The End of the End of the Cold War
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. And 25 years later, Russia renegotiated the terms of surrender.
Twenty-five years ago this week, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Cold War ended. Moscow lost, Washington won. I’m not one for historical anniversary stories, but this one seems to me to be truly significant, though mostly in its breach.
Twenty-five years ago, the Western conception of government — democracy, free markets, human rights — seemed to be proved to be the best, most stable, most moral way to govern. And it was decided that the Western way of government, 25 years ago, would govern the new Russia, too.
As the USSR crumbled, many in the urban intelligentsia longed for a Westernization they believed would turn their country and their lives around. Just get rid of communism, they thought, and they’d start living like their American and European counterparts.
And Westernization came. The first constitution written in Russia after the 1991 collapse of the USSR was drafted in the Western mold with the help of young Harvard University wonks. The era of Soviet one-party rule gave way to a raucous parliamentary system that, at one point, had more than 100 political parties, including one for beer lovers. There was suddenly a freewheeling and adversarial press in the Western mold. Those same Harvard wonks — young men like Jeffrey Sachs — helped push the painful transformation of the Soviet command economy into a market one. Western businessmen swarmed the country to make a killing but also brought with them their new, seemingly superior ways of doing business: boards of directors, corporate governance, stocks and bonds. The dollar became the preferred, trusted currency. Western products flooded the Russian market: Coca Cola, Hollywood, cordless phones.
At the same time, Russia quickly went from being a nuclear superpower to a backwater, culturally and geopolitically. Warsaw Pact countries and former Soviet republics lined up at NATO’s door, and Russia came to be seen as the land of drunks and mail-order brides, a place to be mocked rather than feared. Its elites chafed at having gone from being one of the world’s great empires to being labeled “Upper Volta with missiles.” Or derided by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google and one of the many émigrés who made their fortunes elsewhere, as “Nigeria with snow.” Or, as one Republican Senate staffer once referred to it in conversation, “China’s gas station.” Even for Russians most critical of the Kremlin, the humiliation could be searing.
To some conservative Russian thinkers, many of whom came to influence Vladimir Putin in his third turn at the presidency, the very idea of Russia as a democracy was itself a kind of defeat. It was an imposition of a foreign system of government ill-suited to Russia’s traditions and historical insistence on greatness, unity, and the subservience of the individual to a strong, centralized state. They, and Putin, resented Westernization, especially in its geopolitical manifestations, like NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia in spite of Moscow’s protestations.
Then, in the 2000s, George W. Bush’s program of regime change and democracy promotion supported democratic uprisings in the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. This terrified Putin, who feared Washington would support something similar in Moscow. He responded by actively marginalizing his opposition, creating a militant pro-government youth movement, and castrating what was left of the independent press at home. Then came the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and, quite nearly, Bashar al-Assad — all in the name of Western democracy. And it came against the backdrop of protests under the Kremlin walls of Westernized, urban, white-collar Muscovites demanding a more transparent, accountable form of government. They stood in the winter cold of December 2011 and explicitly asked for a European-style government.
But in December 2016, 25 years after Russia lost the Cold War and the West won it, Putin definitively won its drawn-out end. He managed to successfully renegotiate the terms of Russia’s long and lurching post-Soviet transition and bring it to an end by reversing the conditions of the Soviet Union’s bloodless defeat. The bookend on the other side of 25 years of Western moral supremacy was the revelation that the CIA had concluded that Putin’s cybersoldiers had tried to throw the U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump.
It was not only about Trump, though, or even just about sowing chaos. It was an operation whose point was its existence, proof that Russia was now a strong enough power to sway the most important kind of election in the most important country in the world. And when you pull off a gamble like that, and pull it off so spectacularly that you help elect a new U.S. president who has already positioned himself as Putin’s junior partner, well, what’s left of Western moral supremacy? Which kind of government really is better?
And so, after decades of watching the West impose its political and economic model on Russia, Putin has not only stopped its roll but reversed its tide. For years, he has used Kremlin-funded outlets like RT to wage war in Europe on the very idea of a verifiable, knowable truth. He has bankrolled far-left and far-right political parties to wreak havoc on Europe’s normally staid politics. He was even been accused of “weaponizing” flows of Syrian refugees in order to destabilize the European Union. Now, Great Britain is exiting the EU after Brexit’s pied piper Nigel Farage spoke of his abiding admiration for Putin; France is getting ready to pick a pro-Russian president; and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under attack by Russian cyberarmies, hangs by a thread.
Read more from this series:
- Could Mikhail Gorbachev Have Saved the Soviet Union? If only he wasn’t betrayed by the Communist Party.
- The End of the End of the Cold War: 25 years later, Russia has renegotiated the terms of surrender.
- PHOTOS: The Last Days of the Soviet Union A look at the months leading up to the collapse of a global superpower.k.
But the real victory here is landing these armies on American shores. In 2016, Putin did just that, thoroughly Russifying the U.S. presidential election. The hacks aside (which, Putin could argue, are no different than what America has done for decades during and after the Cold War in supporting “color revolutions” and regime change), what made it a victory was the imposition of a Russian model of politics onto the West, an effective and very tangible reversal of the status quo that had been in place since 1991. An American presidential election became rife with Russianesque conspiracy theories, fake news, absurdity, and the steady, strategic flow of kompromat (compromising information). It was, in other words, a downright Russian election.
In the meantime, Putin has been reaching out to traditional U.S. allies, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and now Japan, trying to convince them that, in the new world order, there is no longer one superpower. Now there is one superpower that is reluctant to act the part and an old, hobbled one that isn’t afraid to be decisive, even at great cost to itself.
Because 25 years ago this week, the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. And 25 years later, Russia renegotiated the terms of surrender.
Photo credit: RIA Novosti/Getty Images