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Collapse of the Soviet Union - 1989-1991

The USSR officially ceased to exist on 31 December 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 changed the world’s geopolitical balance. When the Soviet Union fell, it ended the tenure of a superpower with the resources of more than a dozen countries. The fall left its largest component, Russia, unable to wield anything like the global clout that the Soviet Union had for decades. The concluding drama of the Cold War -- the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the end of the four-decade-old East-West conflict -- unfolded in three acts between 1989 and 1991.

Since then, debates have raged over just what brought the end of the arms race, the seemingly sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. Some have argued that Reagan’s SDI and his hard-line approach to communism turned the tide, but SDI was confined to the drawing board and Reagan moderated his approach considerably after 1983.

The Bolshevik Revolution triumphed on 07 November 1917 (October 25 old calendar), when the Bolsheviks dispersed the Provisional Government from the Winter Palace in Petrograd. On 03 March 1918, Soviet government officials signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, relinquishing Poland, the Baltic lands, Finland, and Ukraine to German control and giving up a portion of the Caucasus region to Turkey. And the monarchical cause was effectively killed when Communists shot the imperial family in July 1918.

But by the spring of 1918, elements dissatisfied with the Communists established centers of resistance in southern and Siberian Russia against the Communist-controlled area. These anti-Communist White armies enjoyed, to varying degrees, the support of the Allied Powers. Desiring to defeat Germany in any way possible, Britain, France, and the United States landed troops in Russia and provided logistical support to the Whites, whom the Allies trusted to resume Russia's struggle against Germany after overthrowing the Communist regime. After the Allies defeated Germany in November 1918, they opted to continue their intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Communists in the interests of averting world socialist revolution.

By 1919 Soviet Russia had shrunk to the size of sixteenth-century Muscovy, but the Red Army had the advantage of defending the heartland with Moscow at its center. The White armies, divided geographically and without a clearly defined cause, went down in defeat one by one. During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks had to deal with struggles for independence in regions that it had given up under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (which the regime immediately repudiated after Germany's defeat by the Allies in November 1918). By force of arms, the Communists established Soviet republics in Belorussia (January 1919), Ukraine (March 1919), Azerbaydzhan (April 1920), Armenia (November 1920), and Georgia (March 1921), but they were unable to win back the Baltic region, where the independent states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been founded shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. In December 1917, during a civil war between Finnish Reds and Whites, the Soviet government recognized the independence of Finland. Poland, reborn after World War I, fought a successful war with Soviet Russia from April 1920 to March 1921 over the location of the frontier between the two states.

During its struggle for survival, the Soviet state placed great hopes on revolution's breaking out in the industrialized countries. To coordinate the socialist movement under Soviet auspices, Lenin founded the Communist International (Comintern) in March 1919. Although no successful socialist revolutions occurred elsewhere immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Comintern provided the Communist leadership with the means through which they later controlled foreign communist parties. By the end of 1920, the Communists had clearly triumphed in the Civil War. The Allied governments, lacking support for intervention from their war-weary citizenry, withdrew most of their forces by 1920. The last foreign troops departed Siberia in 1922, leaving the Soviet state unchallenged from abroad.

The end of World War II saw the Soviet Union emerge as one of the world's two great military powers. Its battle-tested forces occupied most of postwar Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union won island holdings from Japan and further concessions from Finland (which had joined in the German invasion in 1941) in addition to the territories the Soviet Union had seized as a consequence of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. But these achievements had been bought at a high cost. An estimated 20 million Soviet soldiers and civilians perished in the war, the heaviest loss of life of any of the combatant countries.

Between November 1945 and December 1946, a number of the coalition governments established in the Eastern European countries occupied by Soviet troops during the war transformed into Communist "People's Republics" with strong ties to the Soviet Union. These included Yugoslavia (November 1945); Albania (January 1946); and Bulgaria (December 1946). The United States and Britain considered this an abrogation of agreements made at the Yalta Conference. During a speech at Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946, visiting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill proclaimed that Europe was divided by an "Iron Curtain" as the nations of Eastern Europe fell increasingly under Soviet control. Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia all fell under Communist control by early 1948.

Anti-Soviet popular uprisings began in Budapest and spread throughout Hungary in the autumn of 1956. On November 2, Hungarian Premier Imre Nagy, who had already promised the Hungarians free elections, denounced the Warsaw Pact and asked for United Nations support. On November 4, Soviet forces moved into Hungary and suppressed the revolt. Soviet, Polish, East German, Bulgarian, and Hungarian troops invaded Czechoslovakia on 20 August 1968, and deposed the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, who had begun a program of economic and political liberalization (the "Prague spring").

The Brezhnev Doctrine was the Soviet Union's declared policy to intervene in the internal affairs of another socialist state if the leading role of that state's communist party was threatened. It was formulated as justification for the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

Faced with a deteriorating security situation, on 24 December 1979, large numbers of Soviet airborne forces, joining thousands of Soviet troops already on the ground, began to land in Kabul under the pretext of a field exercise. On 26 December 1979, these invasion forces installed Babrak Karmal as Prime Minister. The Karmal regime, although backed by an expeditionary force that grew as large as 120,000 Soviet troops, was unable to establish authority outside Kabul. As much as 80% of the countryside eluded effective government control. Afghan freedom fighters (mujahidin) made it almost impossible for the regime to maintain a system of local government outside major urban centers. Poorly armed at first, by 1984 the mujahidin began receiving substantial assistance in the form of weapons and training from the US and other outside powers.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev entered office in March 1985 determined to scrap old assumptions about Soviet foreign policy. He had drawn lessons from the return of Cold War tensions in the early 1980s -- and they scared him. The "old thinking" believed that the USSR would emerge victorious in the Cold War if it continued building up its arsenal and fostering "progressive" regimes in the Third World in places like Angola, Ethiopia, and especially Afghanistan. Gorbachev's "new thinking" sought to reorganize and revitalize the Soviet system; but to do so required a favorable international situation to relieve the material burden of arms competition with the West.

The first step in the end of the Cold War came when Mikhail S. Gorbachev implicitly abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine. On 14 April 1988, the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the United States and Soviet Union serving as guarantors, signed an agreement known as the Geneva accords. This included five major documents, which, among other things, establishe a timetable that ensured full Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan by 15 February 1989. Gorbachev demanded that the retreat be orderly and dignified -- he didn't want television images reminiscent of the chaotic 1975 US pullout from Vietnam. "We must not appear before the world in our underwear or even without any," he told the Politburo inner circle. "A defeatist position is not possible." The withdrawal was intended as a sign of conciliation toward the West and reassurance to the East Europeans, but it encouraged others to challenge Soviet power.

The second act of the drama began in the fall of 1989 with peaceful revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe (except Romania) and the fall of the Soviet "outer empire." Shortly after Poland's electorate voted the Communists out of government in June 1989, Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would not interfere with the internal affairs of the Eastern European countries. By October, Hungary and Czechoslovakia followed Poland's example.

On 09 November 1989, the East German Government opened the Berlin Wall. East Germany, the center of contention throughout the Cold War, was united with West Germany and integrated into NATO. As one historian noted, in Poland communism took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks, and in Czechoslovakia ten days to disappear. In Romania -- the bloody exception to the rule of peaceful transition -- the end came with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact a year later plus the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe [that substantially reduced Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe] resulted in a stronger Western alliance -- so strong that the US could redeploy forces from Europe to the Persian Gulf for use against Iraq.

The third and final act closed with the 1991 dissolution of the USSR. By 1989 Gorbachev's domestic reforms had run into serious trouble, and the economy went into a tailspin. The centrifugal forces in the "outer empire" stimulated and accelerated those in the "inner empire", as the Soviet republics sought sovereignty and then independence. As the center disintegrated and Gorbachev opened up the political process with glasnost (openness), the old communist "barons" in the republics saw the handwriting on the wall and became nationalists; they "first of all attacked the USSR government . . . and subsequently destroyed the USSR." Asked when he decided to secede from the USSR, Ukrainian party boss Leonid Kravchuk replied: "1989" [he did so in mid-1990]. Each of the USSR's republics, as they declared independence or sovereignty, also adopted statements by the republic leaderships on service in the armed forces, including the creation of their own military forces.

  • Azerbaijan declared sovereignty on 23 September 1989.
  • Georgia declared sovereignty on 9 March 1990 and subsequently elected a nationalist government on 11 November 1990.
  • Lithuania declared independence on 11 March 1990. On 17 July 1990, the republic announced that it would create its own army units.
  • Estonia declared independence on 30 March 1990.
  • Latvia declared independence on 4 May 1990.
  • Russia declared sovereignty on 11 June 1990.
  • Uzbekistan declared sovereignty on 20 June 1990. An Uzbek Presidential decree in early September 1990 stipulated that future drafts of Uzbeks would be worked out through an agreement between the republic and union-level officials.
  • Moldova (Moldavia) declared sovereignty on 23 June 1990. In early September 1990, the Moldovan Supreme Soviet and President issued declarations that the draft was to be suspended for Moldovans, pending negotiations with the central leadership.
  • Ukraine declared sovereignty on 16 July 1990. On the same day, its Supreme Soviet also declared the republic's right to have its own armed forces.
  • Belorussia declared sovereignty on 27 July 1990. The Belorussian Supreme Soviet declaration stated that the republic had a right to have its own armed forces.
  • Turkmenistan declared sovereignty on 22 August 1990. Similar to Kazakhstan's sovereignty declaration, Turkmenistan's declaration stated that the republic "determines the procedure for military service by citizens of the Turkmen SSR."
  • Tajikistan declared sovereignty on 25 August 1990.
  • Armenia declared independence on 23 August 1990. Even before this, on 3 May 1990, at an extraordinary session of the Armenian Supreme Soviet, a resolution was passed that stopped the draft for active duty military.
  • Kazakhstan declared sovereignty on 25 October 1990. This sovereignty declaration contained the qualification that the republic claims the right "to define the procedure and the conditions for its citizens' military service" in cooperation with the central authorities.
  • Kirgizia declared sovereignty on 12 December 1990.

Gorbachev's struggle with the old imperial elite in the communist party, the armed forces, and the military-industrial complex culminated in the August 1991 coup. When the failed, it finished off the USSR -- and Gorbachev himself. Russia was one of the main initiators of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Because the former Soviet republics receiving independence was something that Russia wanted itself. On Christmas Day 1991, at 7:35 p.m., the Soviet flag flying over the Kremlin was lowered and replaced by the new Russian banner. The USSR officially ceased to exist on 31 December. The Cold War was over.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is frequently cited as calling the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century." But that is not how the Kremlin translates his words. In his annual address to the Federal Assembly on 25 April 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin "Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself. Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Oligarchic groups - possessing absolute control over information channels - served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere. Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system. But they were mistaken."

When asked to evaluate this comment, Mikhail Gorbachev said: "I have said this on many occasions, and I will say it again: I agree." [Putin also said"the Second World War is the largest catastrophe in the history of mankind, and the greatest lesson for current and future generations."] Putin said in his book "First Person": "[My] mission, my historical mission - and this will sound lofty, but it's true - consisted of resolving the situation in the Northern Caucasus . and Chechnya [which is] a continuation of the collapse of the Soviet Union. . If we don't put an immediate end to this, Russia will cease to exist."

Usama Bin Laden, in the video tape released in September 2007 talked about " ... what comes after the empire in regard to the United States of America. I also want to bring your attention that among the greatest reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union was their being afflicted with their leader Brezhnev, who was overtaken by pride and arrogance and refused to look at the facts on the ground. From the first year of the Afghanistan invasion, reports indicated that the Russians were losing the war, but he refused to acknowledge this, lest it go down in his personal history as a defeat, even though refusal to acknowledge defeat not only doesn't do anything to change the facts for thinking people, but also exacerbates the problem and increases the losses. And how similar is your position today to their position approximately two decades ago. The mistakes of Brezhnev are being repeated by Bush, who - when asked about the date of his withdrawing of forces from Iraq - said in effect that the withdrawal will not be during his reign, but rather, during the reign of the one who succeeds him."

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Page last modified: 19-08-2016 18:14:44 ZULU