The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why the USSR Lost the Cold War

There’s a lot of nonsense around this question. I’ve written about the problems with command style economics and their contribution to the USSR’s fall, and I even mostly believe it.

But none of that is necessary. A sociologist by the name of Randall Collins, for example, predicted the USSR’s loss in advance with only two metrics:

  • The USSR controlled less people and resources;
  • The USSR had a central position, where the US had a corner position.

If two countries are opponents and one is larger and has a better strategic position, who’s going to win?

This isn’t rocket surgery, and it doesn’t require lots of running around and squealing about superior systems.

The USSR was surrounded by near enemies. The US had an ocean between it and its enemies.

The US, combined with its allies and subject nations (the distinction is blurred to anyone with sense who notices how many US troops were stationed in “allied” territory) had more population and resources than Russia combined with is allies and subject nations.

Who was going to win this?

Note also that as a result, standard guns and butter economics come into play: the USSR, to remain militarily competitive, had to use more of its resources on its military, leaving less available for its civilian economy. Thus the economy wound up growing slower in the long term.

Then Reagan’s administration, seeing the weakness, piled on military spending that USSR felt it had to match, made Afghanistan into a bleeding sore (a mistake we’ve paid for ever since) and bled the USSR dry.

People reach too far. They want to say “we are better people and our beliefs and system are clearly superior.”

But the simplest explanation is that the US/West started with a superior position and in the long run that position told.

In order for the USSR to win, in fact, their system needed to be clearly superior. It needed to be able to outgrow the West while spending more resources on the military and do so with less population and resources.

There was a time that the orthodox view in the West was that it could do that. This is forgotten. In the early 50s, the USSR’s economy was still growing far faster than America’s and perfectly orthodox economics textbooks noted this.

Didn’t last. I think there’s a bunch of reasons for that, but this isn’t that essay, and in any case, again, all that subtlety isn’t needed. The USSR’s only real chance at winning was to get nukes to a deterrent level, then invade and pray it didn’t turn into a nuclear war. That is to say, in the late 50s.

Probably a good thing they didn’t do that.

The USSR lost because it had less resources and a worse position. Little more is needed.

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The Argument for Capitalism


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  1. jonst

    For the record, whenever there is even a hint of a sane position, i.e. taking those US troops out of various Nations, there is no one who cries louder or longer than the govts where the troops are stationed. If it were up to me I would take all US troops out of Europe and South Korea, and maybe Japan, as well, so fast the suction of the soldiers socks would take half the given Nation with them. So, lets be clear who, among others, wants those troops there.

    The Soviet Union fell, among other reasons, for locking and terrorizing too many of their own people You only get away with that crap for so long. A lesson private prison system lovers in the US might study with some thought. And the Chinese too, as they go about locking up Muslims.

  2. someofparts

    Speaking of enemies surrounding the USSR, I noticed something the other day that made me curious. Looking at a map of U.S. bases in Europe, I did not see any in French territory. What is up with that? Have the French just refused to let that happen?

  3. Willy

    China made a more lucrative transformation towards a market economy than Russia. Of course when I bring that up to free market lovers, and that China is still officially Communist while Russia is not, free market lovers suddenly go into repeat mantra mode in attempts to shame and shun me. I don’t have time for that shit. I just want the real story.

  4. StewartM


    The USSR controlled less people and resources;
    The USSR had a central position, where the US had a corner position.

    I’m smiling at the latter comment, though I only played that game like once, I am thinking the “US had a position not unlike Australia in a game of Risk” 😛

    One of the facts obscured in our Cold War propaganda (which fixated only the US versus USSR military comparisons) was that, when one considered all the potential enemies, the USSR was outnumbered both in conventional and nuclear weapons. The primary strategic position of the USSR was *defensive*, not expansionist (the Able Archer exercise of 1983 demonstrated this). Able Archer made even Reagan accept this fact (“wow, the Soviets really do think that we’re the ones who will attack them and start WWIII”).

    Plus some of the bandied-around numbers by the Cold Warriors to “prove” we needed to spend ever-more moola on our military were bogus. Yeah, the Soviets did have 50,000 or 60,000 tanks just like they similarly “had” 24,000 tanks in 1941 at the start of Barbarossa–if you counted the obsolete stuff, or stuff in storage that maybe wouldn’t even start, or the like. No where close to that total if you counted the modern stuff in working order.

  5. Ian Welsh

    When the people of a nation want foreign troops removed, but the government doesn’t, which has usually been the case, does that mean those governments aren’t subject states?

    Think it thru.

  6. bruce wilder

    Have the French just refused to let that happen?

    Yes. Charles DeGaulle rather famously defied the U.S. on America’s insistence on supplying NATO’s top military leadership, taking France out of NATO command structures so French troops in France can only be commanded by French generals. (The French nevertheless retain French bases in Germany. Just in case, I guess.) He also made the U.S. deliver gold bullion owed.

    DeGaulle in the 1950s and 1960s pursued a successful policy of restoring French political solidarity and institutions damaged by the humiliation of WWII and the internal struggles over losing Algeria while breaking the remnants of the French reactionary right, a putrid mass of Catholic monarchist, militarist stupidity that had plagued French politics since before the Revolution.

  7. bruce wilder

    The Soviet Union fell, among other reasons, for locking and terrorizing too many of their own people

    Yeah, no.

    It would be closer to the truth to say they wore out their ideals.

    Political societies with sufficient independence are driven by the internal clock of generational change.

    I suppose external rivalry played a role in adding to the demoralization of society, but the Soviet Union was not in an actual war of attrition, where the mechanisms Ian invokes would operate to determine outcomes. Its demise was related to diseases of political senility and reproduction. The rigidities of central planning and Marxist ethical preaching contributed to making the crisis of 1989 into a collapse, but the crisis itself was right on schedule, exactly 72 years after the Revolution.

  8. Herman


    I take it you are arguing against libertarians. China does pose a problem for libertarians because it has succeeded with a state-directed mercantilist economy. This is the same story as Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Japan, South Korea and almost every other advanced country. None of the rich nations got rich through classical free market development. The state always played a major role in development.

    Non-libertarian defenders of capitalism might say that China is an example of capitalist success since they have a more expansive definition of capitalism and there are certainly many socialists who say that China is now a capitalist nation and not a socialist one. I would agree with them. China might be officially socialist but does that make the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) democratic?

    On the subject of the USSR, I basically agree with Ian. Readers might want to check out Robert C. Allen’s book “Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution.” As Allen points out, the Soviet Union started out from a much lower economic base than the United States and Western Europe. The Russian Empire was closer to Turkey or Argentina than it was to Great Britain or Germany. The USSR was one of the most successful developmental regimes of the 20th century. Only some of the East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea come close. Cold War competition against superior enemies did hurt the USSR.

    But why shouldn’t we take great power competition into account when looking at the effectiveness of a system? If your system cannot help you defeat your opponents then you must choose another system. This is what happened to Japan when they were faced with a technologically superior West in the 19th century. Similarly China ditched socialism in the 20th century and adopted a state-directed capitalist system to help spur growth.

    This is an argument I get into with anarchists all the time. They say that anarchist experiments keep getting destroyed by their opponents and that it is unfair to say that they failed. OK, that is true but if your preferred system cannot help you defend yourself in the anarchic world of power competition then maybe it is not a workable system.

  9. elissa3

    I would add two other factors. 1) All artificial empires fail, eventually. The Soviet Union was an elaborate patchwork across an immense land mass. The imposition of a unique ideology intended to govern an extremely heterogenous population of so many ethnic groups and cultures was a recipe for a relatively short life span. Compare with the Romans who were more supple/flexible in their rule. 2) With the rising ubiquity of computers and the exponentially increasing speed of communication, it was untenable that rigorous state control over these machines and methods could continue. The new, younger leadership of Gorbachev and company realized that if their government continued to have users sign in and out just to make a photocopy of a innocuous document, they would fall further and further behind the West. Only an opening up of a tightly-controlled system would allow them to keep up in sectors outside of the military.

  10. StewartM

    Bruce Wilder

    Political societies with sufficient independence are driven by the internal clock of generational change.

    Let’s not forget simple greed. One of the reasons why the Soviet Union fell is that apparatchiks in the Soviet bureaucracy realized that if their society was going to go full-bore capitalist-y, the opportunities for them, personally, to steal and benefit would be immense.

    So let’s say you’re a factory manager, in charge of a factory supposedly owned by ‘all the people’. Now you’re going to transition to a privatized economy. So, who is going to now own and control this factory, you think? Hmm, you continue to ask, WHY NOT ME??? And with a stroke of a pen you sign over a factory that was once everyone’s to be now just yours.

    When you peek under the hood of any capitalist system, you find a lot of theft. And people wonder why in Russia there is a longing for the ‘good ole days’ of communism. People there realized that their rich too, are just a bunch of privileged thieves.

  11. Daniel A Lynch

    What exactly did the U.S.S.R. lose? What exactly did the U.S. win?

    After going through a capitalism-induced rough patch, Russia is doing quite well, thank you.

    Meanwhile the U.S. has become an oligarchy, with declining life expectancy for the working class.

    Russia today is arguably militarily superior to the U.S.. It does not have more weapons, but it has better weapons. If a hot war were to break out, Russia would likely “win,” and they might be able to do it without nuclear weapons. They have the ability to shoot down our nukes, and the ability to retaliate with non-nukes that we cannot intercept.

    Corrupted by money, America’s military-industrial complex has devolved into a corporate welfare program that produces overpriced junk that doesn’t actually work.

    Russia’s state owned military industry is motivated by a shared belief in the need to defend Russia from foreign aggression. In the long run, superior motivation and superior ideology can defeat a larger force.

    North Vietnam defeated the much larger U.S.. Superior motivation and superior ideology.

  12. elissa3

    I should have continued my comment. When you open up a very controlled system, what were hairline cracks in the rationale of the system become crevasses, then canyons. Nobody believes anymore, not even the leadership. Losing faith in the myths that hold together any society, empire or not, is fatal for its structures. Let’s see what happens with the American Empire.

  13. ponderer

    They had some serious short comings when it came to strategy. They didn’t need to match the US and it allies militarily, only offer an overwhelming deterrent (Nukes). Instead they fell for our game of bluster and one-up-manship. Just like years later we fell for our own propaganda and ended up in Afghanistan and constantly toy with fights we can’t afford to win. That is to say Hubris brought down the USSR, just as it allowed the rise of Russia, China, and India. Notice now with all the trillions spent we are still behind in key weapons technology and have little chance to catch up. Our bloated MIC is our own worst enemy as is maintaining our empire. Instead of focusing on countering the US they should have focused on the lives of their own people. The same thing we should be doing now, but don’t. The price of empire is always too much to bear in the end.

  14. someofparts

    bruce wilder – thanks

  15. jonst

    Ian wrote, “When the people of a nation want foreign troops removed, but the government doesn’t, which has usually been the case, does that mean those governments aren’t subject states?”

    No, I would think it tends to me that the people of those so called “subject states” don’t care enough about the make up of the govt, visa via the issue in question, to do anything about it. This, despite what outsiders might conclude the populations of those Nations ‘really feel’ deep down. Or is your position these people in these states are not capable of changing govts? Because I think we are talking about Europe, South Korea, and Japan. I think those nations, like the Philippines, make up their minds that it REALLY matters to them, the US departs from Subic Bay, in the main.

  16. bruce wilder

    Stewart M: Let’s not forget simple greed.

    Is greed “simple”? It is perennial, that’s for sure.

    I wrote, “generational change”, but if I were writing a book instead of a blog comment, I might have explained how the continual reproduction of the society and its institutions in generational change is shaped by never-ending strategic “gaming of the system” by pretty much everyone.

  17. bruce wilder

    ponderer: They had some serious short comings when it came to strategy.

    Very quickly, a symmetric symbiosis formed between elements of their elites and “ours”.

    That’s the weak point of Ian’s story of losing a cold war of attrition — the war wasn’t even real for elite players after a short while, in that our elite did not want to fight their elite, but instead just wanted to keep a useful boogie man as adversary, while fighting among themselves. I think Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis marked the end of the Cold War as a genuine war; after that the leadership was self-consciously posturing with a cynical eye on the best chances for personal gains in a spiraling descent toward ever more stupid in service of the selfish.

    That more realistic story of elite rivalries within their respective countries making occasional use of a story of chronic external enemies as leverage against interal rivals is complex and subtle. Very gradually those stories wear out the credulousness and emotional arousal of their mass audience, but those driving the telling of tales become cynical and subversively selfish much faster.

    Eventually, in the U.S. we had the spectacle of 60’s draft dodgers leading a war of aggression with a rhetorical parody of Churchillian “resolve” circa 1940. Followed by the fatally banal Hillary claiming Russiagate stole her crown and the ludicrous figure of Trump. Tragedy repeated as farce repeated as louder farce.

  18. Ian Welsh

    Japan changed to a system which was not enough to allow it to overcome the fact that it had less population and resources than its primary competitor.

    There’s no need to reach for any mystical theory: Japan had a system about as good as America, and lost.

    So did the USSR.

    Systems that are much better are uncommon. They happen sometimes (horse nomads run properly, the Industrial revolution (not capitalism), but not that often.

  19. Preston

    Recall that the price of oil fell to below $10 per barrel somewhere around 1986. Oil and natural gas exports were Russia’s only source of hard currency at the time. Russia alway spent a rather high amount of their GDP on dead end military items. But it was the collapse in oil prices that pulled the rug out from under their economy.

    From “Reagan and the Russians in the Atlantic 1994:

    “The Soviet Union’s defense spending did not rise or fall in response to American military expenditures. Revised estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that Soviet expenditures on defense remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. Neither the military buildup under Jimmy Carter and Reagan nor SDI had any real impact on gross spending levels in the USSR. At most SDI shifted the marginal allocation of defense rubles as some funds were allotted for developing countermeasures to ballistic defense.

    If American defense spending had bankrupted the Soviet economy, forcing an end to the Cold War, Soviet defense spending should have declined as East-West relations improved. CIA estimates show that it remained relatively constant as a proportion of the Soviet gross national product during the 1980s, including Gorbachev’s first four years in office. Soviet defense spending was not reduced until 1989 and did not decline nearly as rapidly as the overall economy.”

  20. Mark Pontin

    What Bruce Wilder says.

    The USSR had a Manhattan Project-sized bioweapons program, called Biopreparat, and I spent some time talking to scientists involved in it — including its former director, Ken Alibek — from 2003 to 2006.

    It was clear to me from those scientists’ accounts of how they got progressively involved in this bioweapons program that the mass ethos of the Soviet Union of their youth, during the late 1950s to early 1970s, was a different, more idealistic thing (yes, despite Stalin) than that of the USSR as the Breshnev era proceeded.

    As Bruce says:

    ‘It would be closer to the truth to say they wore out their ideals. Political societies with sufficient independence are driven by the internal clock of generational change … the continual reproduction of the society and its institutions in generational change is shaped by never-ending strategic “gaming of the system” by pretty much everyone.’

    Conversely, if the world is as Ian claims and the USSR’s fall was only a mechanical matter of it having less resources and a more vulnerable geographic position, then, for instance, a country like Vietnam would not still be there after centuries of being assailed by more powerful states (China, France, the US). And yet it is. As one Viet Cong leader — General Giap, IIRC? — famously told an American: ‘You will kill ten of us for every one of your soldiers that we kill, and in the end it is you who will tire of it and go home.”

    Countries and cultures are not actually real things — though they may have geographic bases — in that ultimately they exist wholly in the minds and belief-structures of human beings. It’s about the ethos.

  21. someofparts

    “DeGaulle in the 1950s and 1960s pursued a successful policy of restoring French political solidarity and institutions damaged by the humiliation of WWII and the internal struggles over losing Algeria while breaking the remnants of the French reactionary right, a putrid mass of Catholic monarchist, militarist stupidity that had plagued French politics since before the Revolution.”

    so – actually accomplished what Trump only advertised

    “That more realistic story of elite rivalries within their respective countries making occasional use of a story of chronic external enemies as leverage against internal rivals is complex and subtle.”

    I would love to read any histories that look at this if you know of any you can recommend.

    “Countries and cultures are not actually real things — though they may have geographic bases — in that ultimately they exist wholly in the minds and belief-structures of human beings. It’s about the ethos.”

    – which I fear is bad news for this country

  22. Mark Pontin


    Re. France, it very much doesn’t end w. De Gaulle in the 1950s and ’60s. France’s desire for autonomy and energy independence brought about the French nuclear power rollout in the 1970s, which was very much resisted by Washington.

    Significantly, at one point France was getting slightly upwards of 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear and I think it’s still above 70 percent. Arguably, then, if the rest of the world had taken France’s path we wouldn’t be anywhere as near the tipping points from climate change as we are.

    That said, French resistance to Washington (and anglophone) dictates re. nuclear was very much based on France’s choice to push for fuel reprocessing. The spread of reprocessing technological capability translates directly into fuel enrichment and, hence, nuclear weapons proliferation — that at least was the thinking till recently.

    If you talk to folks in the nuclear community, there’s some not unconvincing scuttlebutt to the effect that during the late 1970s and the ’80s the CIA etc. to some extent funded and supported Greenpeace and other international anti-nuclear outfits against the French.

  23. Another structural problem with the USSR economy was that part of their defensive strategy was shipping resources out from the heartland to the vassal states, instead of the other way around. Eastern Europeans had higher standards of living than Russians from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok.

  24. StewartM


    “The Soviet Union’s defense spending did not rise or fall in response to American military expenditures. Revised estimates by the Central Intelligence Agency indicate that Soviet expenditures on defense remained more or less constant throughout the 1980s. Neither the military buildup under Jimmy Carter and Reagan nor SDI had any real impact on gross spending levels in the USSR. At most SDI shifted the marginal allocation of defense rubles as some funds were allotted for developing countermeasures to ballistic defense.

    Hear! Hear! I am glad that there are others who blow up the lie that “St. Ronnie Reagan’s defense buildup bankrupted the Soviet Union”. In truth, the Soviets were spending for the same reasons we were–driven by their own internal rationales, for they had created their own military-industrial complex too!!–and both sides tended to develop weapons oblivious to each other, even continuing to develop weapons systems when the weapon being developed on the other side, which had been used to justify it all, had been cancelled or had been shown to be a failure. For example, the Soviets continued to make the MiG-25 interceptor after its reason for development, the American supersonic B-70, was cancelled. The MiG-25 was misinterpreted by the West as a dogfighter which in turn resulted in the US developing the F-15.

    One could say that the Russians were already bankrupting themselves, but Reagan decided to we too needed to shoot ourselves in the foot and mortgage our economy’s future rather than just sit back and watch.

  25. S Brennan

    I think Preston is much closer to the truth than Ian in this matter.

  26. tawal

    The Soviet Union had it’s own empire problems.
    Russia today has many superior military option as
    compared to the USA. USA default to win is Nukes
    but then we all die. Pray it doesn’t come to that.
    PS Russia will never strike first; with nukes or otherwise.

  27. Hugh

    Russia has an economy 6% that of the US and 30% of that is gas and oil. It is a dictatorship whose economy is hamstrung by the class of kleptocratic oligarchs who run it. The lives of ordinary Russians are not improving. It is comical how overblown Russia’s military is portrayed. It has nukes, but its conventional military is much less than meets the eye. Its force projection is nearly non-existent. It was hard pressed to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and needed the support of Iran and Hezbollah to do so as well as the US taking the leading role in defeating ISIS. Similarly, it has significant problems in projecting power even into neighboring Ukraine. The downside is that actions like those in Ukraine and Georgia have created hostile neighbors not just in them but Poland and the Baltics as well. Putin by and large is a short term opportunist but doesn’t think things through and longer term is pretty much of a fuck up. And once Putin’s gone Russia is going to be an unholy mess with all the screw ups and no one to cover up and/or suppress them.

    Re the Cold War, it wasn’t about past spending levels but future ones. Gorbachev made the decision it just wasn’t worth it. Gorbachev was a statesman. Putin, by contrast, is a pimp. Re the end of the USSR, that was Yeltsin. Yeltsin was a Russian nationalist, not imperialist. He cut the SSRs loose to preserve a Russian ethnic majority in Russia proper.

  28. ponderer


    That’s the weak point of Ian’s story of losing a cold war of attrition — the war wasn’t even real for elite players after a short while, in that our elite did not want to fight their elite, but instead just wanted to keep a useful boogie man as adversary, while fighting among themselves.

    Isn’t that always the case though? Some small group of cynical elites using a conflict to enrich themselves. We still talk of winners and losers in elections though it’s pretty obvious most of them are playing for the same team no matter which side of the isle they are standing on. The tactics and strategies they use while enriching themselves do matter. Some are just not sustainable, once you have an entrenched MIC, it will grow to accommodate itself in the size of the economy and then must cannibalize the whole. Too much depends on its growth, it will propagate via true believers and lesser elites. If there isn’t enough fear, then it will generate it’s own. It didn’t take us long to find new enemies when the USSR fell. Which cog turns that wheel doesn’t really matter. When one fails another will do. If Bolton wasn’t where he is, there are plenty of other war mongers who would take his place trying to sow conflict.
    Russia’s current strategy of being defensive and focusing on their internal troubles is the smartest and most sustainable in my opinion. If the USSR had done that our situations might be reversed now.

  29. Duder

    In war, which the truism states reveals the true underlying structure of a society, it is always the ethos between nations that decides the winner. History has repeated this again and again, with “impossible” victories of smaller nations against the industrial might of larger nations- Vietnam or even Afghanistan being the iconic Cold War examples. Brute GDP turns to fiction when nations are faced with the reality of death.

    The ideological ethos (Marxist communism) of the Soviet Union was frankly more transparent to critique and disillusion than in the US or West. Liberal capitalism proved itself a superior system in fooling its own population with illusions. Only recently have the masses in the US woken up in large numbers to the fiction of the American Dream. The most cynical people (and by that perceptive of underlying power relations) I have known in my entire life grew up in the Eastern Bloc. The irony is that it was the ideological superiority of Marxism (instructing the masses in the underlying truths of social history) that underwrote the downfall of 20th century communism as a global political project.

  30. bruce wilder

    Hugh’s occasional polemics against Putin and Russia always jar my sensibilities.

    Making summary economic comparisons that are both meaningful and factually accurate is difficult even without an agenda.

    Russia is the largest country in the world in land area and arguably underpopulated, which is unusual in an overpopulated world. Its natural resources, particularly forests and mineral resources, are vast. In aggregate, Russia’s economy falls somewhere between Germany (a larger economy and much smaller population) and Brazil or Indonesia (smaller economies with much larger populations). European Russia overall has a level of development and median household incomes comparable to some other Eastern European countries, not quite as good as Poland or Hungary but better than Romania or Bulgaria. Better than Greece post-bailout. Way better than Ukraine, which explains a lot about the unrest there.

    There exists vast differences in economic development and performance across Russia. War-ravaged Chechnya is among the poorest places on earth. Central Moscow is booming, with incomes and amenities comparable to Denmark, including a rapidly expanding metro that may be the best big city rail transit system in the world. But, second city St. Petersburg is a poor relation where incomes (and cost-of-living) are a fraction of Moscow though still good enough to draw young people even from neighboring countries to the bright lights.

    Putin probably wishes he was a dictator, but Russia, though its politics is authoritarian in style and character, is too decentralized politically for “dictator” to be a sensible characterization. Putin’s government is self-consciously pursuing economic development aimed at raising the overall standard of living. The goal is to escape the middle-income trap that has gripped most of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. During Putin’s first term as President, median household income rose steadily as the country recovered from the catastrophes of the Yelstin era. More recently, Russia has stagnated and Putin has suffered blows to his popularity as he has tried to rein in pensions. Putin has pursued a policy of state capitalism, erecting state companies in key sectors as a counterweight to the oligarchs and he continues to press forward with much needed infrastructure investment and encouragement for local and regional development projects.

    Russia faces a legacy of deep grievance and resentment among its neighbors going back decades stretching into centuries that fuels hostility — that is true. It is not a game the Russians have played alone, however. Ukraine and Georgia furnished ample provocation. The Russian annexation of Crimea was not unpopular in Crimea, at least not with the Russian-speaking majority, who are now the beneficiaries of a sizeable effort to raise incomes to the general level of European Russia from the pitiable poverty they enjoyed as a neglected part of very poor Ukraine.

    The Russian military and diplomatic effort in Syria in support of Assad has been remarkably effective. The Russians have not been able to deploy any thing like the lavish resources the U.S. deployed to devastate and destabilize Iraq, creating the conditions for ISIL. The Russian diplomatic position was difficult: they do not have good relations with Iran, nor were they on good terms with Turkey at the outset; since coming to power, Putin has invested heavily in Russia’s relationship with Israel, a country with a large Russian-speaking population that often supports Russia diplomatically. The Russians nevertheless managed to devise an effective strategy within their budget to systematically bring the Syrian civil war to a close without further alienating any of the great powers of the region: Israel, Turkey, Iran or Hezbollah.

    (One might contrast the Russian achievement to the American diplomatic and military performance. The U.S. tolerated the Saudi’s financing an Al Qaeda affiliate among the Syrian rebels, heavily invested in the land-locked Kurds, who are anathema to our “allies” in Turkey and Iraq as well as Assad’s regime and spent hundreds of millions “training” ephemeral “liberal moderates” in pursuit of our usual policy of perpetual war. Israel annexes the Golan and Turkey buys the S400.)

  31. R. Eliason

    Respectfully, in 1982 the population of the U.S. was about 232 million, U.S.S.R. 270 million. The natural resources at the command of the Soviet Union were exactly what you expect for an entity that spanned the better part of the Eurasian continent; beyond colossal, and no where near fully exploited to this day. The geographic challenges of governing were size, variety and to a lesser extent, latitude.

    Their people were as smart and capable as anywhere else, and their level of education was a major accomplishment of the Soviet system, one of many. As was true of most communist countries.

    When the Soviet Union started, there were people in it still using wooden ploughs, twenty-five years later they had nuclear weapons.

    Here is the short version of the story I was taught of the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, while it was happening, by people who studied it for a living. (As best as I can remember)

    From the end of WWII through the 1950s Soviet economic growth was impressive. Not the stupifying 10% per year achieved in the 1930s under Stalin (at significant cost in human lives), but consistently around 5% per year as I recall.

    However, starting in the early 1960s economic growth leveled off, plateaued, and remained flat.

    By the mid-1970s the Soviets knew two things; that their economic problems were non-cylical; they weren’t experincing something like a market-economy business cycle, and things weren’t going to get better all on their own.

    Second, the problem was structural, it wasn’t due to some external shock, it was coming from deep inside the Soviet system.

    What they didn’t know was why it was happening and how to stop it.

    By the early 1980s Soviet net return on new investment turned negative. The Soviet leadership knew they had to deal with crisis facing them.

    When Gorbachev attempted reform by loosening political control (perestroika) the Soviet system melted.

    A couple of things to keep in mind about that;
    The people who presided over the dissolution ot Soviet Union were, every single one of them, Soviet governing elites themselves.
    It was within the Soviet leadership’s capabilities to reassert control internally. Some of them absolutely wanted to.
    They could have used nuclear blackmail to maintain their system.
    They could have started a war to distract their people and to attempt to revive their economy.

    But ultimately when the Soviet system proved unsustainable, those elements of the Soviet leadership who had control, let it die. The system that made them elites.

    Some possible explanations;

    The fact that the Soviets didn’t know what was happening points to an obvious culprit; Impossible Information management problems. Everything had to be accounted for in The Plan, and they were starting without a market pricing system to accurately value the cost of inputs and outputs. On top of that, the Soviets were far behind in solid-state electronics and very slow to adopt the digital technology that could have helped.

    The Soviets loved building new factories. Graduate a high school class, build a new factory so they have jobs. Unfortunately, for Soviet managers, modernizing your existing factory meant that you weren’t going to meet The Plan. That no longer meant a bullet in a basement, but it wasn’t something you wanted to happen. Existing factories just got older, decayed, and became more and more expensive to operate, but were kept in operation.

    Perhaps it had to do with the quality problem; Kruschev once joked that they made the heaviest chandelliers in existence. But their military stuff was always good quality.

    Despite having tremendous energy resources, the Soviets used resources at a tremendous rate. One theory was that their easily accessable resources were tapped out.

    Corruption. While Stalin lived, the higher up you were in the leadership, the more privilage and power you had, the more dangerous it was. When Stalin died, there was a new norm; failing at your job would now mean retiring to your dacha, not a bullet in a basement. The trouble was, the incentives of the system Stalin built were not based on half-measures. Gradual erosion of standards followed.

    There were a few others I can’t recall.

    A couple side notes;

    The American role;
    The Soviets knew their system was in serious trouble by the mid-’70s, but made the very ominous decision to continue their high level of military spending. It is certainly possible the Reagan administration’s military build-up deterred the Soviets from doing something desperate at the end.

    The first Bush administration decided early on that Soviet reforms were not real, but even if they were, they were irrelevant. Regime type doesn’t matter. All nation-states are the same. Exploit Soviet weakness as much as possible, until the reformers are deposed. Buy Soviet high-tech firms (they were ahead in materials science for one), shut them down so they don’t recover. Pastoralization.

    I got to see men land on the moon, and I got to see Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon attempting to arm-twist a republican president (Bush senior) to try to get him to support democracy in the Soviet Union. He failed.

    The first and only official discussion of possible aid in the wake of the Fall, was of its obvious futility, and impossibility. Trillions of dollars, and oceans of blood for cold war, but now supporting democracy in Russia was just too expensive, and ridiculously unserious. Continuing cold war levels of defense spending on the other hand, was sensible and obvious.

    This wasn’t the hard-nosed pragmatic “realism” it styled itself to be, it was playing with nuclear fire. Given the level of suffering that followed the Fall, the quality of the people Soviet Union produced are the only reason I can think of for things not going very very badly.

    Clinton supported just enough assistance to pretend we were doing something. His ambassador Strobe Talbott I believe was chosen to keep aid off the radar.

    Since the Fall of the Soviet Union, every reform of capitalism that made capitalism clearly superior, has either been discarded or is under attack. Incarceration levels in the U.S. are now higher than the Soviets, by some counts. Given capitalism’s response to climate change it may soon be an open question which system is the more lethal to humans.

  32. jonst

    Japan, pre war, had a system that saw high ranking military officials, themselves, assassinating their opponents, sometimes other high ranking opponents, sometimes high ranking civilians. In the prewar Soviet Union the assassinations were carried out against the military by State ‘security’ forces. If that is a ‘good system’ so be it I guess.

  33. Ian Welsh

    I did say US + allies for a reason.

  34. Hugh

    I agree with R. Eliason that the post-USSR transition was completely mishandled. I think the reasons for this were malign. US Cold War warriors wanted a Russia so weakened it could never threaten the US or NATO again.

    I disagree with Bruce Wilder. Russia has an economy the size of South Korea and as I said about a third of that is oil and gas. I do not get the argument that it is OK for Putin to invade Crimea because the Russians living there were OK with that, you know self-determination. So if certain heavily Russian neighborhoods in New York City wanted to join with Russia, I guess Bruce Wilder would be OK with that to. Yet at the same time, he points out the dire situation in Chechnya. The Chechens wanted to do the same thing, self-determination, have their own state, and Russia basically destroyed the place, a move which Putin wholeheartedly endorsed. Bruce Wilder also takes a swipe at the Kurds, who are a minority in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, but are a majority in their local region. Do they get self-determination? Of course not, that is reserved apparently only for Russians. I also find glib the depiction of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of cities as an “effective strategy.” It also ignores the fact that Syrian ground forces regularly got their asses kicked when going up against ISIS forces. And it was largely the US and Syrian Kurdish forces in east Syria, and US, some regular Iraq army, and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias in Iraq who took out ISIS. Not the Russians, not Assad’s forces.

  35. Lex

    No argument with this as the 30,000 ft view. And I doubt that Ian would say it is the entirety of the story. Within this view it’s worth considering that the US and it’s allies weren’t just competing but treating it as a war, and we’re doing so since before the bullets of WWII stopped flying. That’s not competition like say the US and German economies today. We also shouldn’t forget how many lies the US told to justify that war: the missile gap, etc. That said, there were underlying factors like some of the agricultural science the Soviets used for a long, long time because Stalin liked how it meshed with political theory. They became trapped in their politics the same way the US is now trapped in its neo-liberal economics as a political system.

    Comments on the contrast between Russia and China are illustrative and important. The Chinese transitioned on their own terms. Russia let the DC/NY consensus guide it’s transition and that was fatal. The American left loves to bemoan Putin’s gangster state, but never stops to consider that the foundation for that was Clinton’s plan for Russia. They’re just a competing group of oligarchic gangsters now. The freedom loving “dissident” Russian billionaires in London now made their billions in ways at least as brutal as any current Russian oligarch. They were just on the right side of the Clinton gang “managing” the transition. They made modern Russia and as someone who was there to see it, it was violent and awful. We decided it was ok because we were getting our cut.

  36. bruce wilder

    I can see the matter of Crimea from the Russian point of view. And, yes, it matters that Crimea’s population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking and that Russia can raise the general standard of living. And, it matters that some Ukrainian political factions, hostile to Russia and hostile to Russian-speaking Ukrainian factions and subcultures, had with U.S. and EU support overthrown the pro-Russian elected government in Kyiv, calling into question the security of the key Russian naval base in the condominium of Sevastopol (a separately governed city on the Crimean peninsula).

    In disputes and political contests over territory, the interest of third-party nation-states or other foreign interest groups can be either neutral or in partisan alignment with one or more of the primary parties to the dispute. The interest of the truly neutral is in containing the dispute and resolving it if possible within a finite period with a minimum of violence, violence that can spill out and is costly in human terms even if geographically contained. There is a general neutral interest in fostering and supporting amicable relations among neighboring countries and just governance of relations among peoples within countries.

    I would not argue in general that neutrality is absolutely preferable to alliance or partisan alignment. That is a matter of cases and interests. I do think one should be clear on which policy you are committed to and from which or for which your arguments and attitudes flow. Not everyone does that. Understandably, since partisans often want the support of neutrals.

    Officially, the U.S. and the EU have sought to bring Ukraine into alliance and alignment with the EU and NATO while the Russians would prefer Ukraine be aligned economically and militarily with its neighbor, Russia. Ukrainians themselves are divided, with, very roughly, native speakers of Ukrainian in the western third of the country longing to follow Poland’s example culturally and economically, while the Russian-speaking inhabitants of the depressed rust-belt in the east hope for integration with the Russian economy and culture. (Even the ethnically Ukrainian in the east tend to be native speakers of Russian, but relations between the urbanized ethnic Russians and the ethnic Ukrainian rural populations figure in the dynamics of mutual hostility underlying the political conflicts.) Crimea, though mostly Russian-speaking, does not fit neatly into this divide; ethnic Ukrainians are a minority without much history in the area while a community of Tatars, returned from an exile imposed by Stalin, but also without a natural relation to Ukraine, have been the locus of some hostility to Russia as well as a focus for Putin’s determination to suppress dissent with regard to Russian annexation. (Cynics will note that some Tartars are squatters on unresolved land claims dating back to the exile that now stand in the way of the go-go economic development now underway, particularly on the Yalta coast.)

    I am explicitly arguing from a neutral stance. I see no interest of my own in taking one side against the other, in the contest between Russia and the EU and NATO. As an American, this involves dissent from my own country’s general policy of hostility to Russia as well as the specific policy of seeking to draw Ukraine into an alliance or economic alignment hostile to Russia. Whether Ukrainians like it or not, i think it is in the U.S. interest that Ukraine’s leaders understand that geopolitics dictate Ukraine has to get along with Russia. Whatever the legitimacy of historic grievance (and i do not discount the reality of such grievances), i think the proper political imperative for the U.S. is to avoid becoming a sleepwalking tool of such grievance in the escalation of hostilities toward war.

    It is certainly possible to argue that one side in a conflict arising from a political contest is morally right and therefore alliance is to be preferred to neutral advocacy for resolution in a reconciling of conflicting interests and claims along lines that minimize causes for future continuing conflict.

    Putin is an evil dictator and the Ukrainian patriots are morally right — those are coherent arguments, but not to me factually supported or persuasive. I am not persuaded in the first instance that my neutrality is the wrong approach. Being neutral, Putin’s annexation of Crimea is something i do not view as inherently morally dispositive in any way. Ukrainian sovereignty in Crimea is not inherently and morally preferable to me. I do not care who rules in Simferopol except insofar it affects the prospects for future violent conflicts. It is a question of examining the case. And in this case, there really is not much that weighs in the balance in favor of fighting for a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty. That just seems like a path in the direction of prolonging and exacerbating a conflict by continuing a political conflict that can never be settled permanently and peaceably in favor of Ukraine’s current position.

    As far as the principle of political self-determination, yes, i am in favor of a people claiming and exercising the right to self-government. I recognize, though, that any such particular claims are likely to be in conflict with other similar claims and i do not propose to adjudicate all such claims on neutral principles. I think it is in humanity’s interest to minimize the violence and other destructive costs of disputing and contesting such conflicting claims. (I should note that Crimeans have a recent history of seeking a higher degree of political autonomy than either Russia or Ukraine have offered.) That Russian sovereignty is popular in Crimea and mutual attachments between Crimea and Ukraine are weak are important factors weighing in favor of viewing the Russian annexation as a development that can ultimately be accepted in a stable settlement that de-escalates hostilities in the region. That is a judgement, of course, on my part. Someone with a entirely different world view might think the path to world peace would be paved by nuking the Russian naval base and abolishing Russian as an official language in Crimea as it is sacred Ukrainian territory. ymmv

  37. Hugh

    Bruce, thanks for laying that out. Russia and Putin get to play by one set of rules which no one else can use and which Russia has used enormous force to keep others (Chechens, the Sunni majority in Syria) from using. Somehow I don’t think that qualifies as neutral, but whatever.

    I suppose the Russians living in the Talinn exclave would be considered squatters if they weren’t Russian. And the resemblance of the argument with Hitler’s Anschluss (Union) with Austria and his annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia is invalid for the same reason: not done by Russians.

  38. ricardo2000

    A Soviet joke: ‘They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’.
    The Soviet system lost the respect and support of the Soviet people. The final straw was Gorbachev’s visit to Canada.
    The contrast between Canadian plenty and Soviet inefficiency was undeniable, and unbearable. Gorbachev foresaw the destruction of the USSR.

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