It has been 24 years since the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. On Dec. 25 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), resigned from his post, declaring his office extinct.
His announcement brought years of Soviet decline to a close, which was marked by economic woes and a loss of military power as the Marxist-Leninist ideology fueling the modern-day empire gradually ran out of steam, giving way to pro-democracy and pro-independence movements.
A wave of revolution swept across eastern Europe in 1989, leading to the collapse of pro-Soviet communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, which for 70 years had been trapped behind the so called “Iron Curtain” that separated the “Eastern Bloc,” namely the member states of the Warsaw Pact, from the West.
This culminated in November of that year with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which had divided the German capital for 28 years and had served as a symbol of the Cold War faultline between the Eastern Bloc and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance.
Prior to the uprisings, Gorbachev, who in 1985 was elected to lead the Soviet Union in an atmosphere of growing frustration and public pressure against the communist regime, undertook the mission to implement groundbreaking reforms that would lead to the liberalisation of the nation and transform it into an open market. However, the events of 1989 demonstrated that the people were not interested in reforms, but instead intended to topple the Soviet system all together.
In 1991, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the largest Soviet republic, was set to sign a new treaty with Gorbachev that would have restructured the Soviet Union as a federation of independent republics. This alarmed Soviet nationalists within Gorbachev’s own government. On Aug.19, senior officials including Vice President Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov formed the "General Committee on the State Emergency" a day before the planned signing.
Gorbachev, who was at the time on holiday in Crimea, was placed under house arrest and had his communications cut off. Gennady Yanayev took over as president, claiming that Gorbachev was ill, but this failed to convince the public, who immediately recognised the events as a coup. Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian SFSR, condemned the coup. His office was quickly surrounded by special forces deployed by the coup leaders, but noticing the absence of public support, they refused to storm the building.
By Aug. 21, the coup attempt had collapsed, Gorbachev was freed, and the leaders of the coup, which included former aides to Gorbachev, were charged with high treason. On Aug. 24, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the Communist Party, resigned as its leader, and banished them from the government. However, with his power depleted, Gorbachev lost control of the Soviet Union and was unable to prevent the republics, including Russia, from declaring their independence by December.
The new independent republics signed up to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as an alternative to the Soviet Union, in effect making the Soviet Union irrelevant. Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, declaring his office extinct, and left the Kremlin building in Moscow on the same day. On that fateful day, the Soviet flag was lowered and was replaced by the new tricolour flag of the Russian Federation.
Return of the empire
Today, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the US is finding its dominance as the world’s sole remaining superpower, a title it enjoyed for the better part of two decades, once again being challenged by the Russians. Under President Vladimir Putin, who is now in his second reign as president, Russia has emerged from its days of bankruptcy and rebuilt itself as a global player in the international arena of geopolitics.
Despite losing its grip on eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow has maintained influence through its military prowess and monopoly over the economies of its ex-Soviet republics, particularly in those that did not join NATO or the European Union. Moscow also exerts its sway over the policies in states once part of the Eastern Bloc and beyond via its proxies and sympathisers.
Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow did not scamper the opportunities to retain control over any areas that maintained pro-Moscow sentiments, sending troops to the breakaway Moldovan enclave of Transnistria in 1992, where it still supports 1,200 soldiers despite having promised to withdraw its troops and weapons at an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul in 1999.
Moscow has additionally been supporting the self-proclaimed republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since helping them break off from Georgia in a brief war in August 2008, which was arguably the first overt sign of a Russian resurgence since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But events over the past two years have raised concerns that Moscow is attempting to revive the Soviet Union, and this is leading to a new Cold War with the West.
Russia’s reaction to the popular uprising in ex-Soviet state Ukraine that led to the departure of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 is evident of that. Within just weeks of Yanukovych fleeing Kiev, the autonomous parliament of the Crimean peninsula declared its independence from Ukraine and organised a referendum, which was held under the supervision of armed militiamen in unmarked uniforms widely speculated to be Russian servicemen. The vast majority of Crimea’s ethnic Russian population voted to join Russia, and the peninsula was subsequently annexed by Moscow.
Alarmed by the developments, NATO has been increasing its presence in eastern Europe and the Baltic states as pro-Russian rebels seek to assert control over eastern Ukraine, where they have declared the establishment of two republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. In spite of a ceasefire signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk in February 2015, the rebels made no secret their desire to move south and secure the coastal town of Mariupol along the Sea of Azov. From there, it is feared that they may attempt to move along the strategic Black Sea coastline to Odessa, eventually creating a land corridor linking Russia to Transnistria.
Furthermore, the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union as a punishment for the annexation of Crimea, which the EU considers illegal, has also revealed the extent of Moscow’s influence over the European market. Some EU countries have expressed opposition to the EU’s tough stance on Russia, citing losses recorded in their own economies due to Moscow’s counter-sanctions on EU products. EU member states like Greece and Cyprus, which already suffer from weak economies, are heavily dependent on Russian investment and find themselves stuck in a financial tug-of-war between Moscow and the EU.
However, the EU sanctions on Moscow are also having a profound effect on the Russian economy, which finds itself in a recession. This threatens a number of Russian-led projects including the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which includes former Soviet republics Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Although the EEU is strictly limited to being an economic cooperation between member states, it has been viewed by some analysts as a re-emergence of the Soviet Union.
With such strategies, Russia is attempting to spread its sphere of influence around the world, but having long based its economic prosperity on its monopoly over Europe’s demand for natural gas, the discovery of alternative sources in the eastern Mediterranean leaves Moscow in a frantic effort to survive by reasserting its relevance to Europe’s gas supply and securing its sea trade routes to the Atlantic. It seeks to achieve that by propping up its ally in the Syrian conflict - the Assad regime.
Syria - another Afghanistan
Just as the Soviet Union did in 1979, on Sept. 30 of this year, Russia launched a military campaign of air strikes on Syria in support of an unpopular regime.
The campaign is supposedly targeting DAESH terrorists who took advantage of the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, to seize swathes of land in the country. However, Russian air strikes have thus far primarily targeted armed groups opposed to Bashar al Assad’s regime, including those that are also fighting DAESH.
Russia’s intervention indicates that it is defending the embattled Assad regime, which was arguably on the verge of collapse, especially after armed opposition groups seized the strategic province of Idlib in March.
It is a desperate attempt to secure and expand Russia’s military presence in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in the coastal strongholds of Assad’s minority Alawite sect in Tartus and Latakia. As Tartus hosts the only Russian navy repair base in the Mediterranean, its fall to the Syrian opposition could spell the end for Russian naval activity in the region and completely cut off Russia’s sea trade route to the Atlantic via the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal.
Maintaining an ally in the region will also give Moscow access to significant offshore gas reserves recently discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. Although the possibilities regarding the newfound reserves between Cyprus, Egypt and Israel are still being explored, the most viable option at present appears to be targeting the gas-hungry European market with pipelines transiting through Turkey, which has the potential to become an energy hub for gas and oil destined to Europe from the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.
Realising the danger of being sidelined by alternative sources of natural gas, Russia has been trying to tap into this hub, proposing to reroute a gas pipeline from the Russian Caucasus from its original destination Bulgaria to the Turkish-Greek border. Such a move would force Europe to remain dependent on Russia for its gas supply. But Turkey’s recent shooting down of a Russian fighter jet after it breached Turkish airspace has brought about a crisis in relations between Ankara and Moscow, leaving a huge question mark over the project, dubbed the Turkish Stream.
Turkey, a key NATO member which is on the frontline against a range of threats including the one posed by DAESH and other terrorist groups, has seen little to no response on Russia’s behalf to calls to mend ties and increase coordination to avoid such incidents again, even though Turkey was within its right according to the rules of engagement to fire on the Russian jet. Instead, Russia has chosen to pursue an aggressive stance towards Turkey, accusing it of conspiring with DAESH in the smuggling of cheap oil. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meanwhile, called these accusations “the lies of the Soviet propaganda machine."
Such rhetoric by Russia has come with an escalation of Russian air strikes against ethnic Turkmen groups in Syria and an increasing cooperation between Moscow and the PKK’s Syrian branch, the PYD, which seeks to establish its Marxist-Leninist ideology across northern Syria along the Turkish border. As the PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and NATO, any coordination between Russia and groups hostile to the military bloc may reflect the revival of old tensions from the Cold War-era on the Middle Eastern front.
US President Barack Obama at the G7 summit in July accused Putin of wrecking Russia’s economy in a stubborn attempt to recreate the past glories of the Soviet Union. “Does he continue to wreck his country’s economy and continue Russia’s isolation in pursuit of a wrongheaded desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet empire, or does he recognise that Russia’s greatness does not depend on violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other countries?” Obama said.
However, in comments aired in a documentary broadcast by public television channel Rossiya 1 on Dec. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that he is not working to revive the Soviet Union, saying “"With Ukraine and other areas of the former USSR, I'm sure our Western partners aren't working in the interests of Ukraine, they are working to prevent the recreation of the USSR.”
Nonetheless, even if Russia is not planning to bring back the Soviet Union, its operations in Syria and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine are based on the same principle which sent Moscow to war in Afghanistan in 1979 - a fight for survival. Only time will tell if Russia’s strategy is Syria will be as costly as the long war in Afghanistan, which only contributed to the Soviet Union’s economic decline, or if Moscow will be able to implement a model based on the one it has in place in Chechnya, with one strongman leader backed by the Kremlin and all credible opposition voices silenced.
Author: Ertan Karpazli