Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
COLDEN — Marking the end of the Cold War, in 1991 members of Soviet Union broke their 70-year-old empire into 15 independent nations.
In 2014, beginning with his invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin began putting the pieces back together again. The centerpiece of Putin’s obsession with Ukraine is his rejection of its independence and his insistence that this large, populous and resource-rich region is an essential part of Russia.
Following World War II, the Cold War pitted the communist-ruled Soviet Union and Eastern Europe against the Western democracies. To counter the growing Soviet military threat, Western European states, along with the United States and Canada, formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, at first a 12-nation military alliance. Shortly thereafter, Turkey and Greece joined NATO in 1952 followed by West Germany in 1955.
Responding to an expanding NATO, the Soviet Union in 1955 created its own unified military alliance — formally the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, but better known as the Warsaw Pact. Linking together Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania, the Pact formed a continuous anti-NATO bulwark extending from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
By the 1980s, tensions between the two military alliances were headed for a political and economic showdown. With the capitalist economies of Western Europe out-performing the centrally planned Soviet economy, political unrest in Eastern Europe was about ready to boil over at any time.
Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet Communist Party, set in motion in 1985 a series of desperate reforms to loosen the Kremlin’s top-down control, to increase productivity and to give leaders in the Warsaw Pact countries more autonomy.
Three years later, Gorbachev’s reforms had actually generated greater unrest within the Soviet-led alliance. Communist governments were swept out of power and, in 1989, the Soviet empire was shaken by its first Humpty Dumpty moment. Putin, a Soviet KGB officer stationed in East Germany at the time, enjoyed a ringside seat to watch the symbol of Soviet oppression, the Berlin Wall, fall.
In late 1991, Gorbachev resigned. His reforms were no longer a viable option. The Soviet Union’s final Humpty Dumpty moment arrived as the 15 Soviet Republics declared themselves separate, independent countries.
Boris Yeltsin, president of the new Russian Federation, brought along plans to rapidly shift Russia’s state-run economy toward capitalism. But by 1999, Yeltsin’s reforms resulted in more economic chaos, turning the Russian people against liberal democracy and market reforms and toward a strong leader.
Yeltsin resigned. His successor, Putin, effectively ended efforts to decentralize power in Russia.
To explain at least in part Putin’s obsession with an independent Ukraine, we need to look at NATO’s push eastward after his rise to president of Russia. While the West appeared to win the Cold War in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, NATO did not declare victory and disarm.
In Putin’s first year as president, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — all once Warsaw Pact allies of the Soviet Union — were admitted into NATO. Estonia followed in 2002.
And then in 2004, NATO welcomed former Soviet republics, Lithuania, Latvia and two more former Warsaw Pact countries: Romania and Bulgaria. Finally in 2009, Albania, the last former Pact member, got a seat at the NATO roundtable.
While the old Soviet Union was all Putin had ever known, he took over when Russia stood alone. The former Soviet republics were independent countries, and Russia’s former Warsaw Pact allies were now members of NATO.
Fear that NATO might one day snatch away Ukraine, the last remaining westward-leaning country on Russia’s doorstep and crush his dream of a restored Russian empire, explains in part Putin’s obsession with Ukraine.
He is gambling that all of his tanks and all of his men can, one by one, put the shattered pieces of the Soviet Union back together again — first Ukraine, then Moldova, then …
Ronald Fraser of Colden, a former defense analyst at the Center for Defense Information and columnist for Navy Times, is a retired commander in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and a graduate of the Naval War College. He holds a doctorate in public policy studies/public administration from George Mason University. He can be reached at email@example.com.