The 20th century witnessed the end of the world built and ruled by empires: from Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which fell in the final days of World War I, to the British and French empires, which disintegrated in the aftermath of World War II. This decades-long process concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the mighty successor to the Russian Empire, which was stitched back together by the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, only to fall apart 70 years later during the final stage of the Cold War.
Although many factors contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, from the bankruptcy of communist ideology to the failure of the Soviet economy, the wider context for its dissolution is often overlooked. The collapse of the Soviet Union, like the disintegration of past empires, is a process rather than an event. And the collapse of the last empire is still unfolding today. This process did not end with Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation on Christmas Day 1991, and its victims are not limited to the three people who died defending the Moscow White House in August 1991 or the thousands of casualties from the Chechen wars.
The rise of nation-states on the ruins of the Soviet Union, like the rise of successor states on the remains of every other empire, mobilized ethnicity, nationalism, and conflicting territorial claims. This process at least partly explains the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the burst of popular support for those acts of aggression in the Russian Federation. As the victim of a much more powerful neighbor’s attack, Ukraine found itself in a situation similar to that of the new states of Eastern Europe formed after World War I on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Those states struggled with the enormous tasks of nation building while trying to accommodate national minorities and defend themselves against revanchist powers claiming the loyalty of those same minorities.
Although the historical context of the collapse of empires helps us understand the developments of the last 25 years in the former Soviet space, it also serves as a warning for the future. The redrawing of post-imperial borders to reflect the importance of nationality, language, and culture has generally come about as a result of conflicts and wars, some of which went on for decades, if not centuries. The Ottoman Empire began its slow-motion collapse in 1783, a process that reached its conclusion at the end of World War I. The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine is not the only reminder that the process of Soviet disintegration is still incomplete. Other such reminders are the frozen or semi-frozen conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the semi-independent state of Chechnya.
A lesson that today’s policymakers can learn from the history of imperial collapse is that the role of the international community is paramount in sorting out relations between former rulers and subjects. Few stable states have emerged from the ruins of bygone empires without strong international support, whether it is the French role in securing American independence, Russian and British involvement in the struggle for Greek statehood, or the U.S. role in supporting the aspirations of former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. The role of outsiders has been and will remain the key to any post-imperial settlement. Looking at the current situation, it’s difficult to overstate the role the United States and its NATO allies can play in solving the conflict in