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The End of the Soviet Union

30 years on, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford CMG offers his insights

Is it my imagination, or is history getting…closer? It’s a scary life-moment when one’s big policy work issues appear on a daughter’s school history syllabus. Such as The End of the Soviet Union. It happened 30 YEARS AGO. Few Russians or anyone else under the age of 40 today remember much about it.

A core philosophical problem in diplomacy is choosing the appropriate category for analysis. When it comes to the drastic collapse of the sprawling Soviet Union, what standards of measurement make sense? Let’s start with a simple question. Was the end of the Soviet Union a good thing, or a bad thing?

Back in 2005 President Putin proclaimed that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. Some people including myself might argue that that greatest catastrophe was the very creation of the Soviet Union, and the ensuing communist violence needed to keep it staggering on.

Former European Council President Donald Tusk replied to Vladimir Putin in Georgia in 2019:

“I say loud and clear. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a blessing to Georgians, Poles and Ukrainians, as well as to the whole of central and eastern Europe…”

Yet in Russia today many of the worst communist villains who murdered millions of Russians are still presented as heroes, their graves in Red Square near the Lenin Mausoleum. Other nations freed from Soviet rule in 1991 strongly reject this self-humiliating nihilism.

The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, prompting tumultuous democratic changes across the European communist space. Two Moscows competed to set new rules and to command the loyalties of the Russian people. One Moscow was led by Russia’s feisty President Yeltsin. His supporters in federal Russian institutions wanted to end old-style Soviet rule, so that Russia could strike out in a strong reforming direction. The other Moscow led by Mikhail Gorbachev presided over Soviet-level and central communist institutions. They struggled to cope with multiple fast-moving popular protests across the Soviet space. If it started to unravel, where might it stop? What if all that Marxist-Leninist scientific socialism was, in fact, rubbish?

In London, the Foreign Office did not expect the Soviet Union to end. No Moscow leader would let that happen! Might not the USSR’s collapse be dangerous for world peace, the more so with Russia led by erratic populist Yeltsin?

Mid-August 1991. Things come to a head. A cabal of Soviet leaders launches a bungled coup attempt to head off a new treaty intended to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics. Confusion. Gorbachev under house arrest. Yeltsin climbs on a tank to urge Muscovites to resist. The coup collapses. Gorbachev gets back his former position, but his political authority is in free-fall. Yeltsin now calls the shots.

Within weeks Yeltsin agrees that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania can leave the Soviet Union and join the United Nations as independent states. Ukraine declares its independence. We waggish seers in the FCO’s Soviet Department have a sweepstake on how long the rump Soviet Union will last. Sure, Georgia will go. Maybe Azerbaijan and Armenia. But most of the others will somehow stay with Moscow for a few more years.

No. Off they all go. By Christmas 1991 Gorbachev’s lugubrious Cheshire Cat smile was fading away with a now vanished Soviet Union. By July 1992, all 15 former Soviet republics are independent states and full UN members. These events compelled far-reaching policy decisions.

What about the USSR’s colossal nuclear weapons arsenal?

It was an overriding policy for Western capitals to see clear command and control arrangements for the Soviet nuclear weapons situated in Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine as well as in Russia. Engaging with the leaders of those republics as full legitimate international partners to help secure the safe return of those weapons to Russian territory was by far the best option. That in practice meant accepting all the internal Soviet republic borders as the new international borders. (That same principle was rolled across to crumbling communist Yugoslavia. It led to disaster.)

What about Soviet international debt?

Communist USSR had capitalist international borrowings. Who now had to repay them? Those new states all insisted on being treated as grown-ups: should they not each assume some responsibility for those debts? But what if they had no money, and few immediate prospects for earning any?

After extended haggling Russia agreed to shoulder the whole Soviet debt burden in return for the other republics renouncing claims on former Soviet overseas assets. Not a bad deal for Russia as it turned out. By international standards the sums at stake were manageable as Russia’s post-communist economy got growing on booming energy exports. Russia paid off all those debts in 2017.

Europe: too many countries, not enough clubs?

For over four decades following World War II there were two Europes, divided by a long barbed-wire fence: plump, prosperous democratic Western Europe; and scrawny, oppressed communist Europe. Western Europe had the European Union for advancing economic and political integration, and joined the United States and Canada in NATO to protect itself against Soviet threats.

A miracle happens. The Soviet Union ends. Europe is reunited. Now is the time of times for Western capitals to be bold and to set up creative new arrangements for Europe’s economic integration and security, working closely with Moscow as a partner in radical solutions.

Or not. The practical policy dilemma was clear. It was possible to imagine some sort of reformed NATO including Russia, but next to impossible to bring Russia and all the other new states quickly into the EU’s jungle of processes and standards. However, while Russia’s leaders and people would be open to joining EU-style economic integration, it would be far harder to bring Russia’s suspicious military structures into a NATO 2.0 framework.

And what about the Council of Europe, Europe’s key institution for setting human rights standards? Was it wise to bring in the former Soviet central Asian republics whose traditions and instincts were likely to be a lot more ‘Asian’ than ‘European’? Probably not. But was it right to deny the populations of those countries the principled human rights benefits of Council of Europe membership? No.

Western capitals found it all too difficult. They opted to keep the EU and NATO much as they were, while welcoming all Soviet republics to the Council of Europe. This suited Moscow hard-line cynics. After a few messy Yeltsin years of awkward cooperation with Western capitals, Russia’s policy under Putin steered back towards jeering at ‘liberal values’ and supporting Syria’s and Zimbabwe’s wretched dictatorships to show that Moscow still asserted global foreign policy influence.

Russia tried to create a new club with the former republics, the Commonwealth of Independent States. Lots of clunky form, little useful substance: the other republics have been wary of Russia’s inevitably dominant position.

Western uncertainty about how to deal with all these new European states has left intact the old Russian imperialist idea of ‘legitimate spheres of influence’. Moscow has pushed back against the eastward spread of EU standards and values, particularly in Belarus. It has manoeuvred to keep some ‘frozen conflicts’ arising from the Soviet Union’s collapse (Transdniestria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia) from being resolved honourably. Above all, nothing threatens Moscow’s post-Soviet neo-KGB elites more than a rival Slavic role model of a successful democratic Ukraine. Moscow has illegally seized the Crimea and used military force to destabilise eastern Ukraine.

Catastrophe or Blessing?

As each year passes, each former Soviet republic in its different way gains experience and confidence in running its own affairs – and gets notably richer. Take Tajikistan. After a painful start it has been enjoying world-class economic growth rates. Energy-rich Kazakhstan has seen its GDP soar from some USD 13 billion in 1990 to nearly USD 200 billion now. Despite its acute security problems Ukraine too has been growing strongly.

Russia itself has arguably underperformed since 1990 (and incurred huge economic costs because of its interventions in Ukraine). Yet its economy has grown from some USD 500 billion in 1990 towards USD 2 trillion now. Scientific capitalism hard at work. Maybe some geostrategic catastrophes just aren’t that catastrophic?


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