Have we gone back in time? Russian bombers shadow U.S. naval vessels in the Pacific; Russian naval vessels patrol in the Caribbean, and once again, nuclear attack submarines are off the coast of the Eastern seaboard. The two "Akula" subs came as close as 200 miles to the the United States, and, just like in the old days, one proceeded southward to make a port call in Cuba.
A "return to the Cold War" makes for great headlines, but is there a real threat? Russia certainly has individual ships and planes that can "show the flag" around the world, far from the Motherland--in places where Russian (Soviet) vessels haven't been seen for decades.
But while modest increases in Moscow's defense spending has rehabilitated a few ships or provided the budgetary resources needed to finish vessels that were languishing unfinished in shipyards, Russia does not have the wherewithal to put together what is needed to sustain its projection of power. It cannot resupply or reinforce the ships it sends--and these air and sea missions are also gambles in their own right. Moscow's ability to send rescue forces in case its planes and vessels run into trouble is quite limited. In other words, the flag can be shown--but it can't be protected. Tom Fedyszyn, coordinator of the Eurasia Studies Group at the Naval War College, sums it up as follows: "It's showmanship, not real power."
So why the fevered reactions on the part of the pundit classes and some on the Hill? Is it because even the ghost of a conventional threat posed by a resurgent Russia helps to justify capabilities that the partisans of unconventional warfare have said the U.S. no longer needs for the types of conflicts it finds itself engaged in in the greater Middle East?
Perhaps. It is also clear that these Russian military missions--as miniscule as they are--are designed not to achieve any grand strategic objective but rather to irritate the United States. As American and NATO power has advanced to the borders of Russia, being able to send a nuclear sub to sit off the coast of Georgia (USA, not ex-Soviet) and to have Senator Saxby Chambliss demanding that the Pentagon get answers as to why the Russians were there is Moscow's way of signaling that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. If the United States involves itself in what Russia sees as its neighborhood, then the Western Hemisphere is not off limits to Moscow.
Expect these missions to continue--but recognize them for what they are.