The old Cold War never got far out of the deep freeze

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Story highlights

  • The US and Russia have had a hot-and-cold relationship since the end of the Cold War
  • Vladimir Putin is now serving up the same old Cold War dish, just re-chilled

(CNN)The Kremlin's comments that relations with the West are at their "worst since the Cold War" imply that once there was actually a thaw.

It warmed up a bit during Boris Yeltsin's freewheeling presidency, as the Soviet Union's assets were sliced up and sold off to savvy Westerners and their nouveau riche Russian partners.
But Russia's clandestine intelligence services, the KGB and their successors the FSB, never let old grievances with the West slide or built meaningful trust.
So when Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer picked up the reins of leadership in 2000, a slow chill, imperceptible at the beginning, began creeping across the landscape of Moscow's relationship with the West.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovat a joint press conference following talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 12.
Today, President Putin's latest comments merely serve up the same old Cold War dish, re-chilled.
Rewind to February last year, when Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was speaking at an international security conference in Munich.
He told the room crowded with diplomats and dignitaries that "NATO's policy with regards to Russia remains unfriendly and opaque ... one could go as far as to say that we have slid back to a new cold war."
At the time, Russia's leadership was reacting to sanctions imposed following their annexation of Crimea and incursion in to eastern Ukraine and to NATO bolstering its forces in case Russian troops kept moving west.
NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe at the time, Philip Breedlove, who was attending the conference, told me later Russia was to blame.
"They have occupied Ukraine and built a bubble [defense] in the Black Sea and now [we] see a defense bubble developing in northern Syria," Breedlove said.
NATO, he said, was merely responding to Russian aggression.
Fast forward to today and the Kremlin is under pressure again.
US President Donald Trump flexed his muscles in Syria with a missile strike in response to a chemical attack, precisely the powerful message that gets through to Putin. Putin's response brings the Cold War quote out of the deep freeze again.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Putin "the relation is at a low point" between their two countries. The reality is the relationship has been heading this way since long before Tillerson took over at Foggy Bottom.
Putin's KGB roots and his schooling in Soviet ideology and propaganda have predisposed him to seeing the West as a predator, not an ally.
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The real cooling began in 2003 as Putin railed against US President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, an event that cut so deep in his psyche even today he tries to draw parallels to Trump's Syria strike on the Shayrat Airfield as a precursor for a wider Iraq-style incursion.
But if Putin was ignored then his invasion of Georgia, annexing part the country in 2008 caught Western attention. Relations began cooling apace after that.
When Hillary Clinton took over at the State Department the following year, she tried to reset relations. But her attempted thaw didn't work and the cooling continued. By the end of her tenure, she got her own individual Kremlin freeze as they blamed her "interfering" in Russia's 2011 elections.
The hands of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rest on a red button marked "reset" in English and "overload" in Russian that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in March  2009.
By then Putin had other issues with the West. He felt cheated by the United Nations and NATO over Libya. He signed up to support intervention to save innocent lives, but that became a regime change he didn't see coming.
He lost an ally in Libyan strong man Moammar Gadhafi. And so the thermometer plunged again.
The biggest temperature dive until now was the one Medvedev was railing against in Munich: Sanctions over Russia's Ukraine land grab.
Now Trump's Syria strike has changed Putin's calculus further, and the mercury is dropping again.
So far, the Russian leader has made a virtue out of surviving his subzero standoff with the West. The colder it gets the more popular he becomes.
Most Russia experts agree, the only way to thaw is to turn up the heat, and that means more muscle-flexing by Trump.
Power is what Putin responds to best. Tillerson's challenge will be managing the flame.