came apart. Many Russians want to undo that, but they cannot. It took Russia over four centuries to build that empire, and the inept Soviet Bureaucrats a few weeks to lose it all. An increasing number of Russians want it back, but are unwilling to confront how they lost it in the first place, or why rebuilding the empire is an uncertain and dangerous enterprise. This is all very dangerous stuff.
A lot of people will disagree with the “Germany beat itself” suggestion, but not all — especially German historians. But his overall point is hard to refute.
It seems likely that Putin’s recent tough talk is opportunistic — he is aware of Bush’s political weakness and international-pariah status and wants to see what he can get. But Condi Rice seems up to handling the delicate psychological game needed to keep the Bear from doing something stupid. And, revealingly, Europe is not responding to Russian scare tactics the way it did in the old days — in some cases, far from it. This gives reason to hope. Isn’t that a nice change?