New Age Power Play – The United States and Russia


The Cold War ideological victory of the US, informed by Western liberal democracy, was seen as the final form of human government, a zenith of socio-cultural evolution and was termed as the End of History by political scientist Francis Fukuyama

For over two centuries, the bilateral relationship between USSR-Russia and the United States expanded to encompass several other players, complications and events that changed the course of history forever. After the world witnessed two horrific World Wars that haunted everyone involved for the rest of their lives, the two major power blocs with opposing ideologies – the capitalist US and the communist USSR – found diplomacy and the unity forged against the Nazis dissolved into mutual mistrust. They decided to cool things off and deal with the friction. This was done through several proxy wars that claimed the lives of millions of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans. It cannot be stated that ideology was the root cause of the Cold War, but it definitely worsened the general condition and made the distrust between USSR and the US more enduring.

The newly independent India, with unspoken bias towards USSR, decided to play it safe under the leadership of Nehru. This led to the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a league of nations that wanted to join neither bloc but keep their sovereignties.

It was only during the last decade of the 20th century that economic exhaustion appeared through the cracks and was too obvious to be ignored when USSR lost one-third of its national wealth. The US was also faced with a serious, but dissimilar, economic crisis although it was economically and militarily stronger than USSR at the beginning of the Cold War. Finally, at the Malta Summit in December 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, US President H W Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called for an end to the Cold War, following several unsuccessful rounds of détente that began in 1971. Consequently, USSR broke up in 1991 and spawned newly independent nations under the influence of the US. Who would believe that the two powers had shared a land border at one point of time when the Russian Federation settled at Fort Ross, California? This ideological victory of the US, informed by Western liberal democracy, was seen as the final form of human government, a zenith of socio-cultural evolution and was termed as the End of History by political scientist Francis Fukuyama.

The Soviet’s sale of Alaska to the US government in the mid-19th century was marked by active contact between the two countries that included commercial joint ventures and USSR’s support for the American Civil War. The early 20th century saw the relationship growing tense. However, the countries continued to talk and, at times, cooperate. Although the US did not recognise the Soviet Union until 1933, it provided humanitarian assistance to the victims of the 1921-23 famine. Cultural, sporting, scientific, and educational exchanges, and summits that led to important arms control treaties, kept the lines of communication open. The US and Soviet astronauts even ventured into space together in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission.

However, looking at the tensions that escalated between the US and Russia in recent times, it’s apparent that the End of History as foretold by Fukuyama in the 90s is untrue, or at best unfulfilled, today. The past events leading up to the present crisis provide an exciting background story of the two global players – both of which refused to back down while continuing to pursue their supremacist policies, and now joined in by other emerging world players who are rapidly catching up with the ‘great’ two.

Crimea and Ukraine Crisis

In 2014, the already strained US-Russia relations hanged by a thread as a result of events that took place following the Ukraine crisis. Ukraine – the world’s breadbasket – borders Russia to the east and northeast. Apart from being one of the largest grain exporters, there are more reasons for Ukraine to become a political battleground between the West and Russia.

In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was faced with a dilemma when his country experienced a rapid downward spiral to economic doom – he had to make a choice between accepting a $15 billion loan from neighbour Russia and join the planned ‘Eurasian Union’ with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia; or accept a long-term deal offered by the EU to bolster economic integration and trade. The president, who has a long history with Putin, chose the money, inviting widespread outrage and protests across Ukraine.

A significant part of the Ukrainian population, mostly situated in the east, wanted to join Russia, while the rest were in support of the country joining the EU. Hordes of protestors gathered at Kiev’s Independence Square, also known as the Maidan, to protest against the president’s move. The protest soon turned violent after some protestors were killed by the Ukrainian armed force. Eventually Yanukovych fled the country to a safe haven in Russia, necessitating fresh elections in Ukraine.

During the final days of the protests, Putin ordered surprise military drills at Russia-Ukraine border and Russia’s Black Sea base situated in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Almost simultaneously, armed men in unmarked uniforms and masks seized airports and government facilities around Crimea. Some of the men admitted to being Russian while Moscow denied any affiliation and characterised them as ‘local self-defence groups’. Significantly, Putin stated that he needs to protect Russians living in the Crimean Peninsula.

Crimea (the Black Sea peninsula) culturally and historically close to Russia and a thriving home-ground for pro-Russia sentiment, was more independent than the rest of Ukraine. It voted to power a new pro-Russia government and decided to hold a referendum to decide on its future. The referendum had two seemingly biased, Russia-influenced, choices to choose between – either to join Russia or increase Crimean independence within Ukraine. Russia soon formally annexed Crimea and celebrated the ‘victory’ blatantly at the Red Square. This was declared illegitimate by the White House.

After weeks of warning Russia to take a step back, EU and the US imposed heavy economic sanctions on a handful of Russian businessmen and politicians who had close links to the Maidan revolution. Slowly the Rouble began to dramatically depreciate. Moscow, in turn, announced an 80 percent gas price hike that crippled Ukraine’s economy as 58 percent of its gas requirements were met by imports from Russia. Russia has been able to mobilise other sources of support for its energy sector, primarily from China and other Asian countries. After ten years of negotiations, Russia and China signed a major gas pipeline deal in 2014. Beginning from 2019, the ‘Power of Siberia’ pipeline is expected to start transferring Russian gas to China. The presidents of Russia and China have also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the second Siberian gas pipeline to be routed through Western-Siberia and the Altai Mountains. The 30-year agreement, enabling the creation of the Power of Siberia, will likely withstand any short- or medium-term economic or political pressures in either Russia or China. Significantly, Russia was disgracefully ousted from the G-8 grouping, which was a way of snubbing the country by the world’s top economies for its ‘illegal’ interference in Ukraine.

Currently, Crimea is recognised as part of Russia by some and Ukraine by others, depending on independent bilateral ties and mutual benefits; while Ukraine still considers it to be an autonomous territory within itself.

India’s Balancing Act

Only a few countries can endure the ups and downs of a relationship that India has shared with Russia since the 1960s. For close to half a century Russia has been New Delhi’s foremost military supplier. In fact, defence trade became the founding reason for strategic relations between the two nations, particularly in the post-Cold War era. Yet, Russia’s share of military sales to India is now on steady decline.

One reason for the deteriorating relationship between India and Russia could be the role played by the US. This shift can be traced back to the 123 Agreement that India signed with the US. The pursuit of a ‘strategic partnership’ with India is perhaps the most enduring foreign policy legacy of President George W Bush. On the back of rising religious extremism in South Asia, the Bush administration was certain that India could be a driving force for political firmness in the region. Taking confidence from what Washington perceived as convergent geo-political interests, the US proceeded to elevate India to the status of a strategic ally. Bilateral defence trade topped at $9 billion. What followed was a reversal of a decade-old non-proliferation policy that culminated in the signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement in 2005. America’s strategic rapprochement with New Delhi marked a watershed moment in India’s defence engagement with the world. Sanctions against many Indian defence entities were lifted and high technology export controls were slowly eased.

At present, Russia’s defence

industry is sustaining its defence ties with India on the strength of contracts already executed between the two countries. Barring the upcoming $11 billion contract for joint design and development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme with Russia, there are no specific plans by India to purchase new Russian arms. Although Russia is taking part in several military tenders currently opened in India to foreign firms, it is not a clear frontrunner in any. The EADS Airbus A330 MRTT has emerged as the preferred vendor over Russia’s Ilyushin Il-78 to supply six aerial tankers for the Indian Air Force in a $1 billion contract; Russian platforms have also fared poorly in the rotary-wing aircraft category, where Boeing’s AH-64 Apache and the Chinook CH-47F won the tenders for attack and heavy-lift helicopters respectively. Thus, with the fulfilment of contracts signed in previous years, there is a considerable risk that Russia will lose its decade-long stranglehold in the Indian arms industry.

If the downhill relationship wasn’t enough, Russia has Indian political scientists biting their nails with worry over the obvious shift in Moscow’s moves. All signs point to Russia downgrading its military-technical relationship with India from that of an exclusive partner to a preferred partner. Such pragmatism should come as no surprise given that India has diversified its own military import portfolio and no longer considers Russia as its exclusive trading partner. Sanctions on Russia could influence India in the long run and therefore, it has decided to play cautiously. The security situation in Afghanistan is a huge concern for both India and Russia. India is worried that extremists targeting it might find safe haven in Afghanistan. Therefore, it has signed a pact with Russia under which it will pay the latter to supply arms to the Afghan military. Moscow has been critical of NATO pulling out of Afghanistan because it feels there could be dire security consequences, which might spill over to Russia’s immediate neighbourhood.

Russian military export overtures towards Pakistan are now definite.

In a striking development, Russia recently decided to supply Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters to Pakistan. Prior to this, Moscow had refrained from supplying lethal military equipments to Pakistan on account of New Delhi’s strained relationship with Islamabad. The legacy of this Indo-Russian military exclusivity can be traced all the way back to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Peace of 1971. Consequently, the Pakistan deal caught many geo-political commentators by surprise. It has been described as an ‘important, key change in Russian policy in the region.’ Conscious of Indian sensitivities, Russian diplomats have been quick to point out that the negotiations are part of an ‘ongoing cooperation with Pakistan in the field of defence and counter-terrorism.’

Russia has also reached out to India’s next problematic neighbour to further keep political analysts in India up at night. As if the 30-year long gas deal was not enough, the recent upsurge in Sino-Russian military cooperation has also not gone unnoticed in India. Russia recently overtook Saudi Arabia to become China’s largest oil supplier. By selling the advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to China, Russia is potentially creating a conflict of interest for itself. With every sale of military equipment to China, Russian military hardware becomes less appealing in the Indian market; this is particularly true for the aerospace sector, where a major portion of the Indian Air Force fleet is made up of Russian imports. While most of the weapons China purchased from Russia – Amur submarines and C-400 air defence systems – will seemingly be used in the East and South China Seas, there’s a growing apprehension. What if the deployments are changed in a way that’s detrimental to India’s security? What if China chooses to transfer this military technology to a rival country? The implication is clearly Pakistan. This is all the more alarming because of the recently signed nuclear deal between China and Pakistan.

Some argue that the configuration of equipments supplied to India surpasses that which is supplied to China, but that claim is hard to conclusively verify given that the Chinese configuration does not go through technical evaluations or trials in India. The fact remains, New Delhi could be tempted to pursue military hardware from alternative sources, preferably from a manufacturer that could guarantee a competitive edge over Chinese imports.1

Often, the US subtly describes Russia as a ‘bully’ in international politics, drawing from Russia’s settling its own internal disputes to those of its neighbours, like Georgia, and those far away. Still, that has not stopped the Modi administration from describing Moscow as its closest ally. Even in the case of India, some political observers believe that Russia is shrewdly ‘arm twisting’ India to stop diversifying its sources of weapon procurement by indulging with India’s troublesome neighbours, though it still accounts for 50 percent of weapons exports. Currently, India is in the final stage of talks with Russia to build a nuclear attack submarine to boost its depleting underwater fleet. During the Modi-Putin summit in New Delhi in July, India signed up for 12 Russian nuclear reactors to be built over the next 20 years, and concluded a 10-year contract for Russian crude oil supplies. India also agreed to a deal under which it will purchase and assemble in India hundreds of Russian helicopters.

India is also worried that the recent bonhomie between Russia and Pakistan may cause the former to change its stance on the Kashmir issue, on which it has always voted in favour of New Delhi at the UN Security Council. However, these fears may be baseless as Moscow will not take the imprudent step of choosing Pakistan over India, the world’s fourth largest energy consumer and a potential customer of Russian gas supplies.

Through all this political confusion, India cannot ignore the US, the world’s superpower. By comparison, US-India relations have been on a roller-coaster ride over the past decade, particularly after the high-profile re-launch of ties under President Bush that included the lifting of a three-decade moratorium on civilian nuclear deal with India.

Modi created a media flurry when the chief guest of 2015 India’s Republic Day was announced to be none other than POTUS Barack Obama himself. This came as a big surprise to several observers since the same country had denied visa to Modi. However, Modi was quick to sign several defence deals with Russia as well. It goes to show that while an emergent India may be making and strengthening ties with several new friends, it does not forget the old ones. Further, it also reflects that new friends cannot expect exclusive friendship. India has been wise enough to make ample allies and pursue multifaceted relationships with them – including its BRICS allies – with a professed aim of ending the dominance of a handful of players in the international scene.


The bilateral relationship between the US and Russia has always been an exciting one. In times of peace, their navies and militaries have conducted joint exercises and training sessions. As Russia teams up with China and other nations to probably curb US influence, India must pursue the diplomatic tightrope with both countries with caution as upsetting one will potentially lead to unnecessary consequences for India. Should it continue to follow its Cold War policy of non-alignment, things will be relatively easier for India as it also has a hostile neighbour to watch out for. Should India not ruffle any feather in either camp, things will go smoothly for itself and its bilateral partners.

Go to Content Page


Chaarvi Modi

Chaarvi Modi is a freelance writer and a final year undergraduate student at the School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gandhinagar.

  • +


    1. Singh, Jayant; “Russia and India: A 21st Century Decline”;

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.