The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse by Vladislav Zubok - July/August 2022
On May 9, 2022, a column of tanks and artillery thundered down Moscow’s Red Square. Over 10,000 soldiers marched through the city’s streets. It was Russia’s 27th annual Victory Day parade, in which the country commemorates the Soviet Union’s triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin, presiding over the ceremonies, gave a speech praising his country’s military and fortitude. “The defense of our motherland when its destiny was at stake has always been sacred,” he said. “We will never give up.” Putin was speaking about the past but also about the present, with a clear message to the rest of the world: Russia is determined to continue prosecuting its war against Ukraine.
The war looks very different in Putin’s telling than it does to the West. It is just and courageous. It is successful. “Our warriors of different ethnicities are fighting together, shielding each other from bullets and shrapnel like brothers,” Putin said. Russia’s enemies had tried to use “international terrorist gangs” against the country, but they had “failed completely.” In reality, of course, Russian troops have been met by fierce local resistance rather than outpourings of support, and they were unable to seize Kyiv and depose Ukraine’s government. But for Putin, victory may be the only publicly acceptable result. No alternate outcomes are openly discussed in Russia.
They are, however, discussed in the West, which has been near jubilant about Ukraine’s success. Russia’s military setbacks have reinvigorated the transatlantic alliance and, for a moment, made Moscow look like a kleptocratic third-rate power. Many policymakers and analysts are now dreaming that the conflict could ultimately end not just in a Ukrainian victory; they are hoping Putin’s regime will suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union: collapse. This hope is evident in the many articles and speeches drawing comparisons between the Soviet Union’s disastrous war in Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It appears to be a latent motivation for the harsh sanctions imposed on Russia, and it underlines all the recent talk of the democratic world’s new unity. The war, the logic goes, will sap public support for the Kremlin as losses mount and sanctions destroy the Russian economy. Cut off from access to Western goods, markets, and culture, both elites and ordinary Russians will grow increasingly fed up with Putin, perhaps taking to the streets to demand a better future. Eventually, Putin and his regime may be shunted aside in either a coup or a wave of mass protests.
This thinking is based on a faulty reading of history. The Soviet Union did not collapse for the reasons Westerners like to point to: a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, military pressure from the United States and Europe, nationalistic tensions in its constituent republics, and the siren song of democracy. In reality, it was misguided Soviet economic policies and a series of political missteps by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that caused the country to self-destruct. And Putin has learned a great deal from the Soviet collapse, managing to avoid the financial chaos that doomed the Soviet state despite intense sanctions. Russia today features a very different combination of resilience and vulnerability than the one that characterized the late-era Soviet Union. This history matters because in thinking about the war in Ukraine and its aftermath, the West should avoid projecting its misconceptions about the Soviet collapse onto present-day Russia.
The Soviet Union did not collapse for the reasons Westerners like to point to.
But that doesn’t mean the West is helpless in shaping Russia’s future. Putin’s regime is more stable than Gorbachev’s was, but if the West can stay unified, it may still be able to slowly undermine the Russian president’s power. Putin grossly miscalculated by invading Ukraine, and in doing so he has exposed the regime’s vulnerabilities—an economy that is much more interdependent with Western economies than its Soviet predecessor ever was and a highly concentrated political system that lacks the tools for political and military mobilization possessed by the Communist Party. If the war grinds on, Russia will become a less powerful international actor. A prolonged invasion may even lead to the kind of chaos that brought down the Soviet Union. But Western leaders cannot hope for such a quick, decisive victory. They will have to deal with an authoritarian Russia, however weakened, for the foreseeable future.
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VLADISLAV ZUBOK is Professor of International History at the London School of Economics and the author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union.
Navalny on a screen during a court hearing in Moscow, May 2022
Evgenia Novozhenina / Reuters