30 years after Soviet collapse, breaking up is still hard to do

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
A crowd celebrates with the Russian flag in Moscow’s Red Square in August 1991.
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As Russia tries to redefine its place on the world stage, the Kremlin is having to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer at the center of the Soviet Union, and that it has to deal with that empire’s former republics in a new and sustainable way. That effort, it is now clear, will largely depend on whether Moscow can settle on a new approach to those once-Soviet republics now that they are independent neighbors.

A primary goal of President Vladimir Putin has been to keep nations such as Ukraine and Georgia from joining the European Union and NATO. Moscow used military force in those countries to prevent such an outcome and maintain its influence, but that undermined Mr. Putin’s hopes of being treated as an acceptable and equal partner in the West.

Today, the Russian authorities are more measured, less inclined to involve themselves in the crises that break out in what they call their “near abroad.” Is Russia really changing? “Perhaps Russia understands its limitations better,” says one analyst, Andrei Kortunov. “You can argue that Russian leaders have gained some wisdom.”

Why We Wrote This

The once mighty and unified Soviet colossus has turned into a fractious former empire that poses a litany of woes for Moscow. It breeds internal challenges and external pressures that help shape the Kremlin’s actions toward the rest of the world.

Most people under 40 have seen newsreel footage, but have no personal memory of that cold December evening in 1991 when, in an act of symbolic finality, the red Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag was pulled down from Moscow’s Kremlin, and the white-blue-red Russian tricolor fluttered up to take its place. The sudden collapse of the USSR, a giant ideologically driven empire that straddled half the world for 70 years, was a seismic event that everyone learns about in school, but now seems far in the past.

Politicians and policymakers in Moscow perceive it differently. For them the Soviet collapse feels like only yesterday, and the post-imperial strains it caused remain the stuff of daily headlines. The USSR was a huge, multinational monolith that controlled a vast array of satellites and client states, and spread its geopolitical influence and ideological challenge into every corner of the world. Moscow’s planners today must contend with a post-Soviet neighborhood in which all of the USSR’s former Eastern European allies and even three of the 15 former Soviet republics have already joined the European Union and NATO, while others are threatening to do the same. Of the remaining 12 ex-Soviet republics, many have shucked off Russian influence and are gravitating into the orbit of outside powers that were once thoroughly excluded from the entire region.

Shepard Sherbell/Corbis SABA/Corbis/Getty Images/File
Fireworks streak the sky in Moscow’s Red Square on New Year’s Eve in 1991, just a few days after the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the new Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States.

In the west, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova are strongly attracted to Europe, with its very different economic model and values system, and all have experienced internal eruptions aimed at curbing Russian influence. On the southern flank, Azerbaijan recently leveraged Turkish assistance to wage a successful war against Russian-allied Armenia, with the result that Turkish influence is now thoroughly ensconced in the former Soviet Caucasus region. And in former Soviet Central Asia, China competes openly with Russia for trading preferences, access to resources, and political clout.

Why We Wrote This

The once mighty and unified Soviet colossus has turned into a fractious former empire that poses a litany of woes for Moscow. It breeds internal challenges and external pressures that help shape the Kremlin’s actions toward the rest of the world.

The once solid, mighty, and unified Soviet colossus has turned into a fragmented and fractious sea of woes for the Kremlin, and one that only seems likely to breed more internal challenges and external intrusions in the future. That is surely what Russian President Vladimir Putin meant when he once described the Soviet Union’s demise as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

This portrait of a beleaguered Russia, which regards itself as being perpetually on the defensive, might baffle some in the West, where President Putin’s new Russia is seen as a growing threat, and one of the two main global adversaries facing the United States. From a Western viewpoint, Mr. Putin’s Russia is resurgent, angry over its loss of the USSR’s superpower status and impatient to reassert its power around the world. Western media regularly feature headlines of alleged Russian aggression, such as interfering in U.S. elections, hacking and spreading disinformation, sowing discord between NATO allies, and launching very real military incursions in places like Ukraine and Syria. 

Aziz Karimov/Reuters
Azerbaijanis celebrate a cease-fire late last year in their conflict with ethnic Armenians over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh – a feud that underscored some of the enduring tensions in an area once controlled by the former Soviet Union.

But these two views are not incompatible. As it struggles to accept the continuing disintegration of its former Eurasian empire and seeks to prevent ex-Soviet republics from defecting entirely from its perceived sphere of influence, Russia is also trying to redefine its place on the world stage. It is no longer the Soviet Union, yet it still wishes to be a global power to be respected and reckoned with. On both counts, Mr. Putin’s Russia is very much a work in progress. How it comes to terms with the conflicting aspirations of its immediate neighbors, which are all struggling to establish their post-Soviet identities, will determine whether Russia can find a new, less conflict-ridden place among the world’s big powers.

“We are still in the post-imperial stage, where Russians have not quite gotten used to the changes ushered in by the Soviet collapse, nor quite accepted that it is no longer the USSR,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign-policy journal. “After all, Russia has never lived within these borders before in its history.” 

The former Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were both vast, multinational empires that defined themselves by ideological principles, not ethnic or national ones. Russia, stripped of empire and basically reduced to its 17th-century borders, is a newly minted nation-state – much bigger but otherwise a lot like its fellow ex-Soviet republics – that has yet to find a clear post-imperial identity.

Other newly independent states like Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan could reinvent themselves in terms of their own local ethnic and historical traditions. They could also galvanize public solidarity by pushing against Moscow’s continued domination and reach out to external powers in Europe and Asia for support. But none of these options was available to Russia. It was no longer the center of a great empire, yet it was still an immense nation that sprawled across two continents, possessed the world’s second-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons, and claimed to be the successor state of the Soviet Union.

David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters/File
Performers dance during a folk festival in the ancient settlement of Shatili in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

“Russia was no longer the core of the former Soviet Union, but it was still a big multinational and multiconfessional state,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “You have to accept that Kaliningrad, a former German territory on the Baltic Sea, and the republics of the North Caucasus – which are mostly Muslim and non-Slavic – are part of Russia today, while Ukraine and Belarus, which are overwhelmingly Slavic and Orthodox Christian, are not part of Russia. All that takes some getting used to.”

Conservative pragmatism

When the soviet union collapsed nearly three decades ago, the news reverberated around the world. But it was mostly greeted with apathy in the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities. The end was not brought on by war or popular revolution, but by a secret deal signed by the Communist-era leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, which declared the USSR dead and replaced by an unfamiliar new entity, the Commonwealth of Independent States. Most of those states, in the Caucasus and Central Asia especially, were not party to the arrangement and woke up the next day to discover that they were now independent nations.

“I do not regret for a moment signing that accord,” says Stanislav Shushkevich, the Belarusian leader who took part in the secret meeting and went on to become the first president of independent Belarus. “It enabled the USSR to disintegrate peacefully, without bloodshed.”

Though the Soviet Union was legally dissolved, the realities of life under it persisted. As the example of Belarus shows, most post-Soviet countries were deeply entwined by decades, in some cases centuries, of being part of the same empire. Russian remained the language of communication between the new states, and in many cases still is. Their economies had been systematically integrated by central planners in Moscow, and they are far from disentangled to this day. The free flow of people within the former Soviet Union left big diasporas of Russians in many former Soviet republics, while millions of people from those new states woke up to find themselves living in independent Russia.  

People protest the Belarusian presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, on Oct. 26, 2020, another example of turmoil in a part of the former Soviet empire.

“It was one thing for countries to declare themselves independent, quite another for those countries and their peoples to attain the attributes of genuine independence,” says Sergei Markedonov, an expert with MGIMO University in Moscow. “The process of unraveling the Soviet Union was much more complicated, very messy, and is still going on.”

Belarus elected a new president in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko, who stressed nostalgic Soviet-style political and economic policies. In practice, he depended heavily on Russian subsidies like cheap oil and gas to keep his regime afloat. Political leaders in Moscow, anxious to maintain influence in the former Soviet Union – what they termed the “near abroad” – gladly extended those subsidies. Thanks to those arrangements, and with the help of repeated rigged elections, Mr. Lukashenko is still in power, 26 years later. Huge numbers of Belarusians protesting in the streets in recent months are aiming to break those links to Russia and accelerate Belarus’ trajectory to full independence, but have so far failed.

Mr. Shushkevich, bitter and angry, says that the pull of Soviet-style economic and political dependency continues to thwart the aspirations of people throughout the region. “The empire was liquidated, yet it lives on,” he says. “Some leaders, like Putin and Lukashenko, are actively trying to restore it.”

Seen from Moscow, the protests in Belarus – and previous popular revolts in Georgia and Ukraine – were foreign-inspired efforts to dismember Russia’s former Soviet sphere of influence and isolate Russia. The greatest fear in Moscow is that these former Soviet republics will break ties with Russia and join the European Union and NATO, as the three former Soviet Baltic states did, thus isolating Russia completely from its own backyard.

Since Mr. Putin ascended to the Kremlin and began reversing Russia’s own post-Soviet decline, he has made halting the advance of outside powers into the former Soviet region a top priority. In 2008, a Russian army invaded Georgia to prevent pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili from staging a military reconquest of the breakaway Georgian territory of South Ossetia, a Russian protectorate. Had Mr. Saakashvili succeeded in reuniting his fractured country, he might have gotten much closer to his stated goal of making Georgia a viable candidate to join NATO.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin, shown here speaking at a news conference by video in December 2020, once called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

Similarly in Ukraine in 2014, after a pro-Western street revolt unseated Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow intervened militarily to annex the mainly Russian-populated Crimean Peninsula, and to back anti-Kyiv rebels in the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.

“Rejoining Crimea to Russia was a turning point,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “For the first time Russia rewrote borders, and the internal contours of the Soviet Union ceased to exist. It also demonstrated to the West for the first time that the price of EU and NATO expansion into the post-Soviet area could be very high. Russia’s determined actions have made its point to the world: that its wishes cannot be ignored. Not so many in the West may like Russia, but few today will deny that it plays an important role.”

Russia acted forcefully to prevent what it feared would be a precipitous leap by its most important post-Soviet neighbor, Ukraine, into the Western camp. As with Georgia, those actions likely succeeded in that immediate goal. Almost nobody is talking any longer about Ukraine or Georgia joining NATO, much less the EU. But it also came at a heavy long-term cost. Ukrainians, most of whom speak Russian and feel historically close to Russia, have been alienated by Moscow’s treatment of them, and the damage may be difficult to repair.

“It simply has to be understood that no matter who might be leader of Russia, the enlargement of a hostile military bloc into our region will be viewed as a serious challenge,” says Mr. Markedonov. 

But unlike the former USSR, Russia is not hidebound or completely inflexible. Most experts argue that it’s capable of learning from mistakes and reaching compromises. 

“Russia’s approach might be described as conservative pragmatism,” Mr. Markedonov says. “Its behavior isn’t ruled by an ideology, but it is allergic to revolutions – especially in its own neighborhood – or attempts to break the status quo,” and could therefore be open to evolutionary changes.

Foil of convenience?

It’s hard to imagine that Russia’s Cold War-like standoff with the West will be resolved anytime soon. Mr. Putin may have achieved his goal of making Russia more respected and even feared in the world, but he is further from finding a sustainable post-Soviet place for Russia in the global order, in which it would be treated as an acceptable and equal partner, than he was when he began talking about that goal 20 years ago.

Dieter Endlicher/AP/File
Students sit on a toppled statue of Josef Stalin in a park in Moscow in September 1991, the year the Soviet Union was dissolved.

“For many in the U.S., Russia seems to be the foil of convenience,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “The U.S. needs an enemy. That’s how the system works. We’re competing with China for this dubious role, but it looks like we are the preferred enemy. The relationship with China is complicated, with many economic and other complexities, while it looks much easier to sanction, isolate, and blame Russia. So, there is no reason to expect any improvements, even if a new U.S. administration is coming in.”

But there may be room for Moscow to improve relations with countries in the post-Soviet neighborhood. Russia and Georgia went through a period of strained relations following their 2008 war, punctuated by trade bans and harsh diplomatic rhetoric. But tensions have since eased, trade is on the upswing, and Georgia has once again become a major destination for sunshine-starved Russian tourists.

A recent spate of political crises around the post-Soviet region has produced a much calmer and more measured response from Moscow than previous ones did. When Belarusians took to the streets last summer to protest yet another rigged election, rumors of Russian intervention to prop up the beleaguered Belarusian leader, Mr. Lukashenko, were rife. But Russian security forces remained in their barracks, and the Moscow media gave sympathetic coverage to the pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, while the Kremlin continues to pressure Mr. Lukashenko to move ahead with promised constitutional reforms that might yet ease him out of power.

Moscow appears to have been completely indifferent to a recent disorderly change of power in Kyrgyzstan. Nor did it have much to say when November elections in Moldova removed a pro-Russian president and replaced him with a pro-Western one. Most impressively, Russia refrained from extending any assistance to its nominal ally, Armenia, when neighboring Azerbaijan launched an autumn war to recover Azeri territories that had been occupied by Armenia for almost 30 years. Russia subsequently intervened to impose a cease-fire along diplomatic lines that have been advocated by the world community for years, and inserted Russian peacekeeping forces to enforce the settlement.

Russian peacekeepers patrol next to an Armenian monastery. It’s located in a territory being turned over to Azerbaijan under a peace deal in the conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Even in Armenia, polls show that attitudes toward Russia remain positive. “Of course the USSR is in the past and, though older people are nostalgic, there’s no going back,” says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the independent Caucasus Institute in Yerevan. “If Russia acts in pragmatic ways, and uses mainly soft power methods, better relations may well develop.”

Fixing the shattered relationship with Ukraine is, perhaps, Moscow’s toughest challenge. Yet despite nearly seven years of war and mutual sanctions, Russia remains one of Ukraine’s leading trade partners, and whatever they may think of each other’s governments, polls show that Ukrainians and Russians overwhelmingly still like and respect one another.

“In order to improve relations, Russia should become a more normal state and drop its imperial-like arrogance toward Ukraine. But there’s something more,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kyiv. “Russia has a chance to become a good example, a model of stability, a normal friend to Ukraine. It’s impossible to return to the past, but in this chaotic world, with the influence of the West fading, it’s possible to at least imagine a new level of mutual respect and cooperation emerging. A lot of that is up to Russia.”

Experts are divided about the significance of Russia’s new stance of tolerance toward political crises in its immediate neighborhood, even when they have anti-Moscow overtones. Is it because of Russia’s own internal problems, including the coronavirus pandemic and Mr. Putin’s recent, much-discussed relative disengagement from his duties? Or has the Kremlin relaxed because the West, preoccupied with its own problems and reeling under the erratic four-year leadership of Donald Trump, has retreated from involvements in the post-Soviet region? Or is Russia really changing?

“The case can be made that there is a learning curve in Moscow. Not a particularly steep one, but we can discern changes,” says Mr. Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council. “Today’s Russia knows the USSR is gone and cannot be put back together. Lately, it seems much more willing to let events in its own region take their course. Perhaps Russia understands its limitations better, after three decades of post-Soviet experience, and you can argue that Russian leaders have gained some wisdom, a realization that political changes in these countries should not be overrated.

“I mean, it really doesn’t matter who is president of Moldova, does it?”

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