In an address to the nation on February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his intention to recognise the two separatist republics of Ukraine — Donetsk, and Luhansk—as independent nations, which turned out to be a prelude to Russia’s eventual military operation in the region. Mr. Putin blamed the disintegration of what he called “historical Russia” on Soviet leaders, particularly Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. According to him, Lenin’s vision of constructing a country “on the principles of autonomisation” (“the right of self-determination, up to secession”) finally led to the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). “As the saying goes, Lenin’s concepts of state development were not simply a mistake; they were worse than a mistake. Mr. Putin said, “This became clearly evident following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.” According to the speech, Mr. Putin’s main grievance is the fall of the Soviet Union—not as a communist superpower, but as a geopolitical entity.
What was the background of the USSR’s downfall?
The disintegration of Soviet power started in the late 1980s, with uprisings throughout the Eastern Bloc and in Soviet republics, as well as the humiliating Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent soldiers to Afghanistan to prop up the communist dictatorship, and after ten years of battling the Mujahideen, who were supported by the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the Soviets were forced to withdraw in February 1989. The Soviet-backed communist governments in Eastern Europe began to fall apart within months, thus ending the Cold War. It began in Poland, which was home to the Warsaw Pact security alliance’s Soviet-led headquarters. Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania joined the protests. The anti-communist Solidarity movement, headed by Lech Walesa, scored a landslide win in a partially free election in Poland in June 1989, ushering in the peaceful end of communist authority. It set off a chain reaction across the Eastern Bloc. The Berlin Wall, which had divided capitalist West Berlin from communist East Berlin, fell in November 1989, paving the way for German reunification a year later.
The Soviet Union was going through a difficult economic period at home. In the mid-1960s, “an age of stagnation” seized the Soviet Union, according to Mikhail Gorbachev, the country’s last leader. The Soviet Union was already in terrible circumstances when Gorbachev became its leader in 1985. Foreign trade was on the decline. Lower oil prices resulted in a drop in government income and an increase in debt. Gorbachev implemented economic changes, including decentralisation (perestroika) and the liberalisation of the economy to allow for international commerce. The reforms strengthened nationalists in Soviet republics (administrative units), but they did not revive the economy.
How did the Soviet Union fall apart?
Moscow’s grip over the Union was weakened by the demise of communist republics in the Eastern Bloc and economic stagnation inside the country. Estonia, a tiny Baltic coast, became the first Soviet administrative unit to proclaim state autonomy inside the Union in 1988. Lithuania, a Baltic republic, was the first to proclaim independence from the Soviet Union on March 11, 1990. The old regime was collapsing under the weight of its own ineptitude. The Soviet Union has disintegrated. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) extended to East Germany after German reunification. The crisis was spreading across the Soviet republics, and Gorbachev planned to decentralise much of the central government’s authority to the 15 republics via the New Union Treaty, which was also an attempt to revise the original treaty that formed the USSR in 1922.
Faced with the Union’s crisis in August 1991, a group of communist hardliners, including prominent military and civilian officials, attempted to seize power by deposing Gorbachev in a coup. However, the attempt failed, and Gorbachev clung to power while being considerably weakened. The Belavezha Accords were signed on December 8, 1991, by the leaders of three Soviet republics: Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, and Belarusian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich, proclaiming the end of the Soviet Union. They also announced the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which would take the place of the former Soviet Union. Gorbachev announced his resignation within weeks.
What are Russia’s equations with the former Soviet States?
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are among the nine former Soviet countries that are members of the CIS. Turkmenistan is a non-voting member. In these countries, Russia has immense power. Russia has also developed a security organisation with former Soviet states, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Apart from the Russian Federation, CSTO members include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The three Baltic countries—Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—all of which share Russian borders—joined NATO in 2004 as one of the 15 republics that gained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2008, Ukraine and Georgia were invited to join NATO. However, in the same year, Russia sent soldiers to Georgia to defend two separatist republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, against Georgian forces. In 2014, Russia seized the Crimean Republic, which is located on the Black Sea Peninsula, from Ukraine. Russia recognised two additional separatist republics from Ukraine this month, in the Donbas region’s Luhansk and Donetsk, and sent soldiers there on Thursday. Russia also maintains a military presence in Transnistria, a Moldovan breakaway country, and has moved soldiers to the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in 2020 to stop a fight over Nagorno Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh), another breakaway republic.
Why did Ukraine fall out with Russia?
Ukraine’s foreign policy has mostly remained neutral since its independence in 1991. It was a founding member of the CIS but did not join the CSTO. Ukraine has also been kept itself apart from NATO. However, in 2008, the NATO membership offer began to alter the equations between Moscow and Kyiv. Relations deteriorated when pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s government was overthrown in the 2014 Euromaidan events and a pro-Western government was established in Kyiv. Russia quickly annexed Crimea, which also hosts Russia’s Black Sea navy, and began backing separatist fighters in Donbass. Ukraine eventually left the Commonwealth of Independent States and included its aspiration to join NATO in its Constitution.
These events tore the nations apart, establishing a persistent state of animosity that led to the present conflict.