People strolling through the snow-capped Red Square in Moscow on the evening of December 25, 1991 were surprised to witness one of the most defining moments of the 20th century – the Soviet red flag over the Kremlin was withdrawn and replaced by the tricolor of the Russian Federation.
Minutes earlier, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation in a live televised address to the nation, concluding 74 years of Soviet history.
In his memoir, Gorbachev, now 90, bitterly lamented his inability to prevent the demise of the USSR, an event that upset the balance of power in the world and sowed the seeds of a standoff ongoing between Russia and neighboring Ukraine.
“I still regret that I failed to bring the ship back under my command to calm waters, that I did not complete reforming the country,” Gorbachev wrote.
Political experts still wonder today if he could have kept his position and saved the USSR. Some argue that Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, could have prevented the Soviet break-up if he had acted more decisively to modernize the anemic state-controlled economy while retaining tighter control over the political system.
“The collapse of the Soviet Union was one of those occasions in history that are thought to be unthinkable until they become inevitable,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Associated Press, told The Associated Press. Moscow Carnegie Center. “The Soviet Union, whatever its long-term chances, was not destined to collapse when it did.”
By the fall of 1991, however, worsening economic difficulties and secessionist offers from the Soviet republics had made collapse almost certain. A failed August 1991 coup by the Communist Old Guard provided a major catalyst, significantly eroding Gorbachev’s authority and encouraging more Soviet republics to seek independence.
As Gorbachev desperately tried to negotiate a new “treaty of union” between the republics to preserve the USSR, he encountered stiff resistance from his great rival, the leader of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin, who wanted to seize the Kremlin and was supported by other thinking heads of the Soviet republics.
On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met at a hunting lodge, declaring the death of the USSR and announcing the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Two weeks later, eight more Soviet republics joined the newly formed alliance, giving Gorbachev a difficult choice: resign or try to avoid the break-up of the country by force.
The Soviet leader analyzed the difficult dilemma in his memoir, noting that an attempt to order the arrest of the leaders of the republics could have resulted in a bloodbath amid divided loyalties within the military and forces of the Soviet Union. ‘order.
“If I had decided to rely on part of the armed structures, it would inevitably have triggered an acute political conflict, bloody and with far-reaching negative consequences,” wrote Gorbachev. “I couldn’t do that: I would have ceased to be myself.”
What would have happened if Gorbachev had used force is hard to imagine in retrospect, observed Trenin of the Carnegie Center.
“Maybe it sparked bloody events in Moscow and all over Russia, maybe all over the Soviet Union, or maybe it solidified some things,” he said. “If he had decided to go this route … there would have been blood on his hands. He should have turned into some sort of dictator, because it would have … removed his most important piece of legacy. that is, not to use force in a massive way. “
When the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine declared the Soviet Union’s demise, they did not pay much attention to what would happen to the Soviet army of 4 million troops and to its enormous nuclear arsenals.
After the Soviet collapse, it took years of U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to persuade Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to hand over Soviet nuclear weapons left in their territories to Russia – a process that was finally completed. in 1996.
“The leaders of the republics which announced the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991 did not consider all the consequences of what they were doing,” Gorbachev’s aide Pavel Palazhchenko told the PA.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose two decades at the helm are longer than the terms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin combined, described the Soviet collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
“The break-up of the Soviet Union was the break-up of a historic Russia,” Putin said in a documentary aired this month on Russian state television. “We have lost 40% of the territory, of production capacities and of the population. We have become a different country. Much of what was built over a millennium has been lost.
The Kremlin decided to redraw the post-Soviet borders in 2014, in response to the ousting of the former Ukrainian leader friend of Moscow by annexing the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula and relying on separatist rebels in eastern his neighbour.
More than seven years of fighting in Ukraine’s eastern industrial center has left more than 14,000 dead. Tensions have erupted in recent weeks over a build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine which has fueled Western fears of an invasion.
Moscow has denied plans for an offensive and has strongly urged the United States and its allies to commit that NATO does not expand into Ukraine or deploy weapons there – a request rejected by the West.
Putin and his officials countered the Western argument that Russia has no say in the expansion of the alliance by insisting on the country’s right to protect its core security interests.
“Russia has never claimed to have the right to vote to make decisions for other countries,” Konstantin Kosachev, vice-president of the upper house of the Russian parliament, told the PA. “But we have full voting rights to ensure our own interests and security, and to deliver our vision for a security environment in neighboring regions.”
While Putin has repeatedly denied his intention to rebuild the USSR, he described the Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” in the face of the angry protests in Kiev and accused Ukraine of unjustly inheriting parts history of Russia during the disappearance of the USSR.
The Russian leader further toughened his rhetoric Thursday amid mounting tensions with the West, accusing Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin of handing over Russian land to Ukraine to “create a country that never existed before.”