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.”
Listening and watching
Russia’s relationship with Syria has its roots in the Cold War, when the Soviets and the West sought clients and allies in the Middle East. Damascus has been in Moscow’s camp since Hafez Assad, the father of current President Bashar Assad, seized power in 1963.
The Russian base at Tartus on Syria’s coast — also thought to house a listening post for Russian intelligence — is Moscow’s only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union. The recent deployments are part of a familiar pattern of gunboat diplomacy off the Syrian coast since the turmoil began there in March 2011, said Lee Willett, editor of the defense journal IHS-Jane’s Navy International.
“Russia has, of course, deployed task groups to the Mediterranean on a number of occasions over the last two years as the Syria crisis has ebbed and flowed,” Mr. Willett said. “On each occasion, the use of naval force has enabled it to display [a military] presence without overcommitting itself to Assad’s cause.”
According to Russia’s Interfax news agency, Moscow has sent the Priazovye to the eastern Mediterranean with the anti-submarine ship Adm. Panteleyev, two destroyers (the Smetlivy and the Nastoichivy), a frigate (the Neustrashimy), and four landing ships (the Alexander Shabalin, the Adm. Nevelsky, the Peresvet and the Nikolai Filchenkov).
According to IHS-Jane’s Fighting Ships, the Soviet Union built five spy ships like the Priazovye in the 1980s and equipped them with a full suite of electronic and enhanced optical sensors that gather intelligence through passive “listening” and “watching” of electromagnetic emissions from target vessels.
During the Cold War, they were often deployed just outside U.S. territorial waters to try to eavesdrop on U.S. communications and operations.
Russian officials have said publicly that the deployment is for the evacuation of Russian personnel and other citizens if Syrian security collapses.
This week, the Russian armada will be joined by two more large landing ships (the Novocherkassk and the Minsk) and the missile cruiser Moskva, which Mr. Willett said is “one of the most capable ships in the Russian fleet.”
But the Russians are not seeking confrontation, he said.
“Sending naval ships to international waters off Syria enables Russia to make its point without risking confrontation with the United States,” Mr. Willett said.
This muscle-flexing on the high seas follows Russia’s decision to become a roadblock to international action on Syria’s suspected use of chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb Aug 21.
The Russian naval deployments were leaked as Mr. Putin hosted last week’s G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, from which Mr. Obama limped away without even the closest of U.S. allies backing his call for immediate military action.
Eleven of the 20 countries did sign a joint statement saying the evidence indicated the Syrian government’s culpability and calling for a strong international response. But the statement made no mention of U.S. plans for a military strike.
Mr. Putin used the summit to publicly endorse the conspiracy theory that Syria’s “so-called chemical weapons attack” was in fact “a provocation staged by rebels, in hope of winning extra backing from their foreign backers,” including the United States.
But Mr. Putin faces an increasingly uphill struggle to realize his dreams of resurgent superpower status, Mr. Pavel said.
“He has superpower ambitions, but increasingly less power to pursue them,” he said.
That, combined with a rapidly aging and unhealthy population, a declining birthrate and a stagnant, oil-dependent economy, is “a recipe for major instability” within the next two to three decades, he said.
“In the long term, Russia’s in big trouble,” Mr. Pavel said.