|Is the Russian military as strong as Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, believes it to be? [AP]
Dmitrii Medvedev, the Russian president, says he is not afraid of a new cold war.
Should anyone be?
The recent conflict in Georgia and the surging rhetorical battle between Moscow and Western leaderships have revived ugly twentieth-century memories.
But it is perhaps worth recalling German unification chancellor Otto von Bismarck's warning that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it looks. As we approach the spectre of a new cold war, however, we can rest confident that Russia's strength is of the exaggerated quality.
Last week, Russian bombers landed in Venezuela. After mauling its former colony of Georgia, Russia is now reaching out to a Latin American well-wisher, whose leader spoke positively of its actions and just severed diplomatic relations with Washington.
Ugly shadows of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we are told, loom over the tranquil Caribbean.
One would have to read far into most news stories, however, to learn that Russia's "power projection" consists of just two Tu-160 bombers, which were entered into service in 1987.
Almost as old as the classic film Top Gun, their stated purpose is to train over neutral waters for a few days and then return to Russia.
Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president and a former air force general himself, plans to fly "one of those monsters," as he calls them, and excitedly announced that "Yankee hegemony is finished."
Obviously, this is no Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962 Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, secretly sent nuclear missiles to communist Cuba. American U-2 spy planes discovered the deployment.
In a tense moment, the US blockaded Cuba to prevent more missiles from arriving and presented solid evidence of the existing missiles to the United Nations.
Within a few days the Soviets backed down and withdrew their weapons in exchange for a US promise to remove outmoded missiles from Turkey.
Two years later Khrushchev's colleagues removed him from power, blaming him for having both brought their country to the brink of nuclear war and backed down in what they called "a humiliation".
Last week's flight to Venezuela is a pale reflection of that cold war flashpoint.
It falls more safely into the "stunt" category – potentially dramatic, but lacking both substance and lasting effect. In a few days the twin Tu-160s will be back in Russia.
Given Russia's current military potential, stunts of this type and invading small neighbours will likely remain the limit of its activity.
Seventy per cent of Russian military personnel are still terribly underpaid conscripts. Forcibly enlisted new soldiers are subjected to violent hazing (a harassing initiation ritual), which kills hundreds of them every year (292 in 2006) and seriously injures thousands more.
Faltering Russian hardware
| The Russian navy has been downsized since the Cold War [EPA]
Soviet-era equipment will not be phased out of use until 2020. Most of Russia's navy has rotted in port since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Only 26 of Russia's 50 remaining submarines (compare to 170 in 1991) are currently operational, and the Russian Navy plans to reduce that number to 20.
Like the Tu-160s in Venezuela, Russia's combat aircraft are for the most part decades old.
Only 15 of Russia's latest and most sophisticated fighter jets, the Sukhoi-35s, are in active service. Russia's tank arsenal is still dominated by the antiquated T-72, which entered production in 1971 and was the backbone of Iraq's ill-fated army in 1991 and 2003.
Despite significant increases, Russia's defence budget is less than one-tenth the amount of annual US military spending.
According to a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, the Tu-160s that just flew across the Atlantic were even "escorted" by NATO fighter jets.
Nato supporting Georgia
Closer to home, Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, face the reality of US and Nato support pouring into Georgia even as their own forces complete their withdrawal from Georgian territory.
Their warnings to Western powers to steer clear of the crisis have been dismissed. The Caucasus pipeline continues to pump oil outside the Russian state monopoly that once controlled all former Soviet energy exports to the West.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, who is pro-Western and George Washington University-educated, remains firmly in power, more than a month after Russia's foreign minister bluntly said "he has to go".
Medvedev and Putin will soon have to live with deployments of anti-missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic - deployments accelerated by the Georgia crisis.
They know that a majority of Ukrainians now favour Nato membership, whereas only a few weeks ago the issue was divisive in that country. They can be reasonably certain that their evolving peaceful relationship with Nato and the civilian nuclear-sharing agreement with the US are now, effectively, dead.
|The recent financial crisis has hit energy-driven Russian markets particularly hard [AFP]
So is their long coveted inclusion in the World Trade Organisation, from which they have withdrawn their membership bid rather than face the humiliation of having it vetoed.
They must wonder about the nature of their relationships with China and the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics, which, despite Medvedev's begging at an emergency meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation last month refused to support Russian policy and instead backed the French-sponsored ceasefire.
Finally, Russia's leaders will have to deal with the $500 billion drop in market values following their attack on Georgia, most of which represents hastily withdrawn foreign investments and domestic capital flight abroad.
These figures were current before the catastrophic economic news of earlier this week, when high energy price-dependent Russian markets fell even further and registered their worst losses since the financial crisis of 1998.
Trading had to be suspended on Monday and Wednesday, and the biggest losers were government-controlled energy companies, Russia's only serious hard currency earners.
The Kremlin may secretly wonder whether more than half a trillion dollars is the right price to pay to be able to call the shots in Tskhinvali (pre-conflict population: 30,000), but so far its major move has been for Medvedev to announce increased military spending while trying to reassure a roomful of nervous oligarchs who know better that there is no financial crisis.
A history repeat?
In Venezuela, Chavez will soon be back to worrying about his precarious domestic position. Less than a year ago he lost his own referendum, which would have amended Venezuela's constitution to eliminate term limits on his presidency and vastly expand his government's economic powers to control banking and expropriate private property.
He plans to leave office in 2013 in accordance with the pre-referendum requirement. Like Putin, he may try to replace himself with a hand-picked successor who, like Medvedev, will have to campaign for election.
Karl Marx famously wrote that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce."
The last cold war was tragic for much of the globe. If there is another one, it will almost certainly be a farce for Russia, which, in addition to the problems outlined above, has tried to replace its lost ideology with a grasping obsession with the "order" and "security" that its ex-KGB functionaries imagine to have been benefits of their Soviet experience.
Whether or not a new cold war comes, Medvedev already has a lot to fear within his borders.
Just across the border, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, recently celebrated the signing of a bilateral missile defense agreement by drinking Georgian wine over dinner.
Paul du Quenoy is a professor in the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut. He lived in Russia every summer from 1999 to 2007 and was a Fulbright scholar there in 2003-2004.
Source: Al Jazeera