Tensions escalated between Moscow and Washington after President Biden called Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, “a killer” with Putin wishing him good health. Russia decided to recall its Ambassador from the USA for consultations, a sign of diplomatic protest. Putin offered public talks to the US President “without any delay” immediately by “video-link and broadcast live,” which were turned down by the USA.
Bilateral relations have nosedived after Washington made allegations of repeat Russian interference in the US Presidential elections in 2016 and 2020 and hacking of websites of important US departments including those dealing with energy and nuclear security by Russia. Biden has threatened to impose newer sanctions after the Russian involvement is proved.
USA’s relationship with Russia today is the worst since 1985. How the relations have reached this nadir? Russia believes that even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was entitled as a Great Power, to a “sphere of influence” and the USA humiliated her by extending the reach of NATO and the European Union (EU) to the former Soviet states (e.g. Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, and others).
USA has refused to accept this premise and insists on the right of erstwhile Soviet states to choose their own future. Relations between the two countries began to sour after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 convinced that the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had supported the demonstrators who had protested his return to power. In 2013, Putin granted political asylum to Edward Snowden, a disgruntled contractor who had stolen millions of classified documents from the USA, ignoring President Obama’s request to return him.
After the Russian troops occupied the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 (which had been part of Ukraine since 1954), following months of popular protests against the Ukrainian President, the USA imposed sanctions on the Russian individuals close to Putin and on Russia’s ability to access the financial markets.
Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war in 2015 to support the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad created fresh problems with the USA as it was supporting groups opposed to Assad. USA’s National Security Strategy (December 2017) describes Russia( and China) as a revisionist power that wants to realign global order in its favour and the USA acting with its allies must compete to seek the momentum in its favour.
Russia today has an economy of $ 1.5 trillion (India about $ 3 trillion, China $ 15 and the USA $19 trillion). The collapse of the oil prices in 2014 hit the Russian economy hard together with the sanctions imposed by the West. The Russian economy has stalled with Putin failing to undertake structural reforms for fear of losing control; disposable incomes and consumption have fallen after an increase in inflation and VAT from 18 to 20%.
While the Russian economy is weak, its military power is considerable, almost second to that of NATO (not the USA alone).
There have been widespread protests in Russia following the arrest of an opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who was reportedly poisoned by Putin’s agents for exposing corruption under his rule. Sanctions applied by the West have failed to alter Russia’s behaviour including in Ukraine. To increase its global influence, Putin has invested in developing new lethal armaments, which are not constrained by the existing arms control agreements such as hypersonic weapons (both conventional and nuclear), space-based missile defence systems, cyberwarfare and artificial intelligence-based autonomous systems.
Russia perceives China as an important ally in its struggle for a multipolar world where countries have absolute sovereignty over their domestic affairs and are guided by the UN centred international architecture (where Rusia and China have a veto) rather than an international order based on Western values. Beyond the rhetoric of standing against the USA, there are sharp differences between Russia and China. Putin wants China to join Russia in an illiberal bloc against the USA. China has big investment and trade relations with the USA and European countries and is not interested to join any alliance against them.
Russia has been reticent about China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea and has not joined its Belt and Road Initiative preferring instead to support and link it to its own Eurasian Economic Union(EEU). Russia is also not happy about the extension of the Chinese influence in its near areas, i.e. Central Asia; there are layers of mistrust and hostility fuelled by the Russian annexation of the Chinese territory in Siberia though the two countries have signed a border agreement. Russia has not shared its 5th generation fighter aircraft and other cutting edge technologies with China.
Russia has been concerned with India’s growing close ties with the USA, particularly, in the military field. Russia does not want to lose India as a privileged partner whose 62% of weapons are of Russian origin.
Moscow thinks that the IP concept advocated by India and other countries has an anti-China orientation and will weaken its Greater Eurasian Partnership which tries to unite the EEU, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) and the ASEAN.
India has assured Russia that its IP concept has a free, open and inclusive orientation but Russia is unlikely to join the Quad as a junior partner to the USA.
Russia looks upon India’s security concerns arising from China’s aggressive actions mainly through the prism of settling its differences with the USA and its search for a multipolar world in which Beijing plays an important role. Russia has no leverage over Beijing and can’t prevent China’s leadership from launching another offensive against India.
It will become increasingly difficult for India to buy the Russian weapons in view of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of the USA. Promoting deeper ties with the USA, managing its rivalry with China and differences with Russia is likely to pose multiple challenges for the Indian diplomacy in the coming years as competition and rivalries among these three major powers, i.e. the USA, China and Russia intensify for a higher place in the emerging world order.