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Return of the Bear

by Michael Auslin

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, by Serhii Plokhy (Basic, 496 pp., $32)

If location is everything in real estate, then timing is everything in book publishing. Even a few months ago, Serhii Plokhy’s revisionist history of the end of the Cold War might not have garnered much attention. Yet with Crimea annexed and eastern Ukraine starting to break away to Russia, The Last Empire may be the most timely book of the year.

Timely, however, does not mean uncontroversial, and Plokhy’s central contention is sure to engender years of debate. In a nutshell, Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, argues that the “lost arms race, economic decline, democratic resurgence, and bankruptcy of Communist ideals” were not what ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union; rather, it was the “imperial foundations, multiethnic composition, and pseudofederal structure of the Soviet state” that made it so vulnerable.

At the core of it all, and what makes Plokhy’s book almost preternaturally relevant to today’s headlines, is that the fate of the Soviet Union was decided by the unwillingness of Russia and Ukraine to continue coexisting inside that pseudofederal framework. From that perspective, Vladimir Putin’s so-far-successful attempt to begin reasserting Russian control over Ukraine takes on an even more dramatic cast. Recent hyperbolic comments on the return of the Cold War suddenly seem more understandable, if not more correct.

While Plokhy deals with weighty and somewhat academic issues, such as the concepts of empire, multiethnicity, and political structure, his book really focuses solely on the period from the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by members of his own government to the December 25 lowering of the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. These are the five crucial months that determined the fate of the USSR and the Cold War, Plokhy argues.

During those five months, moreover, it was the actions of four men that shaped the course of history. The interactions among President George H. W. Bush, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, Ukraine’s “shrewd” leader Leonid Kravchuk, and above all Gorbachev form the core of the narrative. No surprise, either, is it that Gorbachev comes across as almost a tragic figure: His miscalculations, arrogance, and ultimate ineptness left no place for him, says Plokhy, in the new world he unwittingly ushered in.

The Last Empire is thus a hybrid book — partly a traditional diplomatic history, making use of the much-derided “great man” approach, and partly a quasi-Marxist “impersonal forces of history” analysis. Yet Plokhy avoids being drawn further than necessary into tendentious argumentation of a metaphysical sort, and focuses instead on the drama of the months that sealed the doom of the Soviet Union.

That narrative, while it has an undeniable nostalgic appeal, will not lessen the controversy surrounding Plokhy’s attempt to quash what he calls the “inflated accounts” of America’s role in the Soviet Union’s collapse. In this, he takes aim at nearly the entire post-Soviet corpus of political science and history, the memoirs of the key players (or at least certainly the Americans), and newer treatments, such as Henry Nau’s chapter on Ronald Reagan in his Conservative Internationalism (2013).

At first glance, Plokhy’s most startling claim might be that George H. W. Bush and his advisers attempted to save Gorbachev, whom they considered “their main partner on the world stage.” Thus, to Plokhy’s critical eye, Bush’s triumphal addresses to the nation on December 25, 1991, and on January 28, 1992 (his last State of the Union address), rewrote history when proclaiming that the U.S. had “won” the Cold War and vanquished a foe that in reality it had tried to preserve.

This is obviously a subtle argument, and one that can get drowned in the torrent of narrative. Plokhy might have done better to acknowledge more fully that the key to understanding Bush’s actions was his desire to maintain global order and avoid the nightmare of accidental nuclear conflict between either Moscow and Washington or Moscow and its nuclear-armed former republics (Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan). From that perspective, there is less of a contradiction, and less ad hocery, in American actions than Plokhy initially claims.

There is little doubt that American leaders wanted to “win” the Cold War, but they also saw an opportunity to work with a potentially post-Soviet, even democratic, Russia that ideally would maintain control over the USSR’s nuclear arsenal. When that seemed likely under Gorbachev, still the West’s main adversary, Bush was willing to give qualified support in the interest of global order (if not survival). When Gorbachev was thrown under the bus by Yeltsin and Kravchuk, Washington pivoted to the new power center. Bush’s proclaiming victory was not rewriting history, but recognizing new realities brought about by the triumph of American grand strategy (perhaps the only instance in which the term can be appropriately used). Realism, not ideology, was always the hallmark of the George H. W. Bush administration — sometimes to its detriment.

The other major elements in Plokhy’s revisionist history are its downplaying of the personal rivalry between Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and its assertion that the inability of Ukraine and Russia to agree to a post-Soviet political structure was the final nail in the coffin of the USSR. This supports his thesis that multiethnic revolt and the brittleness of the quasi-federal political structure of the Soviet Union proved too much for either the men or their institutions. Yeltsin’s opportunism and stubbornness stripped Gorbachev of any opportunity to recast the Union on new grounds, but Kravchuk’s opposition to a new structure stalemated Yeltsin’s attempt to take over the center and make Russia the dominant force in a new grouping.

The Last Empire is imbued with a rather 21st-century sensibility. Plokhy’s underlying theme is that America was (and is) not all-powerful and that much of what popular opinion has attributed to the efforts of the American people and the sagacity of Washington does not reflect reality. In that sense, Plokhy’s book is very much a post-Iraq and -Afghanistan revisionist history. The somewhat confused and inconsistent policy of the senior Bush’s administration in this account foreshadows an even more misguided crusade on the part of his son’s administration.

This belief Plokhy makes explicit at the end of his epilogue, tracing the neoconservatives’ triumph inside the George W. Bush administration to the rewriting of history at the end of the Cold War. From that perspective, it is no surprise that the more cautious and traditionally realist among the advisers of George H. W. Bush come across the better.

How much of a role did the U.S. play in the fall of the USSR? Here one might question Plokhy’s methodology, and the scope of his book. In choosing such a limited, though fascinating, time frame, he perforce excises nearly all Cold War history from his account. The five months he concentrates on may indeed have been crucial to the fate of the USSR — but then, so were the decades leading up to them, which undermined Moscow’s strength and ability to control its sprawling empire. A large part of those decades was consumed with direct competition with the United States; and, without question, Ronald Reagan’s forceful challenging of Soviet interests in Central America, his military buildup and technological challenge, and the American support for the Afghan mujahedeen sapped Soviet energy.

Some strategic failures were of course brought about by Moscow acting alone: for example, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The very fact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s coming to power in 1985 was a result of failed Soviet policies and of an ossified leadership. But the system may well have lumbered along for more years — if it had not already been bleeding to death from the post-1945 global competition the Soviets had launched.

For all its strengths, The Last Empire seems almost made for TV — a perfect miniseries centering on the dramatic collapse of a worldwide threat to liberty and security. With appealing dramatis personae, it tells a compelling story well. Like all miniseries, it must sacrifice context for immediacy. Plokhy strives to keep the big picture in the plot and to acknowledge the influence of all that led up to those five crucial months. Yet even if we accept that Washington in the autumn and winter of 1991 was often led by events and did not lead them, its successful multigenerational strategy brought about the endgame whereby unique leaders could choose a once unthinkably peaceful ending to one of history’s great struggles.

– Mr. Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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