The Soviet Union Is Gone, But It’s Still Collapsing
And 5 other unlearned lessons from leading experts about modern Russia and the death of an empire.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of 15 new countries in December 1991 remade the world overnight. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation disappeared, and democracy and free-markets spread across the now defeated Soviet empire. Of course, 25 years later, events didn’t exactly unfold as initially predicted. The forces of globalization have mutated former Soviet countries in unseen ways, emboldening autocrats and entrenching corruption across the region. Meanwhile, the geopolitical animosities of the Cold War are resurgent, with relations between Moscow and Washington at their lowest point since the Soviet-era arms race. The creation of new countries, meanwhile, has given rise to nationalism and autocracies that are shaping foreign-policy decisions and altering societies in unforeseen ways.
Yet, the significance of this quarter-century of change is still not fully understood. Why did the Soviet Union really collapse and what lessons have policymakers missed? How is history repeating itself across the lands of the former superpower? In search of answers, Foreign Policy asked six experts with intimate knowledge of the region from their time in finance, academia, journalism, and policymaking. Here are the unlearned lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union is still collapsing. – Serhii Plokhy
Abandonment has consequences. – Bill Browder
Ideology should not guide foreign policy. – Dmitri Trenin
Russia can’t lead through imperialism. – Nargis Kassenova
Globalization only enriched and empowered autocrats. – Alexander Cooley
Moscow is still sacrificing innovation for state security. – Andrei Soldatov
The Soviet Union is still collapsing.
Serhii Plokhy is the professor of history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, and his latest book is The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story.
The 20th century witnessed the end of the world built and ruled by empires: from Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which fell in the final days of World War I, to the British and French empires, which disintegrated in the aftermath of World War II. This decades-long process concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the mighty successor to the Russian Empire, which was stitched back together by the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, only to fall apart 70 years later during the final stage of the Cold War.
Although many factors contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, from the bankruptcy of communist ideology to the failure of the Soviet economy, the wider context for its dissolution is often overlooked. The collapse of the Soviet Union, like the disintegration of past empires, is a process rather than an event. And the collapse of the last empire is still unfolding today. This process did not end with Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation on Christmas Day 1991, and its victims are not limited to the three people who died defending the Moscow White House in August 1991 or the thousands of casualties from the Chechen wars.
The rise of nation-states on the ruins of the Soviet Union, like the rise of successor states on the remains of every other empire, mobilized ethnicity, nationalism, and conflicting territorial claims. This process at least partly explains the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the burst of popular support for those acts of aggression in the Russian Federation. As the victim of a much more powerful neighbor’s attack, Ukraine found itself in a situation similar to that of the new states of Eastern Europe formed after World War I on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Those states struggled with the enormous tasks of nation building while trying to accommodate national minorities and defend themselves against revanchist powers claiming the loyalty of those same minorities.
Although the historical context of the collapse of empires helps us understand the developments of the last 25 years in the former Soviet space, it also serves as a warning for the future. The redrawing of post-imperial borders to reflect the importance of nationality, language, and culture has generally come about as a result of conflicts and wars, some of which went on for decades, if not centuries. The Ottoman Empire began its slow-motion collapse in 1783, a process that reached its conclusion at the end of World War I. The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine is not the only reminder that the process of Soviet disintegration is still incomplete. Other such reminders are the frozen or semi-frozen conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the semi-independent state of Chechnya.
A lesson that today’s policymakers can learn from the history of imperial collapse is that the role of the international community is paramount in sorting out relations between former rulers and subjects. Few stable states have emerged from the ruins of bygone empires without strong international support, whether it is the French role in securing American independence, Russian and British involvement in the struggle for Greek statehood, or the U.S. role in supporting the aspirations of former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. The role of outsiders has been and will remain the key to any post-imperial settlement. Looking at the current situation, it’s difficult to overstate the role the United States and its NATO allies can play in solving the conflict in Ukraine and other parts of the volatile post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union, which carried the legacy of the last European empire, is still far from over. RETURN TO LIST.
Abandonment has consequences.
Bill Browder is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and the head of the Global Campaign for Justice for Sergei Magnitsky.
When the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief as the threat of nuclear annihilation was all but eliminated. Russia transitioned into a democracy, and the West could refocus its efforts on peace and prosperity. In the process, however, the pendulum swung from intense anxiety toward Moscow to inattention and neglect.
Unfortunately, while the West was ignoring Russia, it was quietly mutating into something far more dangerous than the Soviet Union.
With no real laws or institutions, 22 Russian oligarchs stole 40 percent of the country’s wealth from the state. The other 150 million Russians were left in destitution and poverty, and the average life expectancy for men dropped from 65 to 57 years. Professors had to earn a living as taxi drivers; nurses became prostitutes. The entire fabric of Russian society broke down.
Meanwhile, the West wasn’t just ignoring the looting of Russia; it was actively facilitating it. Western banks accepted pilfered funds from Russian clients, and Western real estate agencies welcomed oligarchs to buy their most coveted properties in St-Tropez, Miami, and London.
The injustice of it all was infuriating for average Russians, and they longed for a strongman to restore order. In 1999, they found one: Vladimir Putin. Rather than restoring order, however, Putin replaced the 22 oligarchs with himself alone at the top. From my own research, I estimate that in his 18 years in power he has stolen $200 billion from the Russian people.
Putin did allow a fraction of Russia’s oil wealth to seep into the population — just enough to prevent an uprising, but nowhere near enough to reverse the horrible injustice of the situation. But that didn’t last long either. As the oil boom waned, the suffering of ordinary Russians resumed, and people took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 to protest his rule. Putin’s method of dealing with an angry population comes from the standard dictator playbook: If your people are mad at you, start wars. This was the real reason behind his invasion of Ukraine, and it worked amazingly well: Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed from 65 percent to 89 percent in a few months.
In response to the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 innocent people, the West had no choice but to respond with a range of sanctions against Russia. These sanctions, combined with the collapse of oil prices, led to more economic hardship, which made the Russian people even angrier. So Putin started another war, this time in Syria.
The problem the world now faces is that Putin has effectively backed himself into a corner. Unlike any normal world leader, he cannot gracefully retire — he would lose his money, face imprisonment, or even be killed by his enemies. Therefore, what started out as a profit-maximizing endeavor for Putin has transformed into an exercise in world domination to ensure his survival.
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the West still faces a menacing threat from the Kremlin. It is now driven by kleptocracy rather than communist ideology. But it is still the same menace, with the same nuclear weapons, and an extremely dangerous attitude.
The real tragedy is that if Western governments hadn’t tolerated Russian kleptocracy over the last quarter century, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But as long as Putin and his cronies continue to keep their money safe in Western banks, there is still leverage: Assets can be frozen, and accounts can be refused. If one lesson is to be taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is that we in the West cannot continue to keep our heads in the sand and ignore kleptocracy in Russia, because the consequences are disastrous. RETURN TO LIST.
Ideology should not guide foreign policy
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces from 1972 to 1993. His latest book is Should We Fear Russia?.
The Soviet Union saw itself as an ideological power. Moscow believed that communism offered, as the old communist slogan went, a “bright future for all humanity.” Leaders in Moscow were convinced that communism was the right recipe for any country, regardless of history, development, or culture — and 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, that misplaced logic is still shaping events around the globe.
The Soviet Union’s first major success in communism promotion came in Mongolia, where Moscow prided itself in shifting the country from feudalism to socialism by the late 1930s. After World War II, in addition to Eastern Europe and East Asia, Soviet-sponsored regimes spread across the globe, from Latin America to East Africa, with nominal success.
But then came Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow went in first to ensure that leaders in Kabul remained loyal to the Soviet Union, but once it was in, the mission changed to helping the Afghans build a state and society based on the Soviet model, like it did in Mongolia. It was in Afghanistan that the Soviet Union discovered the power of militant Islam and eventually understood that it was so much easier to invade a deeply religious country than to reshape its society. By the time Moscow sent military forces into the country, the Soviet Union had revealed its cardinal weakness: imperial overreach. Moscow was already beginning to struggle to keep in line its allies in Eastern Europe — and to support dozens of client states across the globe.
Discontent at home was grossly enhanced by the war in Afghanistan, which was both costly and unnecessary. At the same time, the Soviet economy had run out of steam by the 1980s, with infrastructure crumbling and popular rancor growing. The cost of supporting a long list of satellites and surrogates was sapping the finances of the Soviet Union. Moscow, which had always been wary of borrowing abroad, began to take more and more loans. In the final years of the Soviet Union, its foreign policy was heavily influenced by the constant need to seek more funding from abroad: The pace of domestic liberalization was increased, steps toward the German reunification were taken, and Moscow did not intervene when Eastern Europe pursued its own political course in the 1980s.
The lessons from this historical episode apply first of all to the Russian Federation, the successor to the Soviet Union. It immediately rejected any state ideology, abandoning not only the global empire but also the lands traditionally seen as Russia’s historical heartland, such as Ukraine. Twenty-five years later, as it seeks to rebuild itself as a global great power, Russia is realizing that founding an empire under a different name is not in the cards. Having entered the war in Syria, Russia has also made it clear from the start that it will not send in its ground forces, lest Syria becomes another Afghanistan.
But the lessons shouldn’t be limited to the former Soviet space. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. U.S. interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 developed into massive nation-building projects under the guise of democracy — at great human and financial cost. Any ideology, not just communist, is a poor guide for foreign policy. Foreign military misadventures result in disappointment at home and loss of prestige abroad. And a growing national debt is a ticking bomb that threatens the very stability of the state.
In the end, the Soviet Union paid the ultimate price for its imperial hubris. RETURN TO LIST.
Russia can’t lead through imperialism.
Nargis Kassenova is an associate professor and director of the Central Asian Studies Center at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research in Almaty.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, the five new countries of Central Asia —Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — were initially left on the outside looking in. The Belavezha Accords — the document signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus on Dec. 8, 1991, that marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union and created a much looser Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place — were signed with no input from the Central Asian republics. This process revealed an important truth about relations between the opposite sides of the Soviet empire: The Slavic leaders called the shots, while the Central Asians accepted the consequences.
For the westward-looking Russia of the early 1990s, Central Asia was a burdensome backwater that it did not mind shedding off. After painful efforts to a keep a single economic space and share a currency, Yeltsin’s government pushed other CIS states out of the ruble zone in 1993. This move was particularly painful for Central Asian states, which were highly dependent on Russian banks for financial transfers to stabilize their battered economies.
As Russia became less democratic and more nostalgic about Soviet glory in the late 1990s, Moscow began to show interest again in Central Asia. As the Kremlin revived talk of its “privileged interests” and “spheres of influence,” it sought new ways to establish itself as the center of economic and political activity in Eurasia. Moscow poured new resources into the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance that contains three of the five Central Asian countries. In 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic bloc of Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan — widely heralded by Vladimir Putin — came into effect to more closely bind the former Soviet countries.
Through its alliances, Moscow continues to behave as a sovereign and not as the first among equals in a union. When the West sanctioned Russia over its interference in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow responded with its own set of retaliatory sanctions against European products. This was done without consulting Belarus or Kazakhstan, the other members of the Eurasian Customs Union, the precursor to the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia also carried out missile attacks from the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria in fall 2015 without taking into account the concerns of its military ally and closest partner Kazakhstan, which was forced to reroute flights on short notice out of the region.
At the societal level in Russia, there is not much interest or love for Central Asians. Millions of labor migrants from Central Asia work in Russia, sending back money to support the families they left behind. This has grown anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in the country, and some key opposition politicians have even sought to channel it. Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire and presidential candidate during Russia’s 2012 elections, condescendingly promised that he would close the border with “Middle Asia” (the Soviet term referring to Central Asia minus Kazakhstan) and introduce a visa regime with these countries. Alexei Navalny, the charismatic activist planning to run in the 2018 presidential elections, has campaigned in the past on introducing a visa system with Central Asia and the Caucasus. With nationalism on the rise, Central Asians have increasingly become the “other” for Russians.
This trend should urge Central Asians to keep in mind the lesson of the early 1990s. Without shared identity or a shared dream for the future, it’s impossible to build a political community or have any kind of meaningful economic integration. Central Asian states and societies need to reflect on their past and present dependencies and develop identities that are separate from their Soviet history and attachment to Russia. After 25 years, it’s time for Central Asians to abandon the type of self-victimization typical of colonized people and truly embrace their countries’ independence. RETURN TO LIST.
Globalization only enriched and empowered autocrats.
Alexander Cooley is Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Claire Tow of Professor of Political Science at Barnard College in New York. His forthcoming book, co-authored with John Heathershaw, is Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia.
The five new countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a forgotten region seemingly cut off from the forces of globalization. Scholars and policymakers came to view Central Asia as isolated, disconnected, and insufficiently integrated into the global economy. The region’s governments became increasingly authoritarian, and economies were left stagnant and unreformed from their Soviet days.
The Central Asian states, however, were not exactly shielded from globalization. Rather than facilitate the transition from a communist command economy, Central Asia’s relationship with the liberal world system after the collapse of the Soviet Union suggests that globalization actually encouraged capital flight, enshrined corruption, and allowed some of the world’s most brutal dictators to cement their rule.
This legacy of offshore finance has played out across Central Asia, shortchanging the region’s economies and empowering its autocrats. The region’s elites may not have transitioned their countries to liberal political and economic systems, but they did use state institutions to personally enrich themselves — relying on anonymous shell companies and offshore bank accounts to camouflage their shady transactions. Although the West chastised these countries for pervasive corruption, it rarely paid attention to the international accountants, lawyers, and external advisors who helped to structure these illicit arrangements.
In Tajikistan, a small mountainous country north of Afghanistan, political battles have been waged over the Tajik Aluminum Company (Talco), the country’s largest exporter, whose management structure is registered in the British Virgin Islands. Accusations of millions of dollars siphoned off and embezzled overseas, allegedly by President Emomali Rahmon and his relatives, have played out in London, Swiss, and New York courtrooms. Similarly, in Turkmenistan, an investigation by the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness estimated that $2 billion to $3 billion in the country’s foreign currency reserves — accumulated from the trade of natural gas under Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov — was held by Deutsche Bank in an account that was “solely controlled” by the Turkmen president.
In oil-rich Kazakhstan, a massive bribery scandal implicated a half-dozen major Western energy companies, including ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, over lucrative energy concessions in the 1990s. The accusations alleged the companies funneled some $80 million in bribes to senior Kazakh elites via offshore bank accounts. In 2010, James Giffen, an American middleman and senior advisor to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, pled guilty to one minor violation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, after mounting a “public authority” defense under which he argued that he acted on behalf of various U.S. government entities, including the CIA, to promote American interests through these opaque deals.
Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, two presidential regimes, both of which were ousted in separate popular uprisings in 2005 and 2010, used the U.S. air base at Manas to enrich themselves and their associates. Although the base was critical to the U.S. military’s campaign in Afghanistan, billions of dollars from lucrative fuel contracts were channeled through mysterious offshore companies registered in Gibraltar. Neighboring Uzbekistan’s economy is generally considered closed, but it, too, was engulfed in an international bribery scandal. Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the country’s late president, reportedly used a variety of offshore vehicles to structure more than $1 billion in payments and kickbacks from Western telecommunications companies.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, outside observers have frequently characterized Central Asia as a reclusive part of the world. However, by overlooking how regimes strategically used offshore vehicles, bank accounts, and financial intermediaries, the West has ignored its own complicity in fostering the global networks that supported autocracies in Central Asia and around the former Soviet world. RETURN TO LIST.
Moscow is still sacrificing innovation for state security.
Andrei Soldatov is an investigative journalist and cofounder of Agentura.ru, a Russian information hub on intelligence agencies. He is the co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries.
On Dec. 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law the country’s information security doctrine. The 17-page document outlines the Kremlin’s perception of the threats posed by terrorism, foreign propaganda, and cyber-espionage, before calling for a major change — the creation of a “national system of managing the Russian segment of the internet.” The doctrine goes on to suggest that telecommunications and information technology (IT) companies should consult with the security services ahead of introducing new services and products and that the country needs to liquidate the “dependence of domestic industries on foreign information technologies.”
Although this might seem like a bold new direction for Russia, it’s actually a remnant of the past — and a sign that the Kremlin has learned nothing from its Soviet history when it comes to embracing technological change. Like the Soviet Union before it, the Russian government and its security services are aiming to restrict innovation for fear of the social and political upheavals it could bring.
That’s exactly how things were organized in the Soviet Union, where authorities traded technological development for the specter of state security. In our book The Red Web, journalist Irina Borogan and I describe how in June 1975, Yuri Andropov, then-chairman of the KGB, reported to the Central Committee about Jewish “refuseniks” making international phone calls. Andropov’s recommendation was “to suppress the use of international communication channels for transmission abroad of biased and slanderous information.” The measure was adopted and worked to limit the spread of dissent, but as a result, the Soviet Union fell far behind the West.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, accounting for this technological deficit needed a new approach, and Vladimir Bulgak, the minister of communications under former President Boris Yeltsin, was willing to break with the past. Russia desperately needed modern communications, but local industry couldn’t provide the technology. Due to Soviet-era restrictions, the Russian telecommunications industry now lagged behind the West by 20 to 25 years. “We came to think that our industry would never catch up, and that meant we had to go and buy,” Bulgak told me during an interview.
And Moscow did just that. In the span of three years, more than 70 percent of all Russian intercity phone stations were replaced by modern digital ones, made in the West, and Bulgak increased the number of international lines in the country from 2,000 analog ones to 66,000, all of them digital.
Bulgak bought equipment from abroad, bypassing old Soviet factories at enormous cost — many of them were forced to close, leaving thousands of people high and dry. But by 1995, Russia had established a modern, national communications industry. Thriving and profitable internet businesses sprang up in the early 2000s, something that would have been impossible without the lines and stations purchased by Bulgak.
The infrastructure of the Russian internet was built on Western technology, primarily Cisco, an American conglomerate, because the new national telecoms companies believed that reliability was more important than the origin of the supplier. Putin has not learned this lesson. When Western sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, Putin called for import substitution to replace foreign products with domestic ones. The new security doctrine cements this idea, saying that “the level of dependence of the domestic industry from foreign IT” is too high and that this makes Russia dependent on “foreign geopolitical interests.”
But the country’s industry simply can’t produce all the equipment that is needed, and desperate officials have since turned to China to replace Western technology. And although it’s an open question whether this new doctrine will actually make Russia any safer — it will surely limit the country’s economic potential. RETURN TO LIST.
Top photo credit: VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images