The fighting in Ukraine is the latest and worst of the wars fought against the remnants of the Soviet Union, an empire whose agony continues some 30 years after the union itself ceased to exist. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.
The 20th century saw the break-up of the great Eurasian empires that once dominated world affairs. World War I destroyed the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German empires. World War II brought down empires ruled by Tokyo, Rome and (again) Berlin. Decolonization subsequently completed the British, French and Portuguese empires. And the end of the Cold War killed the Soviet Union, which first lost its satrapies in Eastern Europe and then disintegrated into 15 independent states.
Yet empires do not die quickly: their collapse, historian Serhii Plokhy has written, is a “process rather than an event”. When a vast entity once held together by the iron discipline of the metropolis gives way, don’t expect a new stable status quo overnight.
The continuing tensions in the Balkans and the Middle East remind us that the legacies of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires are still wearing thin. The relationship between Britain and its former colonies continues to evolve.
Because the Soviet Union was ruled so brutally, its breakup was particularly messy. The end of the Soviet state removed the restrictions that had suppressed ethnic tensions and national rivalries between the constituent parts of the empire. It gave birth to new politically unstable states. This precipitated a continuing struggle between the country that had dominated the empire, Russia, and the states and peoples that now sought to escape Moscow’s grip.
The result was what scholars have called the “Wars of Soviet Succession” – a series of bloody conflicts over contested areas stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. During the 1990s, wars rocked Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Tajikistan, often drawing in neighboring states and international peacekeeping forces. Some of these conflicts have simmered since; others, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or the struggle between Georgia and the separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia supported by Moscow, have reignited major international conflicts . The end of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical earthquake whose aftershocks still destabilize the international system today.
Ukraine has suffered the most shocking of these shocks: the current war stands out for the ferocity of the fighting and the totality of Putin’s efforts to wipe another country off the map. Its most immediate origins lie in the increasingly totalitarian nature of Putin’s regime, which allows him to be more aggressive while forcing him to find external enemies; as well as whether Kyiv will align itself with Moscow or the West.
Yet he is also part of the greatest post-Soviet uproar. Ukraine’s declaration of independence in late 1991 helped destroy the Soviet state and hasten the imperial dissolution that followed. It is therefore not surprising, and sadly symbolic, that Ukraine is at the center of Putin’s efforts to reconsolidate the dominance that Moscow once possessed.
The war did not go as Putin had expected: Ukraine defended itself admirably and would long resist its forced incorporation into a Russian sphere of influence. Putin’s quest for imperial resurrection has, in this case, accelerated the formation of Ukrainian nationalism. However, if Russia paid the high price for its misadventure, this does not mean that the wars of Soviet succession are over.
Whenever the Russian-Ukrainian conflict comes to an end, the dividing line between the two armies may simply become another disputed post-Soviet border where frequent tensions cause periodic violence. Whether Russia wins or loses, the outcome will shift the balance of power within the former Soviet Union, possibly causing a further escalation of old disputes with Moldova, Georgia or other states.
The potential for violence in Central Asia remains high, as shown by an anti-government revolt in Kazakhstan, which precipitated Russian intervention earlier this year. A change of government or military mutiny in Belarus – neither of which can be ruled out due to serious dissatisfaction with the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko – could spark a fight for that country’s place between Russia and the West.
In early 1992, an American newspaper warned that the unrest caused by “the still-fragmented nuclear shards of the world’s last great empire” was just beginning. Even when the current war is over, this empire’s long and violent afterlife will persist.
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Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. Henry Kissinger Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, he is the co-author, most recently, of “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China” and a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Policy Council. ‘State.
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