How the Soviet Union’s collapse explains the current Russia-Ukraine tension

Mikhail Gorbachev, eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, closes his resignation speech at the table after delivering it on Soviet television at the Kremlin in Moscow, Dec. 25, 1991. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin and in its place rose the white, blue and red flag of Russia. … Continued

On Christmas Day 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sat down at a table deep inside the Kremlin and prepared to deliver a monumental speech. Associated Press reporter Alan Cooperman was among the few journalists allowed in.

“We were ushered down into some kind of underground chamber where they had a formal television studio with those big, Soviet-era tripods and huge cameras.” Cooperman recalled. “We sat there for a while and then Gorbachev came in.”

Cooperman and AP photographer Liu Heung Shing were sternly warned not to ask questions or take pictures.

“It was an extraordinary speech. I remember thinking that Gorbachev looked very tired,” Cooperman said. “He expressed trepidation about the future. But I thought he just seemed relieved.”

Gorbachev announced that after 74 years as one of the world’s most powerful nations, the Soviet Union no longer existed, and would break up in 15 separate countries.

As Gorbachev finished speaking, Liu ignored the warning he’d been given and quickly snapped a photo that became an iconic image: Gorbachev closing the folder that held his speech, marking the end of the Soviet empire.

Seconds later, a Soviet security official approached Liu and “slugged him, hard, right in the stomach,” Cooperman said.

But he had the photo. The journalists were whisked out of the room and down a hallway. They saw Soviet officials walk by with huge, red Soviet flags, emblazoned with the gold hammer and sickle.

As Cooperman exited the Kremlin and looked at the Moscow night sky, he suddenly realized what he’d just seen.

“They were carrying the flags that had just been removed from the flagposts above the Kremlin. And you can see it at night because those flagposts were always illuminated,” Cooperman said.

The flags were gone, and so was the Soviet Union.

Friction from 1991 until today

If this was just a history story, we could note the 30th anniversary of the Soviet collapse this weekend and stop right there. But you can draw a straight line from that historic day to the confrontation now playing out on the Russia-Ukraine border. Russia has an estimated 100,000 troops massed near the frontier, including tanks and heavy artillery.

Russia and Ukraine have a shared — and often turbulent — history that stretches back 1,000 years. And they’ve never entirely untangled that history and gone their separate ways.

“People have short memories,” said Vladislav Zubok, a Russian historian who teaches at the London School of Economics. He’s also the author of a new book, Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union.

“The story of Ukrainian-Russian tensions go all the way back to the rapid and unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Zubok.

The collapse meant thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons were spread across four of the newly formed states, including Russia and Ukraine.

Russia kept its nukes. Ukraine gave up its arsenal in 1994 in exchange for a promise from Russia and others that its borders would not be violated.

It seemed like a win-win. But Zubok says the reality proved much more complicated.

“When empires of big states collapse suddenly, history produces a lot of flotsam and jetsam, a lot of debris that blocks not just good relations, but block even understanding between the countries,” he said.

Putin’s interventions in neighboring states

And when there’s friction, Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly intervened.

He calls the Soviet collapse the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Russian forces seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, and remain to this day. Putin wrote last summer that Russia and Ukraine are really one country — which they were for long periods over the centuries.

At a Kremlin news conference Thursday, Putin said he wasn’t planning an invasion. He said again, as he has many times before, that the real threat comes from NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and the possibility that Ukraine may someday join the alliance.

“It was the United States that came with its missiles to our home, to the doorstep of our home,” Putin said in a reference to NATO. “And you demand from me some guarantees. You should give us guarantees. You! And right away, right now.”

NATO now totals 30 members, including 14 European countries that have been added over the past two decades. They include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Zubok says he doesn’t know what will happen short-term. But as a historian, he sees long-term friction.

A lasting solution, he says, “would require a fundamental change of regime, either in Russia or in Ukraine, and I don’t see any preconditions for either development.”

Missed opportunities

Former U.S. diplomat Donald Jensen says predictions about Russia are always hard. He served at the embassy in Moscow as the Soviet Union was collapsing, and again in the years afterward.

He believes the U.S. was too focused on trying to build democracy in Russia, while the Russians were actually battling each other over power and money.

“By pursuing the set of policies that were premised on a democratic transformation, we got into big trouble,” he said. “I say this with great humility, we misunderstood what happened because of missing things like the money issue.”

He cites an example in 1995, when he was riding a tram in Moscow and saw Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former head of the Soviet security service, the KGB, who led a failed coup attempt against Gorbachev in August 1991, four months before the Soviet collapse.

Jensen set up a meeting, and over a bottle of vodka they discussed the final days of the Soviet Union. Jensen said he was struck by how some top Soviet officials seemed less worried about a Soviet breakup than about losing privileged positions that allowed them to make large sums of money.

“We spent a lot of time thinking of you (Kryuchkov) as a hard-line communist ideologue, and it looks to me like the KGB was making money,” Jensen told Kryuchkov. “He looked at me, with his big Coke-bottle glasses, and said, ‘Of course we were.’”

Jensen still studies Russia. He’s now at the U.S. Institute of Peace. And while he’s critical of some U.S. polices, perhaps the biggest failure is the opportunity Russia has missed over the past three decades.

“Russia has blown a chance to be integrated into the global and European security architecture and economic structures,” Jensen said. “We don’t expect Russia to be Western. But you expect it to be a positive contributor to global peace and security, and I just don’t see that that happening.”

The evidence, he says, is on display along the Russia-Ukraine border.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Moscow from 1996-99. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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