Describe a current event that you think is part of the legacy of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Explain how the current news event might be traced back to the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Due Date: Tuesday, November 1. Minimum 2 pages, typed in MLA Format.
By Carl Stoffers
Oct. 10, 2016
Imagine waking up every day and fearing you might be wiped out by a nuclear bomb.
For almost a half century after World War II (1939-45), Americans and much of the world lived in legitimate fear of annihilation. The two Cold War superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union—had built up arsenals of nuclear weapons and on more than one occasion had come close to using them. The stakes were high: The Soviets and their allies were trying to spread Communism around the world, and the U.S. and its allies were trying to stop them.
Then, after decades of staring each other down, something unexpected happened: The Soviet threat went away. In 1989, protesters in Germany tore down the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Iron Curtain that had divided people under Communist and democratic rule in Europe. And two years later, in 1991, the Soviet Union* dissolved, leaving the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower.
But today, 25 years since the Soviet collapse, the hope that democracy and freedom would prevail in the 15 former Soviet republics has largely evaporated. That’s especially true for Russia, by far the largest and most powerful of the former Soviet republics. And the fear today is that the friction between the U.S. and Russia under President Vladimir Putin could result in a new standoff reminiscent of the Cold War.
“Putin sincerely believes that the end of the Cold War was a source of humiliation and misery for Russia and that the duty of any Russian leader is to erase that humiliation and restore Russia to some of the superpower glory of the Soviet Union,” says Leon Aron, Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
The original Cold War began in the embers of World War II. While the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been allies—along with France and Britain—in the war against Nazi Germany, the partnership disintegrated with Adolf Hitler’s defeat. With Europe in ruins, Soviet troops occupied much of Eastern Europe and half of Germany. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin soon installed Communist puppet governments that answered to Moscow. While the U.S., Britain, and France sought to rebuild Europe, Stalin declared that the Soviets were devoted to the destruction of the capitalist West. Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill responded by famously proclaiming in a 1946 speech that an “iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Stalin, one of history’s most brutal dictators, governed the Soviet Union ruthlessly, jailing or executing political dissidents, and forbidding free elections. At least 40 million people died from famine, persecution, and mass executions under his rule.
When the Soviets tested an atomic bomb in 1949—joining the U.S. as the world’s only nuclear powers—tensions greatly escalated and so did the threat that the Cold War would turn hot. The two sides began a frantic arms race, eventually building 70,000 nuclear weapons. Beginning in the 1950s, American schools taught students to “duck and cover” under their desks if they saw a nuclear bomb’s bright flash (which wouldn’t have helped much in the face of a real nuclear attack), and issued dog tags so their bodies could be identified.
“There was a real risk of things getting out of control and real miscalculations being made,” says Fiona Hill, a Russia scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “The terror of it was very real.”
“We Will Bury You” | The U.S. and the Soviet Union never declared war on each other, but in a series of “proxy wars,” they aided opposite sides as the struggle between Communism and democracy played out globally. In the Korean War (1950-53), North Korea’s forces, backed by the Soviets and Communist China, battled U.S. and South Korean troops to a bloody stalemate. It settled nothing, and the Cold War played on. In 1956, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had taken power after Stalin’s death, casually told Western diplomats, “History is on our side. We will bury you.”
By the 1970s, many Americans, and much of the world, wondered if he could be right: Soviet-backed forces had defeated American forces in Vietnam, the U.S. economy was suffering from soaring inflation, and a criminal scandal known as Watergate had forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974.
But Khrushchev was wrong.
America pulled out of its tailspin by the 1980s. In contrast, the Soviet leadership steered the U.S.S.R. toward oblivion. The regime imprisoned dissidents, crushed democratic movements in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and invaded neighboring Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the Communist government against a growing insurgency. The Soviet Union began losing support worldwide. Afghanistan became the Soviets’ Vietnam. Backed by U.S. weapons and expertise, Muslims from Pakistan and the Middle East who viewed the Soviet invaders as infidels rushed into Afghanistan, killing more than 14,000 Soviet troops and wounding 50,000 more before Moscow withdrew in 1989.
At the same time, a dying Soviet economy was sinking under incompetent government control. State-run industries were no help, turning out broken tractors and allowing crops to rot in the fields for lack of trucks to get them to market. Bureaucrats decided what to manufacture, and people waited years to buy a car or get a phone—or they bribed someone to jump the line.
“Tear Down This Wall | In 1985, an energetic reformer named Mikhail Gorbachev took power. Sensing opportunity, President Ronald Reagan traveled in 1987 to Berlin, which had been divided for two decades by the Berlin Wall that separated Communist East Germany from democratic West Germany. Reagan stood on the West German side and declared: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Gorbachev moved to thaw relations with the West, relaxed curbs on what people could say and read with a policy known as glasnost—or openness—and tried to fix the Soviet Union’s calcified economy with free-market reforms known as perestroika.
“I still entertained illusions that the system could be reformed,” he told Time magazine in 2003.
But it was too late. Communist diehards sabotaged Gorbachev’s economic efforts, and daily life grew even worse.
“The chains were gone, but so was the food,” New York Times reporter Serge Schmemann wrote in 1991 from Moscow.
The end began in 1989, when Eastern Europe’s puppet states allowed free elections and opened their borders. In Berlin, East Germany opened the gates to the Berlin Wall, and its citizens streamed out.
Russians soon began staging democracy protests too, and Gorbachev made more reforms, including allowing political parties other than the Communist Party. Then, in December 1991, Russia, the heart of the Soviet empire, proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev soon bowed to the inevitable. On Christmas Day, the crimson hammer-and-sickle Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin, the seat of the government in Moscow. The white, blue, and red Russian tricolor took its place. The Soviet Union was no more. But what would replace it?
The peaceful world some envisioned, presided over by a benevolent America, never came to pass. Without a common Soviet enemy, many nations that once aligned themselves with the U.S. drifted away. The U.S. also became a prime target for the rage of groups left out of the new global order. In Afghanistan, the same Islamic militants the U.S. trained and equipped to defeat the Soviet army took power and turned that broken nation into a haven for Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks. Osama bin Laden, one of the young Muslims who fought the Soviets, became Al Qaeda’s leader.
The fortunes of the former Soviet republics and satellite states have been mixed. Some of the eastern European nations that escaped Soviet control, like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, are democracies with prospering economies. But many of the Soviet Union’s former republics, especially those in Central Asia, still have repressive governments.
Russia flirted with democracy in the 1990s. But it slipped back to strongman rule when Vladimir Putin—a former spy for the KGB, the Soviet Union’s brutal intelligence agency—took office in 1999. Putin, who has ruled Russia ever since, has sought to return the nation to what he sees as its rightful place as a superpower.
A New Strongman | In 2008, Putin’s government intervened in a war in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and in 2014, it annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Since 2015, Russia has taken an increasingly active and controversial role in the Syrian civil war by backing President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces. It has supplied them with Russian troops and weapons, and has orchestrated airstrikes against rebel groups, some of which are supported by the U.S.
Partly because of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, tensions with the U.S. have increased, even after President Obama expressed a desire to “reset” relations in 2009. Obama and Putin’s personal relations have been icy, at best (see photo above). Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, calling him a strong leader, “far more than our president has been a leader,” and even invited Russia to hack the emails of rival Hillary Clinton. (Trump later said he was joking.)
In Russia itself, some things have improved under Putin. In the early days especially, oil money boosted the economy enabling many Russians to enjoy goods and services they could only have dreamed of in the Soviet Union. (The recent crash in oil prices has hit the country’s economy hard.)
At the same time, government corruption has been a problem under Putin. He’s given most of the big business contracts to his friends, many of whom are now billionaires (also known as “plutocrats”). And Putin has cracked down on civil liberties. There’s virtually no free press in Russia, elections are rigged, and dissidents are sometimes jailed. In 2012, members of an all-female punk rock group were put in jail for nearly two years for staging a protest against Putin in a Moscow cathedral. In some cases, dissenters are even murdered—reminding some people of the old Soviet days.
“There’s a sense of helplessness, which Putin exploits,” says Aron of the American Enterprise Institute.
Alex Cooley, a Russia expert at Columbia University in New York, agrees, and he thinks that helplessness will make it unlikely for real democracy to come to Russia anytime soon.
“I don’t think we’ll have a moment like 1991 again unless there is some sort of really seismic geopolitical event or a complete economic collapse,” says Cooley. “The early 1990s was the window, and it wasn’t taken.”
By Michael Khodarkovsky
The New York Times
Oct. 26, 2016
The Russian media have been talking up war for some time, but it has now reached new heights of warmongering. Dmitry Kiselev, a television journalist known for his close ties to the Kremlin, keeps threatening the West with nuclear weapons. Another ally of President Vladimir V. Putin, the voluble ultranationalist party leader Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, recently declared that if Hillary Clinton were elected, it would mean World War III.
Clearly, the Kremlin is deliberately creating a sense of impending war by having its own media insist that NATO has put Russia under threat — from the military alliance itself and its democratic ethos. Ominously, Mr. Putin loses no opportunity to extol the Russian people’s wartime virtues of heroism and martyrdom.
Most recently, the war scenario moved from talk on television to Russian city streets. From Oct. 4 to 7, a Russian civil defense drill reportedly involved 40 million civilians and 200,000 civil defense experts who instructed citizens in schools, factories and offices. The government-controlled media rhapsodized that the bomb shelters were found to be in good order, as the people drilled in what to do during a nuclear, chemical or bacteriological war.
In one Moscow district, local authorities posted fliers asking residents to contribute money to hasten construction of a bomb shelter “because of the growing international tensions, particularly the expected nuclear aggression against Russia by the unfriendly countries,” clearly a reference to the United States and its allies. Maybe all that these fliers signify is pandering to the Kremlin by local bureaucrats eager to impress the authors of a propaganda blitz. But there is no denying that such announcements are strengthening a genuine bout of war hysteria, emanating from the Kremlin.
And increasingly strange things keep happening. On Oct. 10, St. Petersburg’s governor authorized storing enough grain to provide 300 grams (two-thirds of a pound) of bread to each city resident for 20 days. In a city that suffered epic death and starvation during a 900-day German siege during World War II, such a decree has special resonance. The next day, the Kremlin ordered members of Parliament and government officials who had relatives abroad to bring them home immediately. In other news, a recent military exercise called Caucasus 2016 tested a plan for wartime governance in that region, under control of the national defense apparatus.
Could this be just theater intended to intimidate the West at a time of insecurity in Europe and strong suspicions in the United States that Russia is meddling in its election? Or is it meant for an audience closer to home — yet another cynical ploy with which to distract Russia’s own citizens from their economic woes by directing their anger into the proven channel of anti-Americanism?
No doubt it is both. But that only deepens its significance, since the consequences of falsifying reality in order to manipulate fears are difficult to control. Too often in history, incendiary rhetoric has fed into dangerous policies and catastrophic miscalculations by both its perpetrators and its recipients.
Russia’s militarization and President Putin’s nuclear chest-thumping did not start yesterday. Since 2012, Russia has been rapidly modernizing its military, and by 2015 had increased its military budget by 40 percent. Its level of announced military spending last year stood at 4.5 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product, and most independent experts estimate that the real number is 5.3 percent. By contrast, China’s military spending stands at 2.1 percent of G.D.P., and the United States’, while still the largest in real dollars, is at 3.5 percent.
Still, Russia’s military budget remains a priority despite a backbreaking national deficit. Last week, the government announced a $12.7 billion increase in the so-called black budget usually assigned for security and military matters. The money came from a special fund that the government had created by delinking pensions from inflation rates. Spending also had been cut for social services, health care expenses and education.
In recent years, Russia has frequently sprung surprise military exercises along its borders with its western neighbors. After its invasion of Ukraine, news of NATO fighters’ intercepting Russian bombers flying perilously close to other European airspace has become routine. Recently the Kremlin moved a modified S-300 antimissile and antiaircraft system into Syria, deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea, withdrew from a treaty on the disposal of plutonium, and effectively abrogated a treaty limiting land-based missiles.
The Kremlin’s modus operandi is simple: spread fear and uncertainty through provocative military moves and unrelenting propaganda at home and abroad. Most experts agree that the most dangerous part of this approach has been Mr. Putin’s unprovoked escalations.
Indeed, he behaves like a child in a sandbox who makes mischief repeatedly until he gets the attention of the adults. Similarly, the more the West ignores his provocations, the more he escalates.
But a nuclear-armed world is no sandbox, and budding war hysteria in a huge country afflicted with imperial nostalgia, one-man rule, a looming demographic crisis, ethnic tensions and a declining oil-dependent economy cannot be dismissed lightly. While Moscow’s saber rattling has clearly failed to intimidate the West, Russia’s military and its nuclear arsenal remain the only aces in Mr. Putin’s hand. So the Kremlin can be expected to continue escalating its disinformation and propaganda.
Mr. Putin often evokes his tough childhood to explain his philosophy of life. “Hit them first and hit them hard” was the lesson, and his adult career in the K.G.B. didn’t change that. But this worldview follows the time-honored expansionist ambitions of Russian autocracy under czars and Communist leaders alike. For centuries, the Russian Empire advanced at the expense of its weaker neighbors until it met determined resistance or faced a war it could not win. The West must now send Moscow an unambiguous message that the price for future misadventures like the ones in Ukraine and Syria would be unacceptably high. And someone should remind Mr. Putin that one reason the Soviet Union collapsed was an arms race that it couldn’t afford.
By Maxim Trudolyubov
The New York Times
Oct. 12, 2016
Whoever becomes the next president of the United States will have to deal with a Russia that seems both familiar and, increasingly, unfamiliar. For centuries, Russia has been a resource-exporting country, an economic laggard and a touchy partner, driven by a European culture and a decidedly un-European body politic. But now those constants have been joined by new factors: President Putin’s political unpredictability and his readiness to use military force.
The Russia of the past two years seems to no longer care about lasting partnerships or international agreements. It scorns predictability and dependability as weaknesses. Its one successful reform since 2000 has been to revamp and re-equip its armed forces. Russia’s resources are stretched, but Mr. Putin seems determined to overcome those disparities with the West with political and military agility.
The depth of harm this has done to efforts to build a partnership between Russia and the West was evident last week, when a Syrian bombardment of a hospital near Damascus, in the wake of the failure of a cease-fire, prompted the American secretary of state, John Kerry, to suggest that Russia and its ally Syria be investigated for potential war crimes.
In an extraordinary move, the Kremlin on Tuesday canceled a visit by Mr. Putin to France; a comment by President François Hollande the day before that Russia might have committed war crimes was seen here as the likely reason.
The Kremlin’s intensifying confrontation with the West has already put the Russian economy under severe strain. But the Russian population seems to accept falling incomes and general uncertainty as the price of what its leaders portray as a national resurgence. Encouraged by the jingoistic state-run media, Russian society seems to applaud war policies that would subject a Western leader to fierce inquiries or removal from office by a disapproving electorate (the British prime minister Tony Blair’s fate after his acquiescence in the American-led Iraq war is one example).
Arguably, Russia is the only major power that no longer hesitates to shatter longstanding relationships with others. Mr. Kerry’s latest condemnation followed by a few days Mr. Putin’s decision to withdraw Russia from a longstanding treaty under which Russians and Americans were reducing their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium. The bill Mr. Putin sent to Parliament for approval included a list of unrealistic conditions under which Moscow might return to honoring the treaty — a clear signal that the matter was closed. The conditions included a lifting of all sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine, compensation for all losses suffered in Russia as a result, and the reduction of America’s military presence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Mr. Putin’s decision to withdraw from the agreement was announced soon after an American decision to suspend negotiations with Russia for a new cessation of hostilities in Syria, where the Obama administration said Moscow had broken its previous commitments. In turn, Russia accused the United States of shifting blame for the cease-fire’s breakdown.
All of this took place in the shadow of horrific violence in the rebel-held eastern parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo, where 275,000 people are besieged and under Russian and Syrian government bombardment. The health and water supply systems neared the verge of total destruction amid reports that the pro-government forces were going after whatever was left of eastern Aleppo’s medical clinics and infrastructure.
The scenario was straight from Mr. Putin’s playbook. Pushing talks into a tight corner while intensifying the use of force was a tactic Russia used repeatedly during the hot phases of the Ukrainian war in 2014. Strobe Talbott in February contrasted the American use of “diplomacy backed by force” in the Balkans in the 1990s to Russia’s current use of “force backed by diplomacy.”
In Syria, Russian officials pay lip service to the humanitarian aspect of the siege, but dismiss it in practice. “The rebels of Aleppo are interested only in a kind of cease-fire that allows them to bring in more arms and replenish ammunition,” the daily Vedomosti quoted an unnamed source in the Russian Ministry of Defense as saying last weekend, in an effort to explain why a new cease-fire would be hard to reach. “On the other hand,” the source continued, “the govern-ment army is not strong enough to take Aleppo quickly.” The result: an agreement and an end to the carnage are as distant as ever.
Still, the Kremlin is convinced it is playing a winning game, so long as the United States is reluctant to intervene and Syrians, not Russians, absorb most of the casualties and damage. Even with the painfully slow pace of progress by Syrian government forces, Russia is unlikely to introduce ground forces (a politically dangerous move back home), and just as unlikely to abandon its ally, President Bashar al-Assad.
What Mr. Putin seems to think Syria offers is a magic portal that will help Russia leap to a new level of international recognition. Russia no longer sees itself as a power seeking to escape isolation imposed by the West for occupying Crimea and intervening in Ukraine. Instead, it pursues the claim of a victorious power whose transgressions become irrelevant because winners don’t have to justify themselves.
In hindsight, it is clear that the Russian and American administrations have both contributed to the current bilateral freeze. Just calling Russia a declining regional power, or counting on that status to bring it to heel, is not a strategy. At this point, it would be a herculean task for any new president to re-establish trust. Aleksandr Baunov, a Russian writer on foreign policy, has suggested that Mr. Putin had an unacknowledged goal for the impossible conditions of his legislation: He would drive the American-Russian relationship so low that a new American president would have no room to drive it lower. Releasing the tension would be hard too, because that would look like complying with Mr. Putin’s legislation. And Moscow seems to prefer the current state of unnerving alarm to seeking a new easing of tensions.
In short, the Kremlin has made its decisions: Put the onerous domestic problems aside, play the power game, do not blink, and call everything the West says a bluff. A victory, this thinking goes, will one day recoup all costs.
But what kind of victory would that be? Is there a city or a region that Russia might occupy that would bring Russia’s own citizens prosperity? Any regime presiding over a backward oil-dependent economy will not be able to modernize it by waging wars and poisoning every relationship it still has. It may not happen soon, but someday in the future, Russia will have to take up the hard work of fixing both its economic base and its position among its peers.