Soviet Union Ended but Russia Endures as Great Power

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on December 30, 2021.)

Thirty years ago the flag of the Soviet Union was taken down from the Kremlin for the last time. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which rose from the ashes of the Russian Empire (1917), was dissolved on December 25, 1991, capping a wave of democratic revolutions throughout the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. The U.S. and the West had won the Cold War.

During the two years culminating in this event, I had the privilege of being a U.S. Army liaison officer to the German Army. My family and I lived on the fringes of the American diplomatic community in Bonn, West Germany, then the capital, and witnessed the re-unification of Germany on October 3, 1990.

The Cold War was the state of tension and competition between the U.S. and its allies against the USSR and its allies which began after World War II. Historians differ as to the precise date of its inception; however, surely with the speech of President Harry Truman in March 1947, the Cold War had begun.

With the Soviets pressuring Turkey and providing aid to the Communists in the Greek Civil War in the early postwar years, Truman stated in his speech: “”The peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will.” He continued in portraying the choice that every nation faced: A way of life “based upon the will of the majority” versus a way of life “based on the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority….”

He then stated the new policy: “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” He finished by asking Congress for $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey.

Since its inception, this Cold War had seen periods of intense competition and confrontation, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and also periods of relative calm and cooperation, such as the period of “détente” (relaxation) of the 1970s. Happily, this state of tension of nearly five decades never erupted into outright warfare between the two “superpowers.”

There were many factors that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union. In 1985 the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the leader of the Soviet Union. He instituted policies of greater openness and also economic re-structuring.

Second, the Communist command economy had shown categorically its inability over decades to produce goods and services in any manner comparable to the capitalistic economies of the West.

Third, there was the example and pressure of the West, led in the 1980s by the United States with President Ronald Reagan at the helm, a fervent believer in the Western model.  

Finally, on the domestic political level, there was widespread popular disillusionment with and calls for reform of the Communist model of government, including its instruments of control (the KGB security apparatus and the military). In a recent panel discussion (“End of the ‘Evil Empire’”) sponsored by the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, both Ambassador George Krol and Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Peter Zwack emphasized this role that the Russian people played in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, the wave of democratic revolutions in Europe was so stunning that one important scholar, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled “The End of History and the Last Man,” (1992) arguing that the liberal, democratic model had prevailed and would for all time.

The Soviet Union dissolved into 15 post-Soviet states. Russia, the largest and most powerful, was recognized as the legal successor of the Soviet Union. It eventually recovered its footing as a great power in the international system.

In 2020, Russia had the 11th largest economy by Gross Domestic Product. It possesses the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, and with about 1 million active duty military personnel the fifth largest military force. It has extensive mineral and energy resources and is a leading producer of oil and natural gas. Russia retains the permanent seat of the former Soviet Union on the United Nations Security Council, one of only five.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a part of the Ukraine, one of the former Soviet republics, the first time since World War II that a European state had annexed the territory of another. In recent weeks, U.S. intelligence agencies have indicated that Russia has assembled tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s border, indicating a possible intention to attack in January.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is a retired Army officer and educator and also a regular columnist.

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