The Collapse of Soviet Power in Europe

Soviet military power has been an enduring preoccupation of U.S. policymakers for better than forty years, its presumed menace one of the great constants of the age. Our understanding of that power and the perceived menace have changed dramatically, however, as a direct consequence of Mikhail Gorbachev's program of radical economic and political reform. Nowhere has the changing face of Soviet power been more apparent than in Europe. The presence of almost 600,000 Soviet troops in Europe symbolized and sustained for several decades the grim reality of the continent's postwar division. Today the partial withdrawal of these forces, coupled with the expectation of additional reductions, signals the start of a new era. With these redeployments begins a period of profound political change in Europe, the most significant, in fact, since the defeat of the Axis powers at the conclusion of World War II.

If the rapid disintegration of the postwar order in Europe took Western leaders by surprise, it stunned, confused and demoralized their counterparts in Moscow. What began as a well-conceived strategy to recast the tone and substance of Soviet security policy in Europe all but dissolved in the face of an extraordinary political upheaval that the Soviet leadership appears not to have anticipated. As a result, Kremlin leaders now confront the virtual collapse of Soviet power on the continent. Moreover, this collapse comes without a corresponding erosion of authority and influence on the part of Moscow's erstwhile adversaries to the west.

Gorbachev and his colleagues did not labor to attain supreme power in the U.S.S.R. only to expedite their country's decline. They were seeking instead to ensure that the Soviet Union would enter the 21st century, in Gorbachev's words, "in a manner befitting a great power." But upon assuming power, they discovered their nation's decline was already well advanced, largely as a consequence of a deeply troubled economy. Only through substantial reform, they thought, could this precipitous slide toward economic ruin be halted and then reversed. Exactly how far-reaching that reform had to be in order to accomplish economic renewal became apparent only in retrospect. By that time, however, the process threatened to consume not only the architects themselves, but the very system it was designed to save.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis