Explained | Why did Vladimir Putin bring up the ‘disintegration’ of the USSR prior to declaring war on Ukraine? 
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How did the USSR disintegration unfold? Why did Ukraine fall out with Russia?

February 27, 2022 02:25 am | Updated 04:29 pm IST

Ukrainian servicemen walk by fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv on February 25, 2022.

Ukrainian servicemen walk by fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv on February 25, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: In an address to the nation on February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to recognise the two breakaway republics of UkraineDonetsk and Luhansk — as independent states, which turned out to be a prelude for Russia’s eventual military operation in the region. In the speech, Mr. Putin blamed Soviet leaders, especially Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, for the disintegration of what he called “historical Russia”. Lenin’s idea of building the country “on the principles of autonomisation” (“the right of self-determination, up to secession”) eventually led to the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), he said. “Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake; they were worse than a mistake, as the saying goes. This became patently clear after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991,” said Mr. Putin. From the speech it appears that Mr. Putin’s main grievance is the collapse of the Soviet Union — not as a communist superpower but as a geopolitical entity.

What was the context of the USSR’s collapse?

The unravelling of Soviet power began in the late 1980s with protests in the Eastern Bloc as well as in Soviet republics and the ignominious Soviet exit from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the communist regime and after 10 years of fighting the Mujahideen, who were backed by the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Soviets had to pull back in February 1989. Within months, Soviet-backed communist regimes in Eastern Europe started collapsing, practically bringing the Cold War to an end. It started in Poland, which hosted the headquarters of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact security alliance. Protests spread to Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In June 1989, the anti-communist Solidarity movement, led by Lech Wałęsa, won an overwhelming victory in a partially free election in Poland, leading to the peaceful fall of communist rule. It triggered a chain reaction across the Eastern Bloc. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall that had separated the capitalist West Berlin and the communist east, fell, leading to the German reunification a year later.

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Domestically, the Soviet Union was going through a tough economic phase. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, stated that “an era of stagnation” gripped the country in the mid-1960s. By the time Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, the USSR was already in dire straits. Foreign trade was falling. Lower oil prices led to a fall in state revenues and an explosion in debt. Gorbachev introduced economic reforms, such as decentralisation/restructuring (perestroika) and opening up of the economy for foreign trade. The reforms made the nationalists in the Soviet republics (administrative units) stronger, but failed to revitalise the economy.

How did the Soviet disintegration unfold?

The fall of communist states in the Eastern Bloc and the economic stagnation within the country had a debilitating impact on Moscow’s hold over the Union. In 1988, Estonia, a tiny republic on the Baltic coast, became the first Soviet administrative unit to declare state sovereignty inside the Union. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania, another Baltic republic, became the first to declare independence from the USSR. The old regime was falling under its own weight. The Eastern Bloc had collapsed. After the German reunification, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expanded to East Germany. Crisis was spreading across the Soviet republics and Gorbachev was planning to decentralise much of the central government’s powers to the 15 republics through the New Union Treaty, which was also a bid to renegotiate the original treaty that established the USSR in 1922. In August 1991, faced with the crisis in the Union, a group of communist hardliners, including top military and civilian leaders, tried to take power in their hands by ousting Gorbachev in a coup. But the coup failed, and a further weakened Gorbachev continued to cling on to power. On December 8, 1991, leaders of three Soviet republics—Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk and Belarusian Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich — signed Belavezha Accords, announcing that the USSR no longer existed. They also announced the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that would replace the USSR. Within weeks, Gorbachev announced his resignation.

What are Russia’s equations with the former Soviet States?

Of the former Soviet republics, nine are members of the CIS — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. And Turkmenistan is an associate member. Russia retains enormous influence in these countries. Russia has also formed a security organisation, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), with former Soviet republics. Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are CSTO members, besides the Russian Federation. Of the 15 republics that became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union, the three Baltic countries — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all sharing borders with Russia — became members of NATO in 2004. Ukraine and Georgia were offered NATO membership in 2008. But in the same year, Russia sent troops to Georgia in the name of protecting two breakaway republics — South Ossetia and Abkhazia — against attacks from Georgian troops. In 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean republic, a Black Sea Peninsula, from Ukraine. This month, Russia recognised two more breakaway republics from Ukraine — Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region — and sent troops there on Thursday. Russia also maintains a military presence in Transnistria, a breakaway republic from Moldova, and has dispatched troops to the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, to end a conflict between the two countries over Nagorno Karabakh (Republic of Artsakh), another breakaway republic.

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Why did Ukraine fall out with Russia?

After it became independent in 1991, Ukraine largely adopted a neutral foreign policy. It was one of the founding members of the CIS, but did not join the CSTO, the security organisation. Ukraine stayed away from NATO as well. But the NATO offer of membership in 2008 started changing equations between Moscow and Kyiv. After the regime of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was brought down in the 2014 Euromaidan protests and a pro-West government was established in Kyiv, relations turned hostile. Russia moved swiftly to take Crimea, which also hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and started supporting separatist rebels in Donbass. Ukraine later exited the CIS and wrote its desire to join NATO into its Constitution. These developments pulled the countries apart, setting the stage for permanent hostility, which led to the current conflict.

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