It is just like the old times again. “A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens,” Russia’s Chief of Military General Staff Nikolai Makarov said late last week, warning of possible attacks on NATO installations in eastern and central Europe if NATO proceeds with a planned anti-missile shield.NATO says the shield is intended to protect Europe from Iranian missiles; Russia fears, or says it fears, that the shield is intended to blunt Russian missile capabilities, thus giving NATO what, during the Cold War, was considered the Holy Grail of nuclear supremacy: NATO could launch a first nuclear strike against Russia without having to worry that Russia could retaliate.The USSR used to make threats like this back in the old days of Stalin and Khrushchev, and when it did, it stopped traffic. The fear of an annihilating nuclear war was very real in those days; we ducked and we covered in school air raid drills — and we knew it was pointless if they really attacked.Now Russia issues bloodcurdling threats of preemptive strikes against NATO and the stock market doesn’t even flicker. Nobody buys canned goods; no frantic European leaders call Washington. The President of the United States not only doesn’t pick up the hot line to cool off the crisis; he doesn’t even make a speech in reply. The Secretary of State travels as planned to China, and the world press spends the weekend analyzing the grad school plans of a blind Chinese dissident rather than parsing Russia’s intentions and analyzing the latest NATO-Russia crisis.That is Russia’s biggest frustration right there in a nutshell: it cannot control events in its immediate neighborhood (like the ex-Soviet Baltic states and its old security belt in the Warsaw Pact satellites) — and it cannot get Washington to pay it enough attention.In the good old days, Khrushchev could dominate the world news cycle by pounding his shoe on the table at the UN; today, threats of invasion and missile strikes are met with a yawn.This is partly because nobody thinks Russia is stupid enough to follow through on these threats. Russia is seen as too weak and too economically dependent on Europe to bomb its best customers and isolate itself for a generation. And retaliation would come, big time. Even the Soviets backed down from all out war with NATO; the Russians aren’t ready for that either.Given all that, why do the Russians bother? Why make threats that make you both loathed and despised? Why antagonize people with empty threats?Internal politics is part of it; looking tough pays off inside Russia even if it doesn’t in the rest of the world. As Putin prepares to step back into the presidency, his political prestige is not what it was, and fanning the flames of Russian nationalism must seem like an appealing idea. That should not be underestimated; holding on to power at home is Putin’s first priority.That said, the threats reinforce if they do not advance a key theme in Russian foreign policy. The effort to divide Europe from the United States is a policy Moscow has pursued since the days of Stalin and continues to work on today. The big prize is to detach Germany from the Atlantic alliance into a neo-Bismarckian continental alliance with Russia.This is a long term goal but it is the biggest single prize on Moscow’s wish list. For decades, going back deep into the Cold War, Moscow has worked to get the Germans to think that it is the American presence and American military forces in Europe that threaten peace. During the Cold War, fears among the German public that any NATO-Warsaw Pact war would be fought in and over German territory made those fears very real.Russia is pushing the same button today: Europe’s peace, it wants Europeans and especially Germans to believe, is endangered by recklessly provocative American military build ups. If Germany wants peace and security, it should stop the US from aggressive behavior and align itself with Russia.This never worked with West Germany in the Cold War, but the end of that conflict, the unification of Germany and, ironically, the weakness of Russia make it a more attractive diplomatic concept today. Germany under Merkel doesn’t seem tempted; German policy in eastern Europe, Iran and Ukraine runs almost exactly counter to Moscow’s goals.But there is always the future, Russia reflects. Former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder hated George W. Bush and went to work for Gazprom after leaving office. Perhaps a change of government in Berlin might someday lead to a change of orientation for Germany? Merkel’s coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are in something like free fall in the polls and may drop out of the Bundestag next time around. The euro crisis is a minefield for the Chancellor, and her popularity could vanish.Russia is patient and plays a long game.