One sign of the how highly Lawrence Sheets is esteemed as an analyst of Central Asia and the Caucasus was the large turnout of his fellow journalists for his presentation of his new book, 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse.
The book describes key episodes in the breakup of the Soviet Union, typically through a first-person lens. Sheets has studied or worked in the former Soviet republics almost non-stop for more than two decades starting in the late 1980s, including for Reuters, National Public Radio, and the International Crisis Group, where he currently directs the organization’s South Caucasus project.
Discussion of the numerous wars ignited by the Soviet collapse in 1991 dominated his presentation November 4 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, and is a prominent feature of the book itself. Sheets said that, while “there was very little military logic to many of these conflicts,” some of them were probably inevitable given all the “pent-up emotion.”
Sheets also recounted how the conflicts unfolded in a chaotic way, due in large part to dysfunction in Russian command-and-control structures. Local military commanders occasionally took provocative actions without the approval or even knowledge of their nominal superiors. In addition, local proxies often fought on behalf of different Moscow factions. Sheets attributed this situation to the “very dysfunctional ... state in Moscow where you had very different ministries and different people doing whatever they wanted according to their own personal agenda.”
The first Chechen war, the most infamous imbroglio of the post-Soviet era, was a conflict that Sheets considered avoidable. Before the outbreak of the conflict in 1994, “nobody expected a war,” he said. “Few of us expected the Chechens to fight with any kind of resolve if the Russians did come in, but few of us expected the Russians to come in at all” because of the disarray in the Russian military. The analysts were wrong about Chechens’ determination, but right about the Russian army, whose sorry performance is a recurring theme of his book.
Although Sheets mostly discussed the internal problems within the former Soviet Union, he did criticize the way US officials have tended to personalize relations, calibrating policy to appeal to the traits of regional leaders, rather than focusing strictly on achieving strategic objectives. For example, he faulted the way Washington stuck with Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze as the best option for reform in Tbilisi after most Georgians had already grown disillusioned with his corrupt authoritarianism. Washington’s policy, seemingly based more on Shevardnadze’s reputation than on his actions, fueled anti-American sentiments among the Georgian people.
Sheets highlighted the tragic impact of the Soviet breakup on some groups. “The Soviet Union produced a very curious thing—that was a whole classification of people who defied very easy categorization.” He related the example of the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians who had lived for decades in Chechnya but, with the outbreak of warfare, had to flee to Moscow and other Russian cities. These internally displaced people effectively lost their identity since they were clearly not Chechens but they were not fully accepted as Russians since they spoke Russian with “Chechen accents and had Chechen mannerism and traditions.”
One puzzle Sheets asked the audience to ponder was why so few Western experts saw the Soviet Union’s collapse coming. His own answer was that Western observers erroneously viewed the Soviet Union as a “monolith.” Western reporting, which was very Moscow centric, played a role in fostering such misperceptions. We found it hard to “break out of that mindset” and got stuck in our “comfort zone” where ““we get used to the existence of these regimes.”
Noting our more recent failure to anticipate the Arab Spring as well as forecast the Soviet demise, Sheets urged us to reflect on the “impermanence of human institutions,” and not underestimate “how fragile these [authoritarian] systems really are” whatever their outward appearances.
8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse
By Lawrence Scott Sheets
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.