By Nicholas Hudson
As the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union approaches, effects of the major geopolitical shift continue to persist. The consequences reach far beyond the former Union’s borders, affecting countries on nearly every continent as well as some of the world’s most venerated international institutions. While the Cold War gave over four decades of perilous stability, its abrupt end ushered in an era of unknowns for the international community. Today, the resulting global challenges threaten to upset the stability and alter the status quo of the international system. The following are some of the most prevalent and persistent of these challenges and ones that carry the highest potential risk for upsetting the current state of the world-system.
Unresolved Borders and Seceding Nations
Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were 159 member states of the United Nations.[i] Today, a quarter-century later, there are 193. Immediately following its collapse, eleven republics claimed statehood from the former Soviet Union alone. This abrupt dismantling of republics gained momentum and quickly spread beyond the former Soviet Union’s borders. Such cases include Yugoslavia, which eventually split into six countries, and Czechoslovakia, which broke into two. Many of these splits came as the result of ethnic divisions that were reignited after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had seen relative success in keeping ethnic rivalries at bay during its near 70-year existence. The series of rapid secessions may have set the precedent for secessionist sentiments, perhaps influencing contemporary breakaway movements including those in Ukraine, Catalonia, and Scotland.
The Soviet Union’s fall also led to tensions between Moldova and the breakaway territory of Transnistria; a conflict that peaked with a five-month military conflict in the early 1990s but continues to simmer today. At present, the political status of Transnistria rests unsettled, as the territory is an unrecognized but de facto republic. Most international attention towards the issue has faded, though Russia has begun reasserting its presence in recent years.[ii] This year marks the 10th anniversary of the referendum in Transnistria in which 95 percent of the population voted to be annexed by Russia. However, the referendum was not acted upon by Russia and was unrecognized by the West, though the former maintains economic ties and a military presence in the de facto republic. The recent presidential election in Moldova demonstrated that the nation is ready for a rapprochement with Russia and a possible settlement to the Transnistria conflict - moves that may come as a concern for Ukraine and other neighboring EU countries.
China’s Increased Influence
China has taken advantage of the collapse of the USSR by asserting its authority in countries no longer under heavy American or Soviet influence. The Chinese have invested billions in massive infrastructure projects across Africa, including countries with pro-Soviet communist governments such as Angola and Ethiopia. In Latin America, once a hot spot of civil wars and pro-communist revolutions, and where today the majority of countries are governed by socialist or socialist-democratic parties, China has again taken advantage of the end of Cold War-era conflicts and exerted its own influence. As a result, the Chinese have asserted themselves in the region, becoming a bigger trading and investment partner than the United States.[iii] The Soviet collapse has thus allowed for a global shift in the balance of power as once highly contested regions were opened up to influence from third party states. China has proved to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the shift, experiencing a dissemination of influence in Africa, Central Asia, and Washington’s own backyard in Latin America.
In the aftermath of the collapse, Russia became the successor of a superpower that found itself dependent on support from its former foes. The assumption was made that Russia would shift towards the West and become a “wider Europe,” where it would accept the rules and norms of the EU and NATO without directly joining, thus being unable to affect their development.[iv] This excitable position by the United States and Europe led to Russia’s unexpected rise as a critical emerging market and world power. As the EU and NATO continued to push east in Europe, Moscow finally reacted with the annexation of Crimea, something that caught many in the West off guard. For Russia, this demonstrated the importance of playing a global role in order to defend Russian interests. The next surprise came with Russia’s intervention and sudden partial withdrawal in Syria, again proving to be actions unanticipated by most in the West. The United States and Europe’s reluctance to recognize Russia as what it really is, a growing power with global influence, has allowed Moscow to outmaneuver the West on several occasions and change the dynamics in a number of international conflicts. Western influence has been partially diminished in places like Syria, where Russia now has a more equal role in negotiations to protect its allies and national interests.
NATO’s Identity Crisis
The biggest motivation for NATO’s creation was to counter the USSR’s military power and expansion. However, after the Soviet Union fell and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, NATO survived without any clear adversaries. Today politicians and pundits, perhaps most loudly from Donald Trump, suggest the organization is obsolete or in need of dramatic transformations. Without any clear fundamental goal, the alliance receives criticism on a variety of fronts, including accusations that it adapts too slowly to emerging threats and that the United States carries too much of the burden both militarily and financially.[v] Of the 28 members, only four meet the expected percentage of GDP spent on defense with much of the other members falling well below the targeted 2%. Additionally, public support for the alliance has wavered on both sides of the Atlantic as growing populist and nationalist messages have resonated with an increasing number of citizens. Finally, fissures within the alliance itself have become evident, perhaps most notably with the lack of a decisive and unified response to Russian actions in Ukraine. This lack of support and increasing inner incongruities cast doubt over NATO’s future, and has led Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary who served under both President Bush and President Obama, to suggest that NATO faces a “dim, if not dismal future” of “military irrelevance.”[vi]
As we soon approach 25 years without the USSR, the world today is faced by a number of major challenges that risk upsetting the status quo of the current international system. New global powers are emerging and extending their influence, guiding the world towards a multipolar system not seen since the early 20th century. Other effects threaten to alter or even eliminate some of the world’s most recognized and established institutions. Although the collapse of the USSR marked an end to the 45-year Cold War, it also brought with it a set of global challenges that underline the need for a new way of thinking to adapt to new threats and avoid repeating past mistakes.
Nicholas Hudson is an independent researcher with a background in economics and French. He is currently a research intern with a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.
[i] Karon, Tony, Kutsch, Tom, Shay, Christopher, & Hayoun, Massoud, “25 years on: How the fall of the Berlin wall changed the world,” Al Jazeera America, November 9, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/11/9/berlin-wall-25-years.html
[ii] Boonstra, Jos, “Moldova, Transnistria and European Democracy Policies,” FRIDE, February 1, 2007, http://fride.org/download/COM_Moldav_ENG_feb07.pdf
[iii] Karon, Tony, et al, “25 years on: How the fall of the Berlin wall changed the world,” Al Jazeera America, November 9, 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/11/9/berlin-wall-25-years.html
[iv] Lukyanov, Fyodor, “Putin’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, May 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2016-04-18/putins-foreign-policy
[v] O’Toole, Molly, “Is NATO Still Relevant? Trump’s Not the Only One Asking,” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/01/is-nato-still-relevant-trumps-not-the-only-one-asking/
[vi] O’Toole, Molly, “Is NATO Still Relevant? Trump’s Not the Only One Asking,” Foreign Policy, April 1, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/01/is-nato-still-relevant-trumps-not-the-only-one-asking/