Poignant evidence of its weakness came last week: no sooner had a Russian reconnaissance ship from the Black Sea fleet steamed indignantly to the trouble zone than news came in that a consignment of EU food aid was awaiting clearance in St Petersburg. What does it matter if the penniless Russians object to bombs falling on fellow Slavs?
It is not that simple. Russia's reaction to Nato's bombing should not be judged by the gestures of defiance on news bulletins. These have had a theatrical air. Protest in Russia still tends to be stage-managed by the state. Being spontaneous doesn't come easily; that doesn't mean Russia doesn't care.
Certainly, Russian news editors have had plenty of cameos with which to project the nation's outrage. A masked gunman, blazing away at the US embassy in Moscow; three thugs urinating on its doorstep. An electronics firm in Rostov, mopping floors with the Stars and Stripes.
These are the scattered stunts and tantrums. At bottom, there is a deeper, wider anger produced by the failure of the West to grasp - or its decision to ignore - the extent to which the image of Nato as The Enemy is rooted in the Russian psyche. The question is how long will the resentment last, and what effect will it have. It is true that Moscow is keen to keep its US relationship alive, not least because it needs IMF and World Bank money. But Russia is also exploiting the West's desire to mollify it with payoffs, and to recoup earlier loans. Warmth and vision have drained from the relationship. For the US, it is about containment, and reducing the threat of the Soviet legacy - thousands of nuclear warheads, atomic scientists, and chemical weapons. For Russia, it is fundamentally about cash.
But Moscow does not need to be wealthy to make trouble. The pride of its military and security services is injured by what they see as a betrayal by Nato. Embittered generals cannot be trusted to follow the government's pragmatism. They know how to sow havoc, particularly in their backyard - the unstable Caucasus and Central Asia, where the West has vast oil interests.
Convinced that the dynamics of the Cold War have returned, the diehards will feel tempted to breathe life into some of the limbs of their broken empire. They are already suspects in assassination attempts (such as Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia). The same elements appear to be behind a 1994 consignment of $1bn of free weapons to Armenia, infuriating Azerbaijan - which is demanding a Nato base on its soil. Now Nato risks making this geopolitically crucial part of the world more volatile. Nor could the alliance have thought of a more effective way, short of bombing Russian territory, of encouraging Moscow to weave anti-Western alliances to counter American "unipolarity".
Perhaps, before sending in the cruises, the US calculated that Russia was already too chummy with the West's pariahs - especially Iran and Iraq - so it wouldn't make much difference. Doubtful. When it slapped sanctions on Russian institutes, accusing them of sending missile technology to Iran, Russia - though irritated - conceded it might have a point. As US and British missiles arc across the Balkans, that kind of co-operation is unlikely.
Russia can be expected to tighten its ties with China, a weapons client, which shares its annoyance over the lack of regard by Nato for the UN Security Council. Both have good reason to view the spectacle of Nato using missiles to settle an autonomy issue within a sovereign state with discomfort. The Chinese see parallels with Taiwan; the Russians with Chechnya. There will be tighter bonds nearer to home - the unsavoury Belarus can expect attention from Moscow.
None of this is a pretty picture for the West. Add a chronic disillusion with the latter and its dismal contribution to Russia over the past eight years. The billions of IMF dollars did nothing for the impoverished millions, but fuelled a pyramid scheme in which a tiny elite made enormous profits from government bonds, dispatching the proceeds overseas before the currency collapsed. Direct foreign investment remains pitiful. Economic reforms are associated with corruption and misery. So we have reached the point where Americans visiting Moscow have been advised by their embassy not to speak English.
Is there any ray of hope in all this? One or two. Though the far right and left are romping on to the centre stage, ushered there by Nato, predictions that Russian politics will be driven to extremism are overblown - issues of survival matter more.
One optimistic school of thought is evolving. This holds that Nato will be greatly weakened by this disastrous operation, as will the US's desire for further European involvement. Russia will shift its focus towards building relations with its neighbours - notably Germany - to becoming a partner in Europe. But it will be a while yet. For now, the chips are down. The stakes are high, and the wheel is spinning.Reuse content