Time Frame: 1989-1992
Primary Causes: Economic decay, ethnic tensions
Outcome: National breakup, with largest piece retaining most land and people; multiple civil wars; interstate conflicts over contested areas
Multiple factors led to the fall of the Soviet Union, but the main proximate causes were economic decay and ethnic tensions. Prior to the official dissolution of the USSR, its people had experienced a sustained, if slow, general decline in average material conditions. While the exact figures are disputed, according to contemporary UN data Soviet GDP per capita peaked in 1983. Average Soviet life expectancy declined slightly during the 1970s. Additionally, unlike the United States (at least for the time being), Soviet citizens and leaders could see examples of more materially prosperous societies in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. Outsized military budgets and the costs of a failed war in Afghanistan further contributed to the economic and political malaise. The government launched a series of top-down reforms to incrementally liberalize the economy and political system, but officials lost control of the pace and nature of change, and in many cases apparently well-intentioned reforms accelerated the emergence of pent-up frustrations.
Longstanding ethnic tensions undermined the social and political unity of the Soviet Union. Only around half of the country’s total population were ethnic Russians. Unlike the United States, the constituent “republics” of the USSR were formed along ethnic lines. The actual distribution of various ethnic groups did not neatly match up with the lines on maps for their Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs). Nevertheless, most Lithuanians lived in the Lithuanian SSR, a majority of Kazakhs lived in the Kazakhs SSR, most Azeris lived in the Azeri SSR, and so on. The ancestors of these peoples all had historically lived under the Russian Empire for various periods of time, but for many groups this history was frequently punctuated by periods of repression, ethnic strife, and nationalistic rebellion. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were independent from Moscow between the world wars, and their people were therefore especially eager to regain independence as the Soviet Union began to stagnate. Constant anti-Soviet propaganda from the US and its NATO allies further encouraged this separatism. However, the first major incidents of ethnic clashes in the late 1980s were between non-Russian groups who felt they were located in the “wrong” SSR – most notably, communities of ethnic Armenians within the Azeri SSR and Azeris within the Armenian SSR.
The fifteen constituent “republics” that made up the Soviet Union provided a convenient fallback option for political restructuring as the USSR collapsed. Following a failed coup attempt by old-school Communist hardliners in 1991, the individual SSRs began declaring formal independence. By 1991, Moscow, racked by internal strife and economic chaos, gave up attempts to keep the SSRs by force. In many instances, Communist Party leaders simply transitioned from being head of a SSR to being president of a newly-independent country.
While Moscow refrained from launching military efforts to forcibly retain its fourteen main breakaway pieces in 1991, numerous armed conflicts did break out during and immediately after the process of Soviet collapse. The new Russian government did go to war to prevent the independence of Chechnya (a predominantly Muslim ethnic region in the mountains along Georgia which was never a formal SSR). Similarly, Georgia and Moldova attempted to maintain control over breakaway regions inhabited by minority ethnic groups; in 2008 Russia fought a brief war against Georgia to protect the de facto independence of the Georgian separatist regions. Newly-independent Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over territory from Soviet Collapse until 1994. They went to war against each other again in 2016, and again in 2020. A civil war broke out in Tajikistan. After the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, which saw a generally anti-Russian government take power, Russia seized Crimea and began backing pro-Moscow insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Russia launched a broader invasion of Ukraine in 2021. In total, these various conflicts have killed well over 200,000 people, with the Chechen wars being the most deadly, at least so far.
The contemporary United States and the circa-1980s Soviet Union have several key similarities. Average material conditions are declining. Inefficiencies and corruption plague the political system. Most of our top national leadership is elderly and out of touch with the concerns and viewpoints of the common people, especially the youth. Disagreements between ethnic and regional groups occasionally surface into major controversy and localized unrest. Top political leaders face very little accountability for their failures. Wasteful, failed military campaigns sap our resources and national confidence. Our country is made up of distinct geographic and political components.
There are also numerous relevant differences between our situation and that of the USSR prior to its fall. We have a nominally democratic political system; at least in theory, the American electorate could peacefully and constitutionally replace its current leadership. Our ethnic divisions are not so intense, nor are they concentrated along clear internal boundaries between our various states. Perhaps most importantly, there are currently no major countries operating under a different economic and political system with populations that are clearly more materially prosperous than the United States. Individuals belonging to the elite strata of the Soviet Union made intentional decisions that helped bring about their system’s ultimate collapse, while there is no apparent drive for such revolutionary changes from the leaders of our country.
Despite these differences, an overactive imagination is not needed to envision a Sovetesque collapse of the USA, especially if economic conditions continue to deteriorate. Eventually, firebrand leaders in specific states may come to believe that membership in our Union is no longer worth the costs, and a people suffering from shortages and decreasing real wages may agree. This scenario is particularly likely if average economic conditions in the United States clearly slip behind those of another major country (although establishment media and politicians will do their utmost to deny or conceal such a development). As in many instances of collapse, declining economic and social factors could spiral into mutual intensification. Ambitious leaders and disillusioned citizens may look at the financial and human burdens accompanying the Federal government and decide that, even with all its military might, human resources, and prestige, the costs are simply no longer worth the benefits. Unsustainable national debt, burdensome Federal taxes, a rapidly depreciating national currency, and casualties of failed wars all factor into this political cost-benefit analysis.
A political collapse running partially along existing state lines could be far preferable to one driven by ethnic contention. State lines are clear and well-established, whereas few areas of the country have an overwhelming majority of any one ethnic group. A Yugoslavia-style collapse of ethnic bloodletting would almost certaintly be a far greater humanitarian disaster than a Soviet-style split into existing state components, although at least some degree of ethnic contention could develop alongside a state-level split.
It is also important to note that a political breakup of all 50 states is unlikely. The Russian SSR geographically and demographically dominated the other “republics” in the USSR, and was always clearly the main successor state to the Soviet legacy. A Soviet-style collapse in America could similarly result in most of the population and landmass remaining within a particular polity as states and/or regions on the periphery break away. The potential nature of such a breakup is impossible to precisely forecast but also fairly easy to envision. Several states are clear contenders for breakaway countries which could attempt to separate from a weakened Federal government. Bids for separation could be prompted by a perceived tyrannical act of Washington from the Left (Texas, Utah, possibly a grouping of Southeastern States) or from the Right (California, Hawaii, coastal Washington and Oregon).
Unfortunately, even if Washington DC were to peacefully let some states or regions establish political independence, armed conflict could still occur. Portions of some breakaway states may seek to remain within the rump USA, or perhaps even form their own independent polities. New countries made up of former states could fight each other for territory, access to waterways, or natural resources. As with the former Soviet Union, internal political divisions within a new government could escalate into civil wars. Foreign powers may increase their influence in newly-independent countries along the border of the rump USA, and Washington could in turn launch military operations in perceived defense of its shrinking sphere of influence, even decades after the initial collapse.
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