The Soviet Union was not vanquished by the West in the Cold War. It simply disintegrated in the late 1980s, the result of cumulative failures. A military defeat or a popular insurrection might have resulted in the elimination of its seventy-year-old totalitarian infrastructure and superstructure (the Soviet “deep state”). A mere collapse, however, had very different consequences.
Beyond the abandonment of the Eastern European glacis and the formal independence of the fifteen Soviet Republics, the ruling Soviet elite stayed largely in place. This was especially true in the very heart of the Empire, the former Federative Socialist Soviet Republic of Russia, rebranded as the Russian Federation. The army and secret police stayed intact, the planned economy was turned into a state-controlled oligarchy, and nationalism was substituted for communism. Soon, Russia began to engage in systematic rebuilding and reconquest.
This process started under Boris Yeltsin, the allegedly liberal first president of post-Soviet Russia. Just a few weeks after the USSR’s dismantlement, Yeltsin’s army seized Transnistria as a Russian outpost between the now formally independent former Soviet Republics of Ukraine and Moldavia. It was the Yeltsin bureaucracy in the early 1990s that issued 1) the Near Abroad doctrine, according to which Russia retained “vital interests” in neighboring post-Soviet countries; and 2) the parallel doctrine of “the Russian World”, which envisioned the “reunification” of all Russian-speaking communities into a single nation-state.
Vladimir Putin, who was chief of the secret police in 1998, became prime minister in 1999 and then Yeltsin’s successor in 2000.