Russian-American relations feel the chill

As Russia’s streets rumble with protest, Prime Minister Putin is taking a combative stance against America. Is his behaviour just a pose – or something more threatening?

Fifty three years ago, a mushroom cloud billowed into the skies above what is now Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union had successfully tested their first nuclear device, and joined the USA as a nuclear power. The resulting arms race threatened at times to engulf the world in a catastrophic nuclear war.

It is now twenty years since the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the spectre of nuclear apocalypse has dimmed. But so too has optimism about a harmonious future for Russia and the USA.

2008 saw the nations backing opposite sides of a territorial dispute in Georgia. Last year’s agreement to decrease their combined stockpile of 20,000 weapons has quietly slipped into the background. Meanwhile, the discovery of Russian spies in the USA heightened American suspicions of a focused intelligence campaign.

Last week, the relationship was hit by another icy blast. Horrified by his escalating slaughter of democracy protesters, Europe and America moved to strip Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of power. Russia used its UN veto to block the action – and launched a bitter attack on US foreign policy. The American habit of intervening in other countries, said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, fed a ‘cult of violence’ that was spreading throughout the world.

Despite regular elections, Russia has little real democracy. Opposing candidates are banned, fraud is common and state media serves up a strict diet of pro-Putin messages. For a long time, as Russia’s economy prospered, this was largely accepted; but now many are taking to the streets in protest.

This growing insecurity at home is one reason for Putin’s combative behaviour. The macho leader is admired by many Russians for being strong and assertive, and with an ‘election’ approaching he may be looking to tap into this image.

But the veto could be part of a bigger plan. Russia opposes a unipolar world in which global power rests with one country – the USA – backed by a group of strong allies. Some say it wishes to build a coalition of countries that will seek to prevent western interventions – perhaps even to become a second centre of gravity set against US dominance.

Cold peace

In Russia’s espionage and support for anti-American regimes, some say, we are seeing a creeping return to Cold War hostility. Whatever challenges await the West, it seems, Russia can be counted on to support the other side.

Relations may be far from perfect, others say, but the world is not divided into friends and foes. The West must learn to work with governments, even if it disapproves of them sometimes. Russia will never be unquestioningly loyal to the USA, but it could be a useful ally if treated with respect.

You Decide

  1. Is Russia setting itself up as an enemy to the West?
  2. Is it bad for the world to have only one great power?


  1. Research and write up a ‘fact file’ about Russia with key information such as its size and its population, as well as some interesting details.
  2. Imagine you are a newspaper reporter in 1949 who has just witnessed the successful Soviet nuclear test. Write a description of the event and what it might mean for the world.

Some People Say...

“Any enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean nuclear war is a possibility?
There is no immediate threat of Russia using its nuclear arsenal. But the fact that it exists at all guarantees Russia clout in international affairs. It is also one of the reasons why it retains a permanent place on the United Nations Security Council, the arm of the United Nations responsible for dealing with security issues – in spite of being only the world’s 11th largest economy.
What exactly are these ‘diplomatic situations’?
As well as opposing intervention in Syria, Russia has also signalled its opposition to stepping up sanctions against Iran. The United States are concerned, too, by the friendly relations Russia enjoys with countries whose rulers who are actively anti-American – for instance Hugo Chavez, the popular socialist firebrand who leads Venezuela.

Word Watch

Arms race
An arms race is when two hostile countries compete to build an army that could defeat the other in a war. Sometimes, like in the Cold War between America and Russia, there is little actual fighting; but the danger is that it could become a ‘hot war’. A naval arms race between Britain and Germany was one factor that led to the start of the First World War.
Vladimir Putin
When Putin took power, Russia was in a state of economic turmoil. Using authoritarian methods to stabilise the country and money from Russia’s oil supplies to regenerate its economy, Putin averted crisis. He cultivates his ‘tough guy’ image with public appearances in situations like scuba diving for priceless treasure, co-piloting aeroplanes and climbing mountains – often topless.
Organisations like the UN Security Council are run on the basis of consensus: every permanent member has to consent for a resolution to be passed. The right of one member to block a decision even if every other nation agrees with it is known as a ‘veto’. Russia has been responsible for almost half of the 261 vetoes in the Security Council’s history.
Unipolar world
In international relations, the world or a region of it is often described as having one or more ‘poles’. In the Cold War there were two, making the world ‘bipolar’. Since 1991 there has probably been just one – the USA – although this may be changing. Another famous example of unipolarity is the ‘Pax Romana’ in the two centuries after Christ, when Rome was unopposed as the great European power.


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