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The Enigmatic Collapse of the Soviet Union: The Last Month

April 28, 2022

Speaker: Vladislav Zubok, The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Chair: Sergey Radchenko, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna, Italy

Speaking at SAIS Europe for the first time since 1997, Professor Vladislav Zubok gave a talk which aimed to illuminate the final month of the enigmatic collapse of the Soviet Union. After a brief introduction by Sergey Radchenko, Zubok began to outline this very complex and intriguing development.

Zubok argued that while many possible factors for the Soviet Union’s collapse have been acknowledged by scholars – from the invasion of Afghanistan to the disaster at Chernobyl, from overcommitments abroad to the failure of ideology – the precise reason for its demise remains “a puzzle”. All of these factors (and more) combined still cannot explain how the USSR “disappeared so quickly”. Nonetheless, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev certainly played a role in which he “shaped reality prior to 1989” and after that “accepted reality”. It was within this reality that two state building projects emerged from the seeming collapse of Soviet statehood: one Russian and one Ukrainian. The former envisioned a programme of full Russian sovereignty within the boundaries of its enormous republic and an assumption that the new Russia would reclaim most of the Soviet resources on its territory. In effect, Russia would act as a successor state to the entire USSR. The latter, on the other hand, witnessed a tension between Ukrainian nationalists and communist apparatchiks. Leonid Kravchuk aimed to present the vision of a sovereign Ukraine on a presidential campaign to the US and Canada and made it clear that there would be only “one enemy to Ukrainian statehood” and that was Russia. Zubok argued that Brent Scowcroft, US National Security Advisor at the time, believed the Ukraine was the only thing preventing the new government in Moscow “from being little more than a new Russian empire” and was thus critical to “balance Russian imperialism in the future”.

Moreover, Zubok also hinted at the discussion around the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The warheads and bombs in the Ukrainian warehouses required special maintenance and the state needed many years and billions of dollars to maintain and use those weapons. As a result, the US agreed to have all nuclear weapons returned to the Russian state – cementing Russia as the “only nuclear successor to the Soviet Union.” Furthermore, in October 1991, Boris Yeltsin insisted on the West recognising Russia as the “primary legal successor of the USSR”. Many former satellite states, however, opposed this idea and thus a “civilised divorce” between the Ukraine and Russia was not possible with each side striving to get what it could. Ukrainian leaders objected and complained that Moscow-based joint stock companies sought to seize control over the ports of Odessa and Crimea.

Subsequently, bringing Russia from non-market to market economy was a “truly revolutionary move” that had a long-term impact on the Russian-Ukrainian relations. In terms of economic interdependence, Russian economists feared that the Ukraine attempting to print its own currency would be akin to a “transfusion of the wrong blood type into an organism” and thereby destroying the Russian economy and damaging itself in the process. While an economic treaty with Russia was a contested issue, a mutual respect for territorial integrity and respect for minorities existed nonetheless. Kravchuk was seen as having “consolidated the fragmented Ukrainian electorate” and was celebrated at home and “justifiably entered history as a father of the Ukrainian nation.” For many Russians, however, the Ukrainian president was a “cunning fox…who sowed the seeds of future conflict.” Although Yeltsin recognised the Ukrainian leadership, it was believed that the country and its economy could be placed under Russian influence and control.

Zubok went on to suggest three reasons why the leaders of the Soviet republics went on to destroy the union. Firstly, Yeltsin wanted to get rid of Gorbachev and intended to become the singular founder of a sovereign Russian state. Secondly, taking control of economic resources, assets and logistics was very appealing. Thirdly, the USSR was liquidated in such a swift manner because of the danger that a Ukraine “going it alone” represented. “One had to include the Ukraine in some kind of arrangement, at any price,” Zubok thus asserted. It was confirmed that successor states would refrain from any actions which would cause economic harm to others and stayed in the rouble zone as a result. Professor Zubok concluded by drawing attention to the conundrum which Russia faced at the United Nations following the end of the USSR. Technically no longer a permanent member of the UN, Russia used the Chinese precedent of Taiwan to transfer UN membership from the USSR to the Russian Federation.