An extraordinary thing about superpower relations in the Cold War era was that when it suited the mutual interests of the United States and the Soviet Union, they just went ahead and cooperated.
They couldn't care less whether bystanders and onlookers who depended on the strategic space provided by superpower rivalry, might suffer collateral damage.
An area where both Washington and Moscow traditionally showed great alacrity to cooperate was in ensuring that the exclusivity of the nuclear club, out of which flowed in large measures their superpower stardom, was never significantly dented.
The Cold War era has gone. Some in Delhi would even say we are seeing the end of history. But, old habits seem to die hard in the capitals of the two superpowers.
Buried in the heap of the 'lobster summit' between US President George W Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which took place last weekend in the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, is a document that harks back to the traditional spirit of Russian-American cooperation in the field of nuclear non-proliferation.
Amidst the current deepening chill in the US-Russian relations, the two countries have just signed an '1-2-3' agreement that opens up huge vistas of cooperation between the two countries in the field of civilian nuclear energy.
Bush and Putin also issued a joint declaration spelling out the parameters of their future cooperation. Senior diplomats from the two sides have since fleshed out in a joint briefing in Washington, DC, the significance of this major development in the sphere of nuclear energy and nuclear non-proliferation.
Commenting on the development, highly respected authority on Russia, former US ambassador James Collins said, 'We now have opened the opportunity for our whole civilian nuclear communities in both countries to work together it looks like we are really taking a major step ahead in the area of civilian nuclear cooperation.'
Collins added, 'And, here is the context: there is going to come a large expansion of nuclear power generation, globally. If we don't have a new international framework for that, we're all going to have problems with proliferation, how do we manage the spent nuclear fuel, etc.'
In essence, Washington and Moscow have entered into an unprecedented format of cooperation whereby they will supply nuclear power reactors; will ensure 'reliable access to nuclear fuel and fuel services for the lifetime of reactors'; and even arrange the necessary funding packages for any country that may view nuclear power as a means of economic development.
Of course, the spent fuel will have to be sent back to certain designated 'international nuclear fuel cycle centres', which will be the sole authority for the management of all spent fuel and for providing 'nuclear fuel cycle services', under strict IAEA safeguards.
According to Ambassador Robert Joseph, US special envoy for nuclear non-proliferation, this format of US-Russia cooperation targets the anticipated business in nuclear energy production 'not just in countries like India and China but a wide range potentially of other countries' (emphasis added).
He openly admitted that the main thrust of the format lies in stopping the spread of sensitive fuel cycle technologies, assisting the management of spent fuel, and to make it possible for countries to 'acquire power reactors without the need to pursue indigenous enrichment and reprocessing'.
At a joint briefing with Ambassador Joseph, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak explained, 'The idea behind this declaration of the two presidents was to give a good answer to those who criticise the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the non-proliferation regime, for something allegedly discriminatory And Russia and the United States have decided to put their heads together.'
Jospeh concurred, saying, this as an instance of the 'ability of the US and Russia to work together when their interests intersect.'
And, what are those "interests"?
Plainly speaking, the US and Russia are ganging up to form a cartel, which would monopolise the supply of nuclear power plants and fuel and the reprocessing of spent fuel.
Washington is also making a concession to Russia in so far as unlike in the US, Russian law allows the dirty job of reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from foreign countries to be undertaken by Russia on a commercial basis.
Evidently, considering the accelerating worldwide growth prospects for nuclear energy, Russia is anticipating big business opportunities in undertaking the management of spent fuel.
Putin, in fact, has ordered a US$ 60 billion programme for revamping his own nuclear industry. In immediate terms, Russia is anticipating that Washington would allow the spent fuel from Taiwan and South Korea to be reprocessed in Russia.
Where does all this leave India?
Clearly, India finds itself in an awkward spot. The ground has again shifted beneath its feet in the negotiations over the nuclear deal with the US.
It is unclear if the United Progressive Alliance government has been taken by surprise. The spin-doctors in Delhi must be scurrying for cover. It is pretty much impossible anymore to obfuscate the plain truth that as far as Washington is concerned, the Indo-US nuclear deal is about nuclear non-proliferation.
Whatever ground the UPA government's negotiators held until last week in seeking the rights to reprocess spent fuel and in gaining access to the reprocessing technology, has completely eroded.
As the Americans would say, it is a 'new ball game' now. The goal posts are being shifted. The official team hurrying to Washington for talks on July 16 has its hands full.
The Indian negotiators are now running against time. They may put a brave face on it. They may claim they are 'proactive; they are 'creative'.
But, the heart of the matter is that the Indo-US nuclear deal, unless it is closed now right now and on American terms, will soon need to be harmonised with the new Russian-American format and the international regime emanating out of it.
Conversely, it becomes extremely difficult for Washington to make any India-specific dispensation. Any such dispensation would seriously affect the credibility of the emergent international regime.
Besides, the Bush administration is getting weaker by the day in influencing an increasingly assertive and recalcitrant Congress as the fate of the immigration bill shows.
Ambassador Joseph held out a warning: 'I would emphasise that this is not about the rights of countries under the NPT. This is not about changing or taking away rights. This is about encouraging sovereign states to make sovereign choices based on their own interests, financial as well as non-proliferation interests.'
The message is loud and clear: 'Take it, or leave it'. The multi-billion dollar business of nuclear energy is poised to become a single-window operation conducted within a wholesome architecture devoted primarily to nuclear non-proliferation.
The writer is a former ambassador