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25 Years After the Collapse of the Soviet Union: What Comes Next?

December 08, 2016
RM staff

On Dec. 7, Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs held an event titled “25 Years After the Collapse of the Soviet Union: What Comes Next?” Below are some highlights of the speakers’ presentations.

Context: This discussion examined the collapse of the Soviet Union through the lens of “applied history”—an explicit attempt to illuminate current challenges and policy choices by analyzing historical precedents and analogues. Two of the speakers, Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson, co-direct the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project; the other two, Mary Elise Sarotte and Arne Westad, are members of the project’s working group. As Prof. Allison noted in his opening remarks, the Soviet Union ceased to exist only 25 years ago, so it may be premature to draw conclusions from the developments that have unfolded since then; however, on Jan. 20, 2017, a new U.S. administration will take office and it will be making choices about Russia policy, so historians should contribute to that decision-making right now, not wait another 25 years.


  • Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Principal Investigator, Russia Matters Project
  • Niall Ferguson, Board of Directors, Senior Faculty Fellow, Belfer Center
  • Mary Elise Sarotte, Visiting Professor of Government and History, Center for European Studies, Harvard University
  • Arne Westad, S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School

Highlights (summarized and paraphrased, not verbatim):

Niall Ferguson:

  • The world has been a lot more peaceful on the whole since the demise of the Soviet Union; its demise, the way in which it was dissolved and the way the international order was recast turned out to be very successful in terms of greater peace.
  • If looked at this way, one might say it’s a shame President Vladimir Putin came along; many consider him a villain and fault him for worsening U.S.-Russia relations.
  • In the Kremlin and elsewhere there is the view that the fault lies with the West: It was the U.S. that proposed installing missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland in 2007, passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012 and encouraged Ukraine—under two successive administrations—to believe that it could join either NATO or the EU; so from that vantage point the U.S. should be blamed.
  • Henry Kissinger (whose multi-volume biography Ferguson is now writing) is closer to the second view. Certainly he’s recently made clear that the notion of Ukraine in a Western orbit is a mistake and a smarter approach would have been to imagine Ukraine as a new Finland. (Ferguson noted that he himself would not have taken that view in 1995, but now tends to agree.)
  • President Obama’s biggest Russia-related mistakes include: letting Germany and France take the lead in negotiating over resolution of the Ukraine conflict; letting Russia take the lead on dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons.
  • But President-elect Trump shouldn’t pander to Russia; Russia is a much weaker power than the Soviet Union was and any U.S. policy that doesn’t take advantage of that differential is misguided.

Mary Elise Sarotte:

  • I was asked to consider three questions about the Soviet collapse and the responses to it: What was done right? What was done wrong? What cautions or lessons could there be for policymaking? I will try to answer with three words: contingency, continuity, collapse.
  • What was done right (contingency): The role of chance and accident in the end of the Cold War was enormous, and the contingencies could have broken bad, but instead people seized upon them in a peaceful way. We have both elected leaders and dissenting protesters to thank. We owe debts of gratitude to: Mikhail Gorbachev who seized an opportunity to introduce reforms (and whose appointment itself resulted from chance because his three predecessors died in quick succession and the Politburo decided it had to pick a younger general secretary); to the revolution from below, which helped create great freedoms in Eastern Europe; to Helmut Kohl and George H.W. Bush for their roles in achieving a peaceful, swift reunification of Germany.
  • What went wrong (continuity): Because events were so fast-moving, decisions had to be made quickly and a lot of international institutions continued unchanged from the Cold War era, and this perpetuated conflicts. It would be a very high bar to ask that all the actors involved had had such foresight that they would have created new institutions, in particular as concerns NATO. But many consequences of this persist. For example, one conclusion of the 9/11 commission report about why the U.S. was so unprepared for the attack was that its security institutions were built and stayed geared toward winning the Cold War. But we seem to forget that that’s what happened and we think there is a new world order.
  • Cautions for policymaking (collapse): We’re here to mark what seemed to be the very swift collapse of the USSR. But empires don’t unravel that quickly. This isn’t in fact history yet: The Soviet Union is still disintegrating before our eyes.

Arne Westad:

  • What was it in the 1980s that made the end of the Cold War possible?
  • First: economic change. In the early 1970s, very few people believed the West would overcome the USSR. Things didn’t look good in the West. But 10 years later (late 70s through the 80s), the intensity of economic transformation makes the USSR come to terms with capitalism. This was a critical element in terms of how the Cold War came to an end. (It was what China saw as well.) In the Soviet Union, it wasn’t fully willed economic change from within, but Gorbachev came to a realization: If you want change, prepare for it economically.
  • Second: The end of the Cold War was a story about alliances that work. If it hadn’t been for the United States’ ability, both under Reagan and Bush, to work with allies—not just Germany and other Western countries, but also Japan and others—the outcomes wouldn’t have been nearly as positive. If there had been no alliance, how could German reunification have worked? NATO had seemed in big trouble a decade earlier.
  • Third: negotiations—finding the right time to negotiate, with respect but firmness. Gorbachev did this because he had to; he needed at least détente or some sort of truce to carry out reforms. It’s more surprising that the Reagan administration embraced the idea that the West and East could talk; and they did this very early on, before Gorbachev had proved his reformist intentions. The important thing about Reagan is that he was willing to speak to Gorbachev while it was possible, and to come up with a set of arrangements that were more substantive and stronger than before.
  • The biggest problem in the 1990s with regard to Eastern Europe was not the question of Ukraine’s integration; it was the lack of will to build structures in which Russia could participate. I didn’t believe this was possible in the 1990s, but now I feel we should have tried, especially in terms of economic integration.

Graham Allison:

  • Positive outcomes of the end of the USSR and Cold War: no nuclear wars; no loose nukes; no nuclear proliferation in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus; no war with Russia (e.g., over Georgia or Ukraine—it’s a good thing they weren’t in NATO during their conflicts with Russia); Evil Empire disappeared; communism buried; emergence of independent nations in Eastern and Central Europe; end of the Soviet Union; huge increases in individuals’ freedom in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
  • Negative outcomes: Russia left “orphaned”—not integrated into any larger international order; no grand reassessment of U.S. role in the world and in building an international order; missed opportunity for “grand bargain” that integrated Russia and ensured a common European security order; expansion of NATO into Russia’s historic sphere of interest in ways that increase the risk of war, e.g., in the Baltics.
  • We were trying to defeat the Soviet Union; when that succeeded, the question was, “What’s next?” but there was no answer.
  • U.S. China strategy is also on auto-pilot; the idea had been to counterbalance the Soviet Union. Now what?
  • NATO wasn’t about building order in Western Europe; it was about defeating the USSR.
  • My bet is that a year from now, and two years from now, the United States’ relations with Russia will be better than they are now if assessed from the standpoint of U.S. national interests. But betting is easy: You can be wrong.

The presentations were followed by a question-and-answer session that touched on: Yeltsin’s failure to dismantle the Communist Party and the KGB/FSB; the idea that the U.S. is bounded by multilateral institutions, while Russia can act unilaterally; values versus interests; Ukraine; Western Europe; Syria; and more.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.