The dissolution of the Soviet Union was undoubtedly one of the most important geopolitical events of the twentieth century. Not only did it end the Cold War, but it also brought the world from a two-superpower system to a one-superpower system, which has had many long-lasting effects. The fall of the Soviet Union did not happen overnight, however. A chain of events beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, also known as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, set the USSR on the path to its ultimate demise.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the very end of the 1970s in order to support the newly installed Afghan communist regime. Like the US in Vietnam, the USSR wanted to support a government that shared its ideology against an opposition force that did not. Also like the US, the USSR stayed in Afghanistan for a long time and lost many soldiers. During this period, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as leader of the Soviet Union and quickly began implementing major reform policies within the Soviet Union’s domestic and foreign politics. Gorbachev implemented the reforms of glasnost and perestroika at home, pulled out of Afghanistan, and fostered closer ties with Western leaders and states.
Throughout 1990 and 1991, the Soviet Union began to fall apart. As the Time cover shows, countries within the USSR began to demand independence. Some of them were able to successfully break away and establish themselves as independent countries. In August 1991, communists in Moscow staged a failed coup in an attempt to stop Gorbachev’s liberalizing reform policies. The top left image shows people in Moscow taking down a statue after the failed coup.
In December 1991, the Soviet Union finally came to an end. Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine established the Commonwealth of Independent States early in the month, declaring that the Soviet Union was “ceasing its existence.” A few weeks later, most of the Soviet republics joined the CIS at Alma Ata. The map in the bottom left shows the successor states of the Soviet Union. Before the New Year, only one superpower was left in the world, and geopolitics would be permanently altered. The red Soviet flag (shown with the hammer and sickle cut out in the middle-left image) was replaced by the Russian tricolor.
Three of the former Soviet republics quickly pivoted away from Russia and towards Europe. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania began the process of accession to the European Union, and joined in 2004 as part of the Ten. Ukraine has tried to get closer to both Europe and Russia, which has caused considerable conflict in the past year, including the Russian annexation of Crimea and the shooting down of flight MH17.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has enjoyed much more power than any of the other CIS members, although it is much less powerful than the Soviet Union was. Until recently, Russia’s economy had been growing quite robustly, and it was included in the BRICS group of strong developing economies. However, Russia now faces an economic crisis due to the ruble’s value collapsing. Going forward, Russia must try to stabilize its economy instead of grandstanding on the global stage.