The Cold War is back — with a whimper, if not a roar.
Russia’s deployment of its most powerful warship and a spy vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to observe any U.S. operations against Syria reflects the worsening state of U.S.-Russian relations in the past few years and underscores lost opportunities for bilateral cooperation, analysts say.
Last week’s Russian gunboat diplomacy and Moscow’s spoiler role at the Group of 20 summit and on the U.N. Security Council, where it has blocked any action against ally Damascus, have led some analysts to make comparisons to the Cold War.
“It’s half a Cold War,” said Barry Pavel, a former defense official who worked on the White House National Security Council in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
President Vladimir Putin is a “creature of that era. He is KGB through and through,” Mr. Pavel said, referring to Mr. Putin’s tenure in the Russian foreign intelligence agency now renamed the Federal Security Bureau.
Despite President Obama’s attempt to “reset” Washington’s dealings with Moscow in his first term, a series of incidents — including Russia’s naval deployment — point to a chill in U.S.-Russian relations:
• Russian long-range bombers occasionally test U.S. air defenses by flying close to Alaska, and have done so as recently as April, defense officials have said.
• In May, Moscow publicly expelled a U.S. diplomat who it said was spying on Russia — three years after Washington uncovered a Russian spy ring and eventually sent 10 agents back to their motherland.
• Russia expressed outrage last year over NATO anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe, saying the interceptors could be used against its own missiles.
• Moscow granted asylum last month to Edward Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. authorities for stealing and publishing details about the National Security Agency’s top-secret data collection programs.
John R. Schindler, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., noted that Russia last week sent a Cold War-era spy ship to the eastern Mediterranean — the SSV-201 intelligence ship Priazovye, which is designed specifically to intercept radio communications and read electronic emissions from U.S. naval vessels.
“They are always collecting technical data to see what our capabilities are,” Mr. Schindler said of Russia’s military.
The Priazovye and other Russian ships off the Syrian coast “will provide what we call ‘indication and warning’ intelligence” about the expected launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles, said Mr. Schindler, a former intelligence official at the NSA.
Still, Mr. Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council, said the Cold War is “one-sided” because “the other side [the United States] could not care less about Russia as a military threat.”
“There’s a huge asymmetry” between U.S. and Russian military capabilities, he said. “Russia is not considered a near-term threat by any stretch of the imagination.”