Was It Worth Russia Splitting From the USSR?
"...it was a weakened Russia that took up the struggle to change the global system."
The author is President of the Center for Systems Analysis and Forecasting. Formerly a prominent Ukrainian diplomat and political analyst, he was forced into emigration by the Maidan putsch.
June 12 is Russia Day. From 1992 to 2002, it was called the Day of Adopting a Declaration on State Sovereignty of the Russian Federation. However, people gave it a much more precise unofficial name - Russia’s Independence Day.
Parade of Sovereignties
Only the Baltic States were ahead of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in executing acts of restoration of their prewar sovereignty between March to May of 1990. The Russian declaration was adopted in June, 1990. The other republics executed their sovereignty in 1991 when it was absolutely clear that the Soviet Union was over.
Local elites, promoting their own declarations of independence that were scarcely supported by the population that voted to preserve the USSR in the 1991 referendum, referred to the Russian example saying: “Moscow accepted the declaration of sovereignty, and now it can negotiate a new union with us from a position of strength as a sovereign country. We need to have a similar status, so we can speed-up negotiations.”
They lied, of course, but people believed them, just as they believed that if every republic kept what it produced, living standards would rise. People in Russia also believed that. They neither supported nor opposed the idea of Russian sovereignty, the general opinion being that if we "stopped feeding the republics", the standard of living in Russia would significantly increase.
During the first stage of the sovereignty process, this naïve faith fell short of expectations in the former Soviet countries. After 2000, Russia and Kazakhstan turned out to be the only places in which material welfare increased when compared to the USSR. This was especially noticeable in Russia, where development of infrastructure took priority.
But that well-being was hard to achieve, and it cost millions of former Soviet citizens’ lives, including Russians who passed away prematurely. Depopulation in Russia began in 1994 and did not stop until 2011.
The Sausage Argument
We can emphasize the following three results of Russia’s sovereignization:
It provided the elites of former Soviet republics with additional arguments for the break up of the USSR.
The complex twenty-year transition period, which brought economic devastation and such demographic losses that they could noy be replenished either by natural increase or immigration of Russians (and not only Russians) from former Soviet republics, or by returning the Crimea and Sevastopol, which brought almost two million new citizens in 2014. This year, the population is still two million lower than at its peak in 1993, when it exceeded 148.5 million people.
Thanks to economic growth in the 2000s, the well-being of average Russian citizens increased compared with Soviet times, creating an almost self-sufficient economy capable (if need be) of sustainable development under total autarchy.
Thus, that the claim of the "sausage sovereignty" people, that Russia would be better off after the departure of the other republics, was true to some extent. Having experienced drastic demographic and economic losses, Russia is the most successful state (including in the well-being of its people) in the post-Soviet area.
The Army and Borders
However, this is hardly the only result of the sovereignization of the early 1990s. Let us try to estimate the geopolitical and military-strategic consequences of the collapse of the USSR.
It turns out that the loss of the republics seriously lowered the level of Russian security while increasing expenditures on armed forces capable of defending the territory.
At first, compared to the USSR, the population decreased almost twofold, leading to a three-fold reduction in the number of armed forces. Besides, the borders that followed natural frontiers (rivers, mountains, seas), remained just as extensive but practically unprotected by these natural barriers.
To defend its borders and maintain stability in friendly states, Russia has to maintain its military bases in Tajikistan and Armenia. Similar bases were located in Georgia before their removal by Saakashvili, and they were useful. The main base in Sevastopol, used by the Black Sea fleet, and other basing sites in the Crimea were also in foreign territory before the return of Sevastopol and Crimea. This resulted in rent costs and also limited Russian foreign policy opportunities.
To some extent, Russia was a captive of the ally upon whose territory it deployed its forces, which could demand regular payments but would also accept Moscow’s economic preferences, as well as expect political support in any conflict situation.
New independent states, which provided a protective barrier for the USSR as republics leading to strategic centers, in many cases became launching grounds for aggression against Russia.
Industry and Mineral Resources
With the breakup of the USSR, Russia lost control over many industrial facilities in Ukraine, Belorussia and the Baltic States, whose local products competed with Russian manufacturers.
With respect to industry, things ended relatively well for Russia, because the elites of the Baltic States and Ukraine destroyed their industrial potential themselves. But as for mineral resources, the situation is worse. Russia lost control over huge explored reserves of mineral resources (oil, gas, uranium, power-generating coal, gold, iron ore, and other metal ores).
Some former republics tried to compete with Russia in these export areas. It took huge diplomatic efforts on the part of Moscow, as well as trade and economic concessions, to counter this. For example, to persuade Turkmenistan not to enter the European gas market, Gazprom was forced to sign long-term buy-out contracts on Turkmenistan’s surplus gas for an attractive price for Ashkhabad.
The National Question
The USSR’s collapse influenced the positions of national elites who had been part of the Russian Federation. In 1990, when central authority in Moscow was very weak, autonomists within Russia raised their heads. There were projects of "autonomization", including purely Russian territories as the Ural, Siberian and other republics.
Millions of Russians found themselves outside Russia. Many were uncomfortable with the nationalist policies of almost all the former Soviet republics. National elites feared that the presence of large Russian communities could someday become an argument for a return of these territories, or even the newly formed states themselves, to Russia, often ousting (in some cases by force) and/or implementing various kinds of assimilation policies.
As a result, several million Russians returned to Russia, with problems related to their status, accommodation, employment in their field of specialization. All that required extra expenditure. And this process remains unfinished. The situation in Ukraine is developing in such a way that during the next year, we can expect a massive new wave of immigration to Russia, larger than in 2014, involving from three to ten million people over a short period of time.
Still, millions of Russians remained in the national republics, often becoming a source of tension in interstate relations. Some former Soviet countries consider Russians as hostages, which they can use to squeeze concessions from Russia. On the other hand, some former republics of the USSR still consider Russians a risk factor, giving Russia a right to intrude into their domestic affairs.
Gathering of Lands
Russia became the objective center of Eurasian integration, and first of all, of the former Soviet republics. But if economic interests promote their rapprochement, political ghosts create serious problems.
Since Russia is the most populated, most powerful country militarily and economically, as well as a link between former Soviet republics, it cannot but play the leading role in the integration processes. This role, as well as Russia’s strategic interests, result in partners' concerns that the integration project will result in "a new USSR", their sovereignty subortinated to Moscow’s, motivating governments to look for balance via overtures to the West or even an outright pro-Western orientation.
The Bottom Line
Because of its sovereignty, in the 1990s Russia became relatively integrated; but the loss of vast territories forced it to create industries that duplicated those that remained in the republics.
But the main thing is that the military-strategic position of the country was severely affected, with no chance of significant improvement in an overall situation that allows neither a return to direct political control (apart from several already utilized or still remaining opportunities) nor the building of reliable alliances.
Today Russia spends resources that previously went to "aligning" the development levels of the Soviet republics on its military-strategic security. However, it is a priori incapable of providing the same level of security as the USSR, because the devastation and disorganization of former Soviet republics automatically lead to huge demands on Russian resources. Attempts to remedy disorganization have involved considerable means with minimal results.
Thus, Russia’s independence from the USSR led to a small tactical success, achieved at a high price, and serious strategic losses, which are impossible to overcome within the modern global system. As a result it was a weakened Russia that took up the struggle to change the global system. And Russian problems originating in the sovereignization of the 1990’s can only be solved as part of the victory in the global confrontation with the U.S. and Western nations.
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