The U.S. government acts like it has a vital interest in separating Ukraine from Russia, even if that sparks a civil war among Ukrainians and disrupts Europe’s economic recovery. A slightly varied history might have given a different perspective, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.
By Paul R. Pillar
Imagine that the collapse of Soviet communism more than two decades ago had taken a different form than it did. It might have done so, if the dramatic and fast-moving events of 1991 and key people who participated in them had taken a few different turns.
Today we associate the collapse with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and its replacement by 15 independent republics. But the break-up of that union did not need to be part of the failure and demise of the Leninist method of organizing politics, economics and society that we came to know as Soviet communism.
It is true that separatist sentiment had become by early 1991 a significant part of the growing political crisis in the Soviet Union, with the Baltic republics and Georgia making declarations of independence. Even then, however, the break-up of the union was by no means certain. The center was using military force to try to bring the Lithuanians back in line and Mikhail Gorbachev was supporting the adoption of a new charter, to replace one from 1922, aimed at mollifying sentiment in the non-Russian republics while preserving some sort of union.
The career track of Boris Yeltsin had as much as anything else to do with the political shape events in the Soviet Union would take later in 1991. Yeltsin had risen to senior posts in the union power structure before having a falling out with Gorbachev and others in the Soviet regime. He happened to make his political comeback in the government of the Russian republic, and was elected president of that republic in mid-1991.
Thus Yeltsin was in that position when he climbed atop a tank to face down the Soviet hardliners who attempted a coup in August while Gorbachev was vacationing at his dacha in Crimea. This meant that once the coup was defeated and Gorbachev’s power waned as Yeltsin’s waxed, power went from the union government to the Russian republic. Yeltsin scooped up union ministries and made them Russian ones, and when Gorbachev resigned as the last Soviet president later in the year there was barely a shell of a union government left.
It is plausible to imagine a different scenario in which the government structures that emerged from the wreckage of the U.S.S.R. would have looked substantially different. Suppose Yeltsin had taken his defiant, tank-climbing action not as president of the Russian republic but as a reformist party chief of the Moscow region, a job he had once held, along with sitting on the politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Perhaps this would have meant significant power remaining at the level of a reconstituted union.
Such speculation does not say anything about the relative likelihood of the scenario being posited, although the scenario can be the basis for a useful thought experiment if it is at least plausible. Nationalist sentiment in the constituent republics would always have been a significant factor to be reckoned with.
Probably what is most implausible about any continued post-Soviet union would be inclusion of the Baltic republics. They alone among the republics of the U.S.S.R. had a history as independent states as recently as 1940. The United States and the West never recognized their annexation by Moscow, and the Baltics’ westward orientation has always been strong.
The relevant thought experiment worth doing is to ask: if some sort of union (even without the Baltic states) had endured, how would we in the United States have assessed the events back in the 1990s, and how would we see our interests in that part of the world today?
There still would have been sufficient basis on which to say that the Cold War was over and that our side had “won” it. Moscow had already lost its Eastern European empire, and the Warsaw Pact was gone. Although there would not have been as distinctive a dissolution of the U.S.S.R. as in fact happened with the creation of 14 independent states plus the successor state of Russia, the collapse of Soviet communism and the Leninist system would still have been readily apparent.
The collapse would have been memorialized in a new name for the union, because it no longer would be calling itself “Soviet” or “socialist”; the name picked for the new union charter that was being negotiated in Gorbachev’s time was “Union of Sovereign States.” Creation of a bunch of new, completely independent, Eurasian nation-states was not intrinsic to winning the Cold War, any more than were the later divorce of Czechs and Slovaks or the break-up of Yugoslavia.
George Kennan in his “X” article, the playbook for containment of the U.S.S.R., did not address the issue of nationalities or dissolution of the union. The article uses “Soviet” and “Russian” almost interchangeably. He left open a variety of possible successful outcomes of Cold War containment, stating that the self-destructive forces he perceived in the Soviet Union “must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.”
Other considerations also should be kept in mind when answering the thought experiment’s question. One is that the political histories of several of the non-Russian former Soviet republics can hardly be said to constitute victories for Western-style freedom and democracy. Thus neither, in this particular respect, was the break-up of the Soviet Union. A current reminder that is geographically close to the West is the strident authoritarianism of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
In several of the republics, independence meant that regional Communist Party bosses clung to power as presidents. Two of those bosses, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, are still in power today. Another one of them, the late Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, created a cult of personality that rivaled those of Stalin and the Kim family of North Korea. Even some of these strongmen, including Lukashenko and Niyazov, opposed the break-up of the U.S.S.R. at the time.
All of this is relevant to how the United States should perceive its interests today regarding the crisis in Ukraine. If there now existed a Union of Sovereign States, Russians in Moscow would lead it and Ukraine would be a part of it. We in the United States would still be proud winners of the Cold War, happy to see Marxism-Leninism having been discredited and communists in that part of the world reduced to a political opposition. Living with that arrangement would not be a major issue for the vast majority of U.S. and Western observers.
Of course, actual events, rather than hypothetical alternative histories, affect interests and how they ought to be conceived as well as how they actually are conceived. In the Ukrainian situation, the interests chiefly involved concern upholding international norms, especially the norms of non-aggression and respect for state sovereignty. The events of 1991 did not change facts of geography and demography that, whether we like to think this way or not, mean Russia has substantially greater strategic interest in the distribution of power in and around Ukraine than the United States does.
We do not like to think that way, partly because the events of 1991 gave us a bonus to our Cold War victory in the form of the outright dissolution of the U.S.S.R. and a sudden, drastic contraction of Russian influence. Anything that is perceived as a loss for our side (as any reassertion of Russian influence in this area would be), whether what is lost started out as a bonus or not, is harder to take than not having won it in the first place. This is a good illustration of prospect theory, but it is not a good basis for defining national interests and making policy.
The best, and probably only feasible, resolution of the crisis over Ukraine remains a Finlandized Ukraine for which joining any military alliance is firmly ruled out and significant power has been devolved from the central government to the regions. Keeping in mind how the history of the U.S.S.R. could have taken another track will help to remind us of how good an arrangement that would be for our side, as well as for Ukrainians.
It also will help us to achieve greater clarity, which is sorely lacking in much of the American debate over Ukraine, in defining our interests and objectives as we decide on the next moves in jousting with one of Boris Yeltsin’s other major legacies: his hand-picked successor as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)