An American spy working undercover in Moscow is tackled and beaten at the gates of the U.S. Embassy. A Russian fighter jet flies within 30 feet of a U.S. Navy ship. Russian intelligence agencies hack into an American political party, and soon afterward embarrassing emails become public.
The same Russian government that invaded and annexed Ukrainian territory in Crimea is now bombing women and children in Syria to back a ruthless ally’s bid to remain in power, according to American officials.
Is this what a new Cold War looks like?
"I don’t know what label to use, but this is probably the lowest point we’ve seen in U.S.-Russian relations since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Hillary Clinton campaign adviser.
“It’s extremely worrisome,” said retired Admiral James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who is also advising the Clinton campaign. “The trend lines are very bad. We’re not in a new Cold War, but we’re edging close to one.”
The Cold War analogy isn’t quite apt, Katulis and other foreign policy scholars say, because it implies power parity between the two nations. In fact, unlike during the post World War II period, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union jockeyed for global influence, Russia is making mischief precisely because it is weak and without friends, they say, suffering economically under Western sanctions imposed after the Crimea invasion.
Nonetheless, “They’ve adopted a much more assertive posture, trying to punch hard above their weight,” Katulis said.
The collapse this week of a diplomatic agreement between the U.S. and Russia to pause the Syrian civil war — and a subsequent decision by Russia to pull out of an agreement to dispose of nuclear material — underscore how bad things have gotten.
Relations are unlikely to improve any time soon, analysts say. Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, enjoys absolute control and sees Western democracies as a threat to his interests.
“He is going to continue to maintain power, “ Stavridis said, “and part of doing that is demonstrating that he can thumb his nose at the West any time he wants to.”
No matter who is elected as the next president, he added, “You’re going to see a period of real testing and pressure and push from Moscow to see what resilience is present in either a Trump or a Clinton administration.”
Indeed, Putin has many tools at his disposal to inflict pain on Western nations, starting with cyber and information warfare. Russian cyber warriors have been hacking, leaking, planting false stories, and sowing chaos for years, experts say. The cyber intrusions into the U.S. political system are simply the latest example.
Although Russia is economically weak, many experts say its military is much improved from a decade or two ago. Russia’s move into Syria was its first major expeditionary force deployment outside the former Soviet Union since the war in Afghanistan. And while Russia has suffered many setbacks in that campaign, it has managed to keep its ally, Bashar Assad, in power, despite the wishes of the U.S. and its many regional allies that he should leave.
Over the last five to 10 years, Stavridis said, “the Russians have fielded fairly good forces that are close to parity” in strategic nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, special forces and cyber.
The U.S. response to Russia’s thumb-in-the-eye foreign policy has been extremely cautious. President Obama is often criticized for failing to stand up to Putin, but it was George W. Bush who in 2001 famously said he “looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the Bush administration responded with sanctions that critics called ineffectual.
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then sought to “reset” relations with Russia, a policy that critics say was naive.
But even after it was clear the reset was dead, Obama’s critics say he has not consistently imposed penalties on Russia for bad behavior.
“Pushing back against this is important — Putin is not going to stop until we do,” Michael Vickers, a former senior U.S. intelligence official who helped Afghan guerrillas fight the Soviets in the 1980s, said recently.
Vickers, who is advising Clinton, said the Russian cyber attacks on the American political system were “beyond the pale” and demanded forceful countermeasures. So far, the Obama administration has taken no public steps to respond, however.
Katulis said he understands the impetus to avoid a cycle of escalation that plays into Russia’s hands.
At the same time, he said, American “reticence and the caution feeds into what they are trying to do.”
Stavridis said the U.S. should make clear that the next Russian fighter that buzzes a U.S. Navy vessel will be shot down. It should send lethal aid to Ukraine, he added, and stop Bashar Assad’s forces from bombing civilians in Syria.
For their part, Russian officials also reject the Cold War analogy.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told British network ITN this week: "Real Cold War is when we're investing enormous resources in order to prepare seriously for a nuclear war against each other. This is not the case now.”
Perhaps not, but the great power competition can get rough. In June, in an incident first reported by the Washington Post, a U.S. diplomat was tackled by a Russian guard as he tried to enter the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The diplomat was working undercover for an intelligence agency, two former U.S. officials tell NBC News. His shoulder was broken in the altercation.
And it emerged in news reports this week that two U.S. officials traveling with diplomatic passports were drugged while attending a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia last year.
The incident happened at a hotel bar during a UN anticorruption conference in November 2015. It was first reported by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a U.S. government funded broadcaster, and quoted current and former U.S. officials.
"We are extremely troubled by the way our employees have been treated over the past couple of years and we've raised those concerns at the highest levels," State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in July, speaking about the embassy incident. "Harassment and surveillance of our diplomatic personnel in Moscow by security personnel and by traffic police have increased significantly and we find this absolutely unacceptable.”