"We've got to start dealing with Vladimir Putin in a realistic fashion," McCain said Tuesday on CNN's "New Day."
Calling Putin an "old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire," McCain said the United States should take a harder line with Putin, who has also opposed western plans to arm rebels battling Syria's President Bashar Assad.
An apparatchik is professional functionary of the Communist Party or government.
The most recent kink in the U.S.-Russia relationship came Sunday, when it's believed National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow to avoid apprehension on U.S. espionage charges for leaking government secrets.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's claim Tuesday that his country has "nothing to do with Mr. Snowden, or his movements around the world," did little to sway McCain.
"It's reminiscent of the days of the Cold War when you hear a Russian spokesman saying that he's not in Russia when every shred of evidence indicates that he is," said the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who faulted President Obama for not taking a harder line with Russia on Syria and Iran.
As for Putin, McCain said the Russian president has a "disdain for democracy and the things we stand for and believe in. ... If he sees a situation, he'll take advantage of it."