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The bear’s lost its claws

india Updated: Aug 11, 2013 22:03 IST

Hindustan Times
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Talk of a Cold War redux was inevitable once US President Barack Obama cancelled his bilateral summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

However, the power gap between Washington and Moscow is so enormous that there can be no genuine rivalry between the two. The US economy is seven times larger than that of Russia. The latter is now in the same GDP league as Italy, Canada and India.

This lopsided relationship is at the heart of their continuous friction. Russia sees itself as the legatee of the USSR and hankers to be treated as a superpower — something it no longer is. But the US is unwilling to treat it as anything other than a tier-two power, and one with a relatively dim future.

This is only aggravated by the fact the two have seen their strategic interests diverge. Over the past decade, the two have disagreed on almost all major international issues whether it is on how to respond to the Arab Spring or Iran’s nuclear programme or Afghanistan issue.

Even when there was agreement, it was often testy and short-lived. Mr Putin’s decision to provide asylum to the US intelligence whistleblower, Edward Snowden, was only the last straw for Washington. Mr Obama’s decision to cancel the summit is a testimony to the US’s sense that a declining Russia was irrelevant.

During the Cold War, when their rivalry was far more intense, the US held summitry as too important to be sacrificed. A long-term falling out will complicate matters for the rest of the world. Russia is still important to help resolve issues like the Syrian civil war.

Squabbling with the US also distracts Moscow from its own domestic problems. Two of the pillars of Russia’s economy — the European market and natural gas exports — are set for a decade of decline. It has one of the worst demographic profiles for a major country.

The international system tends to work best when the great powers see eye to eye on the big picture. The present world structure was always going to be a challenge because it had one superpower, a superpower candidate in China, and a plethora of mid-sized powers of differing capabilities.

The US-Russia falling out is a warning that keeping this shifting constellation of powers is proving difficult — and that more global instability will inevitably follow.