WASHINGTON — Escalating airstrikes in Syria. Sophisticated cyberattacks, apparently intended to influence the American election. New evidence of complicity in shooting down a civilian airliner.
The behavior of Russia in the last few weeks has echoes of some of the uglier moments of the Cold War, an era of proxy battles that ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. President Obama, fresh from a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin this month, wondered aloud whether the Russian leader was content living with a “constant, low-grade conflict.” His reference was to Ukraine, but he could have been addressing any of the arenas where Mr. Putin has reveled in his new role as the great disrupter of American plans around the globe.
“It seems to me we have Mr. Putin’s answer,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a coming book, “A World in Disarray.” “He’s answered in the affirmative. Low-grade conflict is his thing. And the question is how directly or indirectly we introduce costs.”
None of these conflicts have, in fact, cost Mr. Putin very much. Cyberpower in particular is tailor-made for a country in Russia’s circumstances — a declining economy with the gross domestic product of Italy. It is dirt cheap, hard to trace to a specific aggressor and perfect for sowing confusion, which may be the limits of Mr. Putin’s goals.
The bigger question confronting American intelligence officials, though, is whether the Russian president has a grander scheme at work. So far, their conclusion is probably not. Mr. Putin’s moves, they argue in background conversations, are largely tactical, intended to bolster his international image at a moment he has plenty of troubles back home.
For a year now, the White House has argued that these escalating clashes, while worrisome, do not constitute a new Cold War. There is no great ideological struggle underway. No one is brandishing nuclear weapons, though after two decades of reducing their forces, each is now racing to modernize them. Syria is a humanitarian disaster of barely imaginable scope, but it is not a fundamental strategic threat to American interests.
Yet the few veterans of that era still in senior posts see similarities. “It shouldn’t come as a big shock to people,” James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said about the “information warfare” that has been put to sophisticated use from Kiev, Ukraine, to Washington. “I think it’s more dramatic maybe because now they have the cybertools.”
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Mr. Clapper’s colleagues go a step further in less public conversations. They argue that Mr. Putin has played his hand skillfully, stringing along Secretary of State John Kerry in a yearlong negotiation over cease-fires and political transitions in Syria, all the while bolstering their proxy, President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Kerry’s efforts in Syria all but collapsed this week in waves of Russian and Syrian government airstrikes.
The deal in Ukraine is hanging on, but just barely: Russia conveniently ignores many of the commitments it signed and has denied involvement in the downing two years ago of a Malaysia Airlines jet flying over Ukraine that killed 298 people.
The theft of voter rolls in Arizona and Illinois — and “poking around” in the networks of other states, as James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, described it to Congress this week without naming the Russians as perpetrators — may be intended to rattle the United States, rather than change votes.
“It’s probably not real, real clear whether there’s influence in terms of an outcome,” Mr. Clapper said. “What I worry about more — frankly — is just sowing the seeds of doubt, where doubt is cast on the whole process.”
So far, the American response has been decidedly mixed. The West’s sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea have clearly stung; Russian officials make no effort to hide their desire to get them lifted. But the White House has not publicly blamed Russia for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, the theft of the Arizona and Illinois voter registration rolls, or breaking into the cellphones of Democratic operatives.
Mr. Obama pulled Mr. Putin aside in China for a conversation that officials decline to recount, and Mr. Kerry has done the same with his counterpart during the long effort to find common ground in bringing peace to Syria.
The president’s reluctance to publicly blame the Russians — born of concern that taking on Mr. Putin head-on would only invite him to escalate — has led to something of an uprising in parts of the White House and the State Department. A range of cyberstrategists and younger diplomats have complained over the past nine months that the failure to draw lines has encouraged Mr. Putin to see what else he can accomplish, especially at a time of political transition in the United States.
Few in the American intelligence community predicted much of this. Intelligence assets have been so focused for the past 15 years on counterterrorism that traditional targets have taken something of a back seat — they have not been ignored, one senior intelligence official said recently, but only lately have they begun to receive new resources.
Perhaps that contributed to some misjudgments. It was more than a year ago that Mr. Obama said Russia would find itself in a “quagmire” in Syria; it may yet, but so far Mr. Putin’s air war has propped up Mr. Assad, though at such a horrific human cost in the city of Aleppo that the United Nations’ humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, told the Security Council on Thursday that it had become a “merciless abyss of humanitarian catastrophe.”
Mr. Kerry threatened earlier this week to cut off all negotiations with the Russians. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded that the United States was in an “emotional breakdown” and rejected the effort to restore a seven-day pause in hostilities, the first step in an agreement Mr. Kerry reached with his counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, on Sept. 9.
That was mild compared with what the spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, said. He called the opposition leaders the United States has been not-so-covertly arming in Syria “a U.S.-controlled terrorist international,” using a phrase that was a throwback to Soviet times.
And he warned that “should any attempt be made to carry out any threats against Russia or Russian servicemen in Syria, it is far from guaranteed” that the American-backed militias would have enough body bags.
So far, though, Mr. Putin has shown some caution. While he has tried to intimidate NATO nations with overflights of bombers, nuclear submarine runs along coasts and military exercises near the borders of Estonia and Latvia, he has been careful to stay on his side of the boundaries.
“These are all occurring in gray-zone locations with gray-zone tactics,” said Robert Kagan, a historian at the Brookings Institution who has written on the return of geopolitical conflict. The question the United States will have to face, he added, is “Are we willing to operate in the gray area, too?”