Breakup of the Soviet Union: Causes & Consequences

From the end of WW 2 in 1945 till its dissolution on 25th December 1991, the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world, competing with its arch-rival, the USA eyeball to eyeball on every global issue. However, it crumbled like a house of cards within 18 months after holding a first-time free and fair election. There were so many structural and managerial causes of the fall of the Soviet Union which, in turn, led to far-reaching consequences

This article is an attempt to list down various theories advanced so far for the fall of the superpower of the day along with the ripple effects it caused in global politics

Introduction

From the end of WW 2 in 1945 till its dissolution on 25th December 1991, the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world, covering 224 million square km, nearly one-sixth of Earth’s land surface. Its population numbered more than 290 million consisting of 100 distinct nationalities. With an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and a huge sphere of influence, it used to compete with its arch-rival, the USA eyeball to eyeball on every global issue. However, no one could guess that behind the formidable façade of a superpower, lay a divided house that would crumble like a house of cards within 18 months after holding a first-time free and fair election.

How did it happen?

In May 1990 the reform-minded Gorbachev held elections on a multi-party system and created a presidency for the Soviet Union. This democratization process in an authoritarian state was the trigger that by loosening the Communist control, accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. There ensued an epic battle between the pluralists like Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin on the one side and the hard-line Communist elite on the other. This one-year-long tussle shook the foundations of the Soviet Union. An unsuccessful August 1991 coup by the old guards against Gorbachev not only diminished his authority but also sealed the fate of the Soviet Union.

Shortly afterward, President Gorbachev resigned as head of the Communist party and handed it over to Boris Yeltsin who immediately dissolved the Central Committee and banned party activities. With a power struggle raging at the center, Ukraine and Belarus declared their independence from the Soviet Union while the Baltic States had earlier done so. Reading the writing on the wall, the Soviet leaders in early December, met in Brest to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), effectively declaring the demise of the Soviet Union. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as president of the Soviet Union, leaving Boris Yeltsin as president of the newly independent Russian state.

Causes of the Soviet Union Breakup

There is no doubt that the USA played a crucial role in the earlier-than-expected breakup of the Soviet Union. However, it would be too much to give it full credit; there were so many structural and managerial causes of the fall of the Soviet Union that it is impossible to point out one or two reasons for an event as complex and far-reaching as the dissolution of a global superpower. People are still arguing about the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. They are not going to agree quickly on why the Soviet Union collapsed. And ironically, some even argue why it took so long for the USSR to break! Here are a few theories

1. Conventional Wisdom Theory

The majority of the Russians hold Gorbachev responsible for failing to prevent the collapse by force. To them, it was his policies of Glasnost (“openness”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”) which led to the fall of the Soviet Union. He was, they maintain, trying to do much in too short a time and badly mishandled it. Similarly, they allege, that his reluctance to invoke the Brezhnev Doctrine to intervene in any Eastern Bloc nation was seen to compromise communist rule and Soviet domination, which led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

However, it is not true as the USSR was already falling apart at the seams. None could have done anything which could stop this decline. History will always remember Gorbachev for this relatively peaceful transition from the former Communist monolith into multiple separate nations.

2. Arms Race with the USA

Many scholars believe that among other factors, the arms race between the USA and the USSR in the 1980s was the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. The Soviet military budget which had been trending upward since the early 1970s accelerated dramatically during the presidency of Ronald Reagan particularly after his proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative. The Soviet Union was able to devote huge funds to its defence industry as it earned windfall gains throughout the 1970s and ’80s thanks to the skyrocketing of its major exports namely oil and gas.

However, this oil bonanza hid the major weaknesses of the economy which got exposed when it received its first major shock after oil plunged from $120 a barrel in 1980 to $24 a barrel in March 1986. The moribund Soviet economy failed to produce enough surplus which could maintain a military system at the superpower level and at the same time, give its people a good standard of living.

3. Alexis de Tocqueville Dictum

Realising the weaknesses of the economy, the old guards of the Soviet Union, in 1985, brought a young, experienced, competent Mikhail Gorbachev to run the country. He tried to introduce fundamental structural reforms in the economy, polity, and society simultaneously. He curtailed the draconian powers of the dreaded KGB, removed unnecessary press restrictions, introduced a kind of democracy, and tried to streamline the cumbersome government bureaucracy. However, he failed to assess the powers of the status quo, the enormity of the task, and most importantly, resistance by the conservative establishment. It was a classical example of Tocqueville Dictum- the fatal moment, identified by the 19th-century French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when a decaying regime tries to reform — and disintegrates.

4. Empire Theory

This is my favourite. The Soviet Union was an empire, trying to exist in an age that was not an age of empires. It had 100 distinct nationalities and nations under its fold (sack of potatoes-Churchill) all aspiring for independent nation-states of their own that it was not possible to suppress. Gorbachev’s decision to loosen the soviet yoke on the countries of Eastern Europe created an independent, democratic momentum that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Gorbachev agreed to German reunification and acquiesced when a newly reunited Germany joined NATO. Afterward, it was unstoppable; the overthrow of Communist rule throughout Eastern Europe followed. In January 1991, violence erupted in Lithuania and Latvia. Soviet tanks intervened to halt the democratic uprisings but failed. Strange the Soviet Union survived till December.

5. Imperial Overreach Theory

Paul Kennedy in his book about the reasons for the fall of the great powers maintains that the great powers start declining when they overstretch themselves. It fits perfectly in this case; the USSR had stretched itself too much but did not have the luxury of having a currency like a dollar which could give it liberty to print it with the impunity to cover the costs of this imperial burden.

6. Erosion of Instrumental Legitimacy

The Soviet state just lost its instrumental legitimacy or raison d’être i.e., the reason for being. It became irrelevant to the common citizen for its failure to help them maintain a decent standard of living. Remember those pictures of long queues of aged Russian ladies outside the bakeries to get a loaf of bread? It was this dysfunctionality of the communist system which failed the Soviet Union. It stifled the incentive to work and save because the state was responsible for everyone from the cradle to the grave. It discouraged innovation because there was no reward for individuals to excel. Consequently, the economic system failed to create enough surplus which could be ploughed into running the empire.

Gorbachev failed to modernize the Soviet system because he was unable to implement a complete overhaul in the face of resistance from entrenched vested interests. For example, when he tried to stop the production and sale of alcohol, those befitting from the system just went underground. He began leasing state-owned land to farmers and cut state spending on the military but failed miserably to achieve the efficiency gains he was hoping for. His failure to fulfill the promises that his reforms would drastically improve living conditions alienated citizens and lost even the sentimental legitimacy he had enjoyed when he was selected by the old guards to reform the system.

7. China’s Role in the downfall of the USSR

In 2006, O. A. Westad presented a novel explanation for the fall of the Soviet Union: he pointed out that the collapse of communism stemmed from the decisions of the Chinese commun1sts to abandon socialist economics and change to a form of capitalism, albeit a different one from that in the West. The Chinese had been pressurising other communist states to do the same; it was this, together with the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 onwards, that weakened and finally brought down the USSR.

8. Capacity Deficit of Leadership

One of the reasons for the longevity of the Roman Empire was its Cursus Honorum- the “course of honour”. This was a series of increasingly important public offices that a man was expected to hold, through excruciatingly fierce competition, before he became eligible to hold any high office in the Republic. There was great honour attached to each post. Consequently, only the best of the best would proceed through this course of honour. It obviated the possibility of accidental leadership, the massively destabilizing potential of someone achieving high office from out of the blue.

The Soviet Union, unlike China, lacked this Cursus Honourum. The only leader in the entire history of the USSR who had a “course of honour” comparable to that of China’s Xi, Hu, and Jiang was Mikhail Gorbachev. Those before him either came up through the military like Khrushchev or seized power by internal struggle/coup like Stalin and Brezhnev. They weren’t properly vetted by the system because no such system existed; luck catapulted them to positions for which they could not perform. Leadership capacity deficit in a dysfunctional socio-economic setup was a lethal combination

Consequences of the Fall of the Soviet Union

“Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.”

― Christopher Munro Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914

In the early 1970s, someone asked the great Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai about his opinion regarding the impact of the French Revolution. His reply? “It is too early to assess the impact of the French Revolution”. Well, the same can be said about the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union; it is too early to answer this question. It will take decades and decades to finally assess the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union. However, some of the most visible consequences are as follows

1. End of the Cold War

The most immediate result was the end of the Cold War which had marred international relations in multiple ways. Not only that the former USSR and its allies no longer seen by the West as the ‘enemy’, but the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact signed a treaty agreeing that they were ‘no longer adversaries’.

However, there was another side of the coin. The threat of a common enemy in the form of a communist block had kept an atmosphere of great bonhomie among the USA and its allies. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the veneer of close relations disappeared, replaced with differences over trade and military cooperation. For instance, during the war in Bosnia, relations between the USA and the states of western Europe became strained when the USA refused to provide troops for the UN peacekeeping forces, leaving the burden on other member states.

2. Independence Explosion

The breakup of the USSR brought into existence more than two dozen independent nation-states previously known as the republics of the Soviet Union. Once the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, leading East and West Germany to officially reunite, citizens in several Eastern European countries staged protests against their pro-Soviet governments, hastening their collapse across the former Soviet bloc. By the summer of 1990, all of them had been replaced by democratically elected governments, setting the stage for the region’s reintegration into Western economic and political spheres. It was a welcome relief for the millions of those who were living under the yoke of Russian imperialism -the East Europeans.

3. The Emergence of Unipolar World

The dissolution of the USSR left the U.S. as the only true world superpower, freeing its government from the constraints imposed by the existence of any threat from a powerful rival. However, it had an unintended consequence; it gave free hand to its erstwhile rival, the USA to implement its long-term dream of ushering in Pax Americana. Throughout the Cold War period, the balance of power between the two contenders for global hegemony ensured global peace with occasional outbreaks of wars. This was augmented with the development of nuclear weapons; neither party was interested to start a war that may result in Mutual Assured Destruction(MAD).

The Cold War had served as a deterrence; now it was one-way traffic for the USA. This allowed the U.S. government to intervene militarily and otherwise in foreign countries without fear of major retaliation. The Gulf War would have never happened in the previous bipolar set-up as the USSR would have blocked it. Similarly, there was no chance of the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the resultant Balkan wars.

4. Accelerated Globalisation

The end of the Cold War led to greater interaction among the states and the people accelerating the globalization process and completely altering the way nations communicate, negotiate, and interact with each other. Consequently, globalisation improved and expanded global commerce, brought more Foreign Direct Investment to developing countries, built infrastructure, and advanced literacy, inspired democratic movements via social networks, and created emerging middle classes all over the world. These middle classes are by tradition anti-war and pro-peace for expansion of trade, investment, and greater prosperity

Side by side with economic globalization, there is the multiplication of social networks and activities that increasingly overcome traditional political, economic, cultural, and geographical boundaries. Expansion and stretching of social activities and interdependencies are resulting in intensification and acceleration of social exchanges and activities through information technology. The world is becoming a global village with chances of warfare diminishing

5. End of History

After the fall of the USSR in 1989 fundamental changes in the objective realities necessitated a new paradigm for academia and policymakers to understand international relations. Consequently, several ideas started competing to find acceptance with the intellectuals of the world. One such idea was the End of History thesis, given by Francis Fukuyama who argued that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, communism as a practical form of political governance and economic management of society died leaving its main rival namely Western liberal democracy and market economy as the final form of global governance.

Despite all the criticism levelled against the End of History thesis, there is no denying the fact that after the fall of communism, there has not been any serious threat to the capitalistic form of economic management from any quarter. All the rival theories put forward are just different shades of capitalism and market economy, not their complete substitutes.

6. Global Geopolitical Realignment

One of the inevitable results of the fall of the Soviet Union was the geopolitical realignment of countries all over the world. The first casualty was the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) which lost its relevance as there were no more two blocks. The Soviet Union’s collapse also prompted the European Union to extend its influence into areas that Moscow once controlled; several of the newly-independent former unions of the Soviet Union joined the European Union which expanded from 12 member states to 28 members. China replaced the Soviet Union to become a major world superpower taking a keen interest in global politics and creating its sphere of influence. Similarly, the reunification of Germany enhanced its position in the EU and NATO. Lithuania and Latvia underwent dramatic transformations by quickly turning to the West, adopting Western ideals and political leanings.

7. Clash of Civilisations

After the publication of the End of History thesis by Francis Fukuyama, there was a great commotion in the intellectual world all over the world. Consequently, his thesis was challenged by several intellectuals of the day. One of them was his teacher Mr. Samuel P. Huntington. Contrary to Fukuyama’s image of the post-Cold War world as a place marked by “perpetual peace” among liberal democracies, Huntington anticipated a world characterized by the clash of civilizations in which the principal conflicts of global politics will be cultural and “they will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.” He asserted that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict.

Although this thesis was intellectually flawed yet it had a profound impact on shaping the perceptions of the public as well as the policymakers all over the world with disastrous results in several cases. People started to use this thesis to explain and even justify several conflicts as a fight between adherents of religious beliefs; during the Cold War days, these would have been interpreted as a fight between capitalism and communism. We can explain the rising cases of Islamophobia as one of the offshoots of this thesis

8. Rise of Global Terrorism

Probably the most devastating unintended but inevitable result of the fall of the Soviet Union was the rise of global terrorism. To avenge their humiliating defeat in Vietnam, the CIA was tasked to destabilise Afghanistan so that the USSR could be forced to intervene for saving its soft belly. For this purpose, the CIA created militant groups consisting of Afghan and non-Afghan Muslims to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Once objectives were achieved, the CIA abandoned these radicalised Muslims who took arms against oppressive, un-Islamic governments of the Middle East and their sponsors for implementing true Islam.

One such resistance group was Al-Qaida led by Osama Bin Laden who started a global Jihad against the West after the deployment of American/NATO forces in the Middle East during the First 1990 Gulf War. They refocused their hatred upon the ‘decadent’ West, rather than the Soviets who they had originally fought against during the Cold War days.

9. New conflicts, Crises, and Wars

During the Cold War, the USSR and the USA had kept tight control, by force if necessary, over areas where their vital interests might be affected. Now, a conflict that did not directly affect the interests of East or West would probably be left to find its solution, bloody or otherwise. Nationalism, which had been suppressed by communism, soon re-emerged in some of the former states of the USSR and elsewhere. While Azerbaijan and Armenia (two former republics of the USSR) fought with each other over disputed territory, there was fighting in Georgia (another former Soviet republic) where the people of the north wanted to form a separate state.

Most tragic of all was Yugoslavia, which broke up into five separate states — Serbia (with Montenegro), Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. Soon a complex civil war broke out in which Serbia tried to grab as much territory as possible from Croatia. In Bosnia, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims fought each other in an attempt to set up states of their own. This increasingly bitter struggle dragged on for almost four years until a ceasefire was arranged in November 1995.

Another fear, now that the Russians and the USA were less willing to act as ‘policemen’, was that countries with what the powers considered to be unstable or irresponsible governments might use nuclear weapons. One of the needs of the 1990s, therefore, was better international supervision and control of nuclear weapons, and also of biological and chemical weapons.

10. The reunification of Germany created some problems

The reunification of Germany reignited the historical fears of the hegemonic designs of Germany. The Poles were very suspicious of a united and powerful Germany, fearing that it might try to take back the former German territory east of the rivers Oder and Neisse, given to Poland after the Second World War. Similarly, France and the United Kingdom got apprehensive about the leadership role of Germany in the European Union and made sure that Germany would not be allowed to expand its armed forces.

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Shahid Hussain Raja

Shahid Hussain Raja

Retired Federal Secretary, Government of Pakistan/Author/Independent Consultant- Public Policy & Governance Reforms