According to historian Martin McCauley in “Russia, America and the Cold War 1949-1991” (1998): “The Cold War came to an end because it was impossible for two powers to divide and rule the world. The will had drained away. The burden was so great that the Soviet Union buckled and then disintegrated. By 1991 the United States was no longer able to intervene at will and was immensely relieved when the need to do so, the communist threat, melted away.”
Another historian, Simon Bell, in “The Cold War 1947 to 1991” (1998), takes a similar view. He states that “there is little doubt that the Cold War came to an end as a result of Soviet economic failure. This failure led in turn to a failure of nerve among the Soviet governing elite.”
Both historians point to the fact that by the late 1980s the USSR was no longer in a position to maintain the military forces necessary to superpower status. Few western observers were able to predict the rapid collapse of Soviet power in eastern Europe in 1989 and the end of the USSR in 1991. However, the Economist journal, in the 1980s, described the USSR as ‘Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] with missiles.’ This suggested that the Soviet economy was of Third World standard. Also, Richard Perle, national security advisor to Ronald Reagan, had predicted in 1991 that any increase in the arms race between the superpowers would eventually lead to the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev’s attempts to modernise the USSR were too little too late. The origins of the USSR’s failure to control eastern Europe could be traced back to the years of stagnation in economic development under Brezhnev. In “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” (1989), the historian Paul Kennedy states that a common cause of great power decline was over-commitment of military forces. Although a great Eurasian power, the Soviet Union simply did not possess the economic power to sustain a global conflict against the USA. Support for regimes such as Cuba, Angola, Vietnam and eastern Europe proved too demanding. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a protracted war in that country lasting ten years was one military burden too much for the state.
Once Soviet military power weakened, the disruptive forces of nationalism took hold. The desire for national independence undermined Soviet influence in eastern Europe. It also undermined the USSR from within. By 1990 the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all sought independence from the USSR. In the Caucasus region, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia followed suit. By 1991 the old USSR had fragmented into 15 separate states.
The failure of Gorbachev’s attempts to modernise the USSR through glasnost and perestroika produced a backlash. Traditional communist leaders had opposed Gorbachev’s policies from the start. By August 1991 opposition within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had become so great that an attempt was made to ‘turn the clock back’ by staging a take-over of the Soviet government. Soviet troops were sent to Moscow. Gorbachev and his family were placed under ‘house arrest’ while on holiday in the Crimea. The attempted coup failed completely. The soldiers mingled with civilians. Former Moscow mayor Boris Yeltsin5 persuaded the soldiers to lay down their arms. The USSR, like so many Eastern bloc countries in 1989, faced a peaceful revolution in government. The traditional communists were disgraced, Gorbachev was discredited. By the end of 1991 Yeltsin had replaced Gorbachev as leader. The USSR was replaced with the Commonwealth of Independent States made up of 11 of the former 15 republics of the USSR. In turn, this confederation collapsed leaving the Russian Federation merely one of 15 new independent states.