When Mao ZeDong spoke of American Imperialism back in 1956 he famously declared it to be "nothing but a paper-tiger". Similar rhetoric of the Cold War era has long been absent from global politics, and instead, an age of faux-diplomacy and pseudo-compromise was ushered in. The images of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pressing a 'reset' button on the two nations's relationship in Geneva in 2009 would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, and in some ways is unthinkable today.
The recent celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall were overshadowed by the somewhat sinister words of former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev warning the 'West' of a new Cold War. Since the tragedy of flight MH17, the tensions between NATO and Russia have been steadily increasing. We've seen the annexation (or liberation) of Crimea, the kidnapping of an Estonian intelligence agent in September, simulated bombing raids on US and Canadian soil, repeated incursions into national airspace by military aircraft, and even a near collision between a Russian recon-aircraft that wasn't transmitting it's position and a Danish passenger plane, that was avoided only due to the alertness of civilian pilots.
Yet despite all the declarations, the close-calls, and the Cold War behaviour, there is one fact that is often ignored. The last thing that Russia wants is war with NATO. Actions in Ukraine and previously in Georgia have both been carefully controlled to maximise external fear of Russia yet never going quite far enough for intervention. Consider how easily Russia could overpower the aforementioned nations if they stood alone. That said, the Great Russian Bear isn't quite the creature she used to be. Her current stockpile of Nuclear Warheads (both usable and otherwise) is estimated to be 8,500, a far cry from her 1988 peak of 45,000. In 2008 the Russian Federation announced significant reforms of her armed services; in particular a drastic downsizing was to take place. The changes must be seen to be believed, the number of units in the Russian Army fell by 90% from 1,890 to 172 by 2012. Similarly the Air Force and the Navy both had their unit numbers cut by 48-49% each.
Granted, this smaller force is far more efficient and no doubt much more highly trained than it was before, yet it puts Russia's active service personnel at 5th in the world (Behind China, the USA, India, and North Korea).
One of the most effective ways to unite a population behind a leader or government is via an external threat. Argentina is a prime example. Since 2010 the Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has made repeated statements in public and to the UN about the status of the Falkland Islands. It is no coincidence that Ms de Kirchner's poll ratings have been falling at the same time as she began threatening not to allow British ships headed for Stanley to dock in Argentinian ports. A second example, closer to home, was when Alex Salmond attempted to revive support for 'YES Scotland' by implying that voting 'No' was anti-Scottish.
Vladimir Putin is doing a similar juggling act. Since his reappearance as Russian President in 2012, Putin has misjudged the mood of Western Russia. Many citizens of Moscow protested almost continuously until 2013 when increasing government oppression and midnight raids on prominent opposition leader’s homes caused the movement to collapse. But Putin was spooked. This is a man who is not used to confronted, a man who enjoys a cult of personality that can only be described as 'Soviet'. This new fear of his was obvious to the world when in December of 2013 he not only released, but also pardoned the Russian oligarch come political-prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky. International pressure from the European Court of Human Rights and even Amnesty International, which labelled Khodorkovsky a 'prisoner of conscience'. At the same time Putin also ordered the release of the somewhat notorious members of the band 'Pussy Riot' who, much to Putin's chagrin have continued to be outspoken critics of Russian politics and the President in particular.
As Vladimir Putin tries to find reasons to excuse the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 he is attempting to shore up support back home in the more educated and more important parts of Russia. As the Rouble continues to fall and food prices soar as EU and US sanctions start to bite, Putin has to try and look similar to the man that his propaganda machine would have us believe commands the world from the Kremlin.
With the days of Soviet power long behind us, the Russian armed force is a shadow of its former self. Her military equipment is outmatched by the high-tech forces of NATO. The Russian Navy in particular is fielding vessels that are better suited as scrap-metal than frontline battleships. The modern situation today is that Russia cannot hope to defeat NATO. Put simply, the combined forces of the alliance are more numerous, better equipped and more highly trained than their Russian counterparts. Perhaps Russia today isn't quite a 'Paper Tiger' but more of a Polystyrene Ocelot.
By Iain Grant