How close was the Soviet Union to collapsing during WW2?

How close was the Soviet Union to collapsing during WW2?

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Are there any sources or reports which explain how close the country was to collapsing under the Nazi assault? By 'collapse' I mean 'completely lacking either the willpower (as seen by France in 1940 after the fall of Paris and the collapse of the line on the Somme) or ability (as seen by Poland as they ran out of territory to defend) such that they would not be able to amount any effective defense and need to sue for peace as soon as possible'?

In the "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," historian William Shirer contended that the Soviet Union was close to collapse at the end of 1942, because it was on the verge of losing either the Caucasus oil, or at least access to it, via the Caspian Sea and Volga. Only the failure of the German offensives at Stalingrad and the Caucasus prevented this result.

The collapse might not have been total, but Russia would have been forced into a purely defensive war for local "strongpoints," Leningrad, Moscow, and the oil between the latter and the Urals.

I would challenge this on two grounds. First, Lend Lease could have given the Soviet Union enough oil to resume the offensive. And two, even if the Soviet Union fought a defensive war until 1945, that would have been "good enough" for Anglo-American victories in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy to win the war, with the Anglo-Americans linking up with the Soviet army well east of where they actually did, possibly on Soviet soil.

A lot of history books give the impression that Germany could have defeated Russia if they had just captured Moscow or Leningrad, or done some other thing. These books feature cliff hanger-like statements like, "The Wehrmacht came within so-and-so many kilometers of Moscow" and so forth.

In reality, the Germans were fighting a losing battle and had no chance of defeating the Soviet Union. This can be ascertained by a close reading of military analyses of the subject. One of the most detailed accounts is Alan Clark's book "Barbarossa", however, Clark was more of a historian, not a soldier. I have found accounts such as Von Manstein's "Lost Victories" to be much more useful, although be forwarned it is very dry reading. Earl Ziemke's "Stalingrad to Berlin" is another good source. Among more modern authors, Albert Seaton's "Battle of Moscow" is useful and Eastern Front specialist John Erickson's books such as "The Road to Stalingrad". Once again, Erickson is a highly technical scholar, so do not expect adventure stories. Like Manstein, it is mostly about unit movements and interactions.

Updated answer, based on research found on Russian site "Military history" (in English) regarding attack on Moscow in August 1941:

  • Logistics of Barbarossa - Germans very aggressively build railroads to supply attack, regauging 20 km of rails per day from Russian (wide) to German gauge in summer 41 (on multiple railroad lines)
  • Consequences of attack on Moscow on August 41 - taking over Moscow would isolate northern Red army in Leningrad, which would disintegrate and allow German armies continue East, destroying remains of Red army by summer 42.
  • Hitler's mistake - most important military decision of 20th century.

Please note that above analysis is Russian military research.

Above link suggest that Germany lost the war because of a single strategic mistake: As panzer armies were closing to Moscow in August 41, Hitler redirected his panzer armies south to Kiev, then moved them back, losing time and operational tempo. Also, because they moved on own tracks (and not on trains), tanks needed track replacement after return (and were not operational - repairing them in the field was logistical nightmare).

In August, defense of Moscow has only 26 new untrained divisions (facing 60 veteran German divisions). Continuing on Moscow (which was most important transportation and communication (telephones) hub), Germany would split railroad transportation and communication, and Kiev defenses would collapse anyway. Even now, all trains from north to south go through Moscow.

It is entirely possible that if Germans would take over Moscow in August 41, Japan could attacked USSR during battle for Moscow (or possibly Stalingrad), opening second front from Manchuria, instead of attacking USA in Pearl Harbor (or delaying that attack for few months).

When Soviet spy Richard Sorge find out in mid-september 41 about no imminent plans of attack of USSR, it allowed Stalin to move divisions from Siberia (used and trained to winter warfare) to (soviet) western front, defend Moscow. This was real case when a spy changed history (and paid for it with his life).

Especially close to collapse (best time for attack) was first war winter, when industry just moved to Ural (production was not restarted), and German submarines ruled North Atlantic, sinking much of the supplies to Murmansk.

There were 3 routes for supplies from Allies to reach USSR:

  • via Murmansk (could be blocked by submarines and ships from Norway), and untenable if Lenigrad fell
  • via Vladivostok (would be cut if Japanese cut trans-Siberian railway), and
  • southern route via Iran. Cut 2/3rds of the supply routes, and you prevent building army reserves which led to winter victory in Stalingrad (first defeat of Germany).

Fortunately, Ribentrop-Molotov secret pact allowed Stalin (and Zhukov) to move enough resources to Far East, sufficiently trounce Japanese Army in Khalkin-Gol in 1939, which decreased Japanese Army's standing, prevented that attack, and instead allowed Japanese Navy to prevail on focusing on navy-related war, resulting in attacking USA in Pearl Harbor. Without Pearl Harbor attack, it could take another year to start mobilization of US manufacturing (or it would be much slower), so Germany (and Axis) would have better chance to win in this war of attrition.

Are there any sources or reports which explain how close the country was to collapsing under the Nazi assault? By 'collapse' I mean 'completely lacking either the willpower (as seen by France in 1940 after the fall of Paris and the collapse of the line on the Somme) or ability (as seen by Poland as they ran out of territory to defend) such that they would not be able to amount any effective defense and need to sue for peace as soon as possible'?

No. Knowing how 'close' they were would mean knowing what variables would be needed to bring them over into collapsing. Only conjecture exists in the form of taking Moscow in 1941 or the Caucasus in 1942. Comparable is the idea that the Germans were defeated before the war even began due to their lack of planning and foresight, as well as their failure of securing the encirclement at Smolensk spelled their eventual defeat.

Stalin himself officially declared for the whole nation that very close, in the famous Order No 227 ("Not one step back!"). This unlikely to be a very good propaganda so probably true.

Acknowledging the other answers which have indicated that there is no way of really knowing how close the Soviet Union came to collapsing during the Second World War, mainly because there is no way of knowing what might have been the key or critical variables that would have brought about a collapse with any certainty. Nevertheless, both the Axis and Allied leadership were necessarily vitally interested in the question at the time and there are some measures which can be speculated upon based on the planning and policies of the time which were inevitably directed towards causing or preventing just such a regime collapse.

There are two broad ways to look at the question which mirror the planning options considered by the German High Command, and which perhaps coincidentally, also address the two kinds of Soviet collapse mentioned in the original question.

  • The first is the possibility of a political collapse resulting in the Soviet state ceasing to function and thereby losing its ability to organize further effective resistance.

  • The second is the possibility of the Soviet state losing access to essential resources needed to maintain stability and offer a viable defense.

Which of these two approaches offered the surest path to success was a point of contention among the German leadership at the time, and has continued to remain a subject of vigorous discussion since. The key strategic question of whether the objective of Operation Barbarossa itself should have been directed towards political targets such as Moscow and Leningrad, or towards more economically critical objectives to the south rests upon which of the above approaches is given priority, and the wavering of German strategic direction during the 1941 campaign can be directly attributed to their changing assessment of the utility of each approach.

How close was the Soviet state to political collapse in WWII?

This is the most difficult part of the question to address. There is no real evidence of imminent political collapse of the Soviet state in the Second World War, and a collapse of this kind is very likely to occur very rapidly and in a non-linear and chaotic fashion. So it is difficult to even speculate just how close things might have been at various times - a dramatic event at a key moment could have made all the difference. The Fuhrer Directive for Operation Barbarossa(1) stipulated that the campaign in the East was to be won by destroying the Red Army decisively in the first weeks of operations. Hitler's declaration to his generals that they had "only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten Russian edifice will come tumbling down"(2) indicated his belief that a political collapse would follow directly from the Red Army's rapid demise. However despite the dramatic early German successes driving their armies deep into Soviet territory and destroying the Soviet border armies and Red Air Force, the Soviet regime held firm. Reports that Stalin suffered a mental collapse in those first disastrous days are exaggerated(3), and by the time the United States President's special envoy Harry Hopkins visited the Soviet Union in August 1941 to investigate the situation he was convinced that the Soviet leadership were resolute and had matters under control. Hopkins was granted full access to the Soviet leadership and was persuaded by Stalin's personal conviction that the German Army would be unable to sustain it's blitzkreig style of warfare in the trackless wildernesses of the Soviet Union(4). Stalin appears to have had a rational appreciation of the German limitations and was fully aware of the scale of military mobilization underway in the Soviet interior working to replace the massive losses already sustained, so even in the darkest days it does not appear that the Soviet leadership lost faith in their ability to withstand the German invasion. Coupled with the growing understanding of the Soviet people of what defeat at the hands of the Nazi invaders implied, the Soviet regime was able to maintain control and authorize whatever means were required to meet the German threat.

German planners, such as Chief of the Army's General Staff, General Franz Halder, who continued to favor the effort to engineer a direct political collapse of the Soviet Union, urged an immediate attack towards Moscow as the best means to quickly draw the Red Army into battle and defeat the relentless waves of Soviet reserves which were appearing in unexpected numbers despite the spectacular early German successes. However by this stage, the attrition of the German spearheads and the onset of poor weather, caused the German leadership to begin directing their attention towards economic objectives in the south, which were gaining greater significance as the prospect of a more drawn-out campaign loomed.

How close was the Soviet state to economic collapse in WWII?

The question of economic collapse has a more empirical aspect which lends itself to a more scientific approach. In the preparation of plans for the German invasion of the Soviet Union the chief German economic strategists produced a study of the Soviet economy which resulted in the determination of an objective line for the operation, known as the A-A Line, extending from Archangel in the Arctic, to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea, which if attained by the German invasion would deny any surviving Soviet state to the east an economic base deemed capable of threatening the German occupation west of the line for the foreseeable future. As a simplistic first answer, it might be assumed that if the German intelligence was sound, and the historical German invasion fell far short of attaining anything near the A-A Line, then the Soviet state historically should have retained access to the resources it needed to both maintain itself and continue to present a military challenge to the invaders.

A more nuanced study of the mechanisms and possibilities of a collapse of the Soviet economy in the Second World War can be found in Mark Harrison's The USSR and Total War: Why didn't the Soviet economy collapse in 1942? His thesis describes how the Soviet economy might have collapsed due to human failure, even where access to resources had not been completely denied. In short it reflects a trade-off between the willingness of the participants in the economy to continue to support the war effort versus the temptations and pressures they may have felt to abandon their efforts. Harrison claims that this process is non-linear with an accelerating potential for collapse as the rewards for loyalty become less dependable, and the possible rewards for defection become greater and more realistically attainable. Historically, according to Harrison, the Soviet state was able to only barely meet the basic needs of its population, but the potential payoff of allowing the Soviet state to fail, with the horrific prospect of Nazi subjugation, was never an attractive option to the Soviet people despite their hardships. His analysis also demonstrates the importance of the Lend-Lease support provided by the Western powers and how its significance extended well beyond the relatively few tanks and planes sent, with food, fuel and transportation shipments having a key role, as outlined in Food and other strategic deliveries to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease Act, 1941-45.


The available evidence does not seem to support the idea that the Soviet Union was ever facing an imminent prospect of either political or economic collapse during the Second World War. German assessments made in the planning of the operation appear to have been unrealistic, due in part to inadequate intelligence, and more significantly, due to a complete failure to understand the implications of their policy of fighting a War of Annihilation in the east which gave the Soviet people little option but to support their regime and redouble their efforts on the battlefields, farms and factory floors, despite all the hardships they faced.

How close was the Soviet Union to collapsing during WW2?

Short Answer
If not for heroic action by the Soviet Army at Moscow, the coldest European winter of the 20th Century, a poor German logistics line, and massive western aid the Soviet Union might have collapsed. We know this because Stalin made peace overtures to Hitler through Sweden and gave orders to evacuate his Capital Oct 15, 1941. If Moscow had fallen the Soviet war effort would have been exponentially more difficult.

Detailed Answer
Stalin had made an alliance with Hitler in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact Aug 23, 1939. Hitler broke that agreement June 22, 1941 when he invaded the Soviet Union Operation Barbarossa.

Operation Barbarossa was code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union which was the largest military offensive in the history of warfare. From June to Dec of 1941 it claimed the lives of 5 million Soviet Soldiers or about 10 times as many lives as America lost in the WWII, European and Pacific theatres. The Soviet Union was pretty close to collapse after that onslaught. On Oct 15, Stalin ordered the Communist Party, the Army Leadership, and the Civilian Government to evacuate Moscow.

Hitler invaded in June, by Sept they were at the outskirts of Moscow. In the opening action in the Battle of Moscow Sept 1941, the Germans shattered the Soviet's first line of defense and took 500,000 soviet soldiers prisoners. Leaving only 90,000 Soviet soldiers and 150 tanks with no reserves to defend the Soviet Capital. Then the Russian Winter hit along with the German supply problems caused the Germans to halt their advance on the city for a month. By the Time the Germans continued their assault they were facing 30 new divisions and a greatly inforced Soviet defense. The Germans were turned away from Moscow, and then their advance was shattered in their defeat at Stalingrad, the turning point in the war in Europe.


Joseph Stalin
Stalin was convinced of Hitler's integrity and ignored warnings from his military commanders that Germany was mobilizing armies on its eastern front. When the Nazi blitzkrieg struck in June 1941, the Soviet Army was completely unprepared and immediately suffered massive losses.

Stalin was so distraught at Hitler's treachery that he hid in his office for several days. By the time Stalin regained his resolve, German armies occupied all of the Ukraine and Belarus, and its artillery surrounded Leningrad. To make matters worse, the purges of the 1930s had depleted the Soviet Army and government leadership to the point where both were nearly dysfunctional.


battle of Moscow
The first blow took the Soviets completely by surprise when the 2nd Panzer Group, returning from the south, took Oryol, just 121 km (75 mi) south of the Soviet first main defense line.[248] Three days later, the Panzers pushed on to Bryansk, while the 2nd Army attacked from the west.[276] The Soviet 3rd and 13th Armies were now encircled. To the north, the 3rd and 4th Panzer Armies attacked Vyazma, trapping the 19th, 20th, 24th and 32nd Armies.[248] Moscow's first line of defense had been shattered. The pocket eventually yielded over 500,000 Soviet prisoners, bringing the tally since the start of the invasion to three million. The Soviets now had only 90,000 men and 150 tanks left for the defense of Moscow.[277]

The German government now publicly predicted the imminent capture of Moscow and convinced foreign correspondents of a pending Soviet collapse.[278] On 13 October, the 3rd Panzer Group penetrated to within 140 km (87 mi) of the capital.[248] Martial law was declared in Moscow. Almost from the beginning of Operation Typhoon, however, the weather worsened. Temperatures fell while there was continued rainfall. This turned the unpaved road network into mud and slowed the German advance on Moscow.[279] Additional snows fell which were followed by more rain, creating a glutinous mud that German tanks had difficulty traversing, whereas the Soviet T-34, with its wider tread, was better suited to negotiate.[280] At the same time, the supply situation for the Germans rapidly deteriorated.[281] On 31 October, the German Army High Command ordered a halt to Operation Typhoon while the armies were reorganized. The pause gave the Soviets, far better supplied, time to consolidate their positions and organize formations of newly activated reservists.[282][283] In little over a month, the Soviets organized eleven new armies that included 30 divisions of Siberian troops. These had been freed from the Soviet Far East after Soviet intelligence assured Stalin that there was no longer a threat from the Japanese.[284] During October and November 1941, over 1,000 tanks and 1,000 aircraft arrived along with the Siberian forces to assist in defending the city.


Turning Point of World War II in Europe
More than four million combatants fought in the gargantuan struggle at Stalingrad between the Nazi and Soviet armies. Over 1.8 million became casualties. More Soviet soldiers died in the five-month battle than Americans in the entire war. But by February 2, 1943, when the Germans trapped in the city surrendered, it was clear that the momentum on the Eastern Front had shifted. The Germans would never fully recover.


Stalingrad at 75, the Turning Point of World War II in Europe
Hitler and the German High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres, or OKH), were confident that the Soviet Union would fall within six weeks. At first, their prediction seemed correct: the attack in June 1941 caught Stalin unawares, and the Red Army unprepared. By December, the Red Army had suffered nearly five million casualties.

But despite enduring staggering losses, the Red Army continued to resist. In August 1941, senior members of the Wehrmacht began growing increasingly uneasy. The Chief of the OKH staff, General Franz Halder, noted in his diary that ““It is becoming ever more apparent that the Russian colossus… . Has been underestimated by us… . At the start of the war we reckoned with about 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360… When a dozen have been smashed, then the Russian puts up another dozen.”

In October, the Wehrmacht launched Operation Typhoon, the effort to take Moscow and end the war by Christmas. But as the weather grew bitterly cold, the German offensive ground to a halt, and was then pushed back by a Soviet counteroffensive. The front line froze in place some two hundred kilometers west of Moscow - and 1400 kilometers east of Berlin.


Lend-Lease: How American supplies aided the USSR in its darkest hour
"Now they say that the allies never helped us, but it can't be denied that the Americans gave us so many goods without which we wouldn't have been able to form our reserves and continue the war," Soviet General Georgy Zhukov said after the end of WWII.

"We didn't have explosives, gunpowder. We didn't have anything to charge our rifle cartridges with. The Americans really saved us with their gunpowder and explosives. And how much sheet steel they gave us! How could we have produced our tanks without American steel? But now they make it seem as if we had an abundance of all that. Without American trucks we wouldn't have had anything to pull our artillery with."

Hitler vs. Stalin: How Russia Defeated Nazi Germany at the Gates of Moscow
Would the capture of Moscow have altered the outcome of World War II? Losing their capital has often led nations to seek peace. Moscow was more than the administrative capital of the Soviet Union: it was also a vital rail hub and production center. There was also the symbolic value: totalitarian dictators, like Hitler and Stalin, crafted images of themselves as all-knowing leaders of their nations. Losing Moscow would certainly have dented popular confidence in Stalin. In fact, Stalin apparently did put out discreet peace feelers to Germany through Sweden, which Hitler ignored. In October 1941, the Second World War teetered on a knife edge.

From Comments

from Agent Orange The essence of your argument seems to be that the Soviet Union was close to collapse because German propaganda convinced some journalists that it was so.

So Moscow is about 800 miles from Warsaw the kicking off point for the German Invasion. It took three months for the Nazi's to drive through the meat of the Soviet Defenses. And as I said, the front line of the Soviet defenses of Moscow collapsed Oct 1941 with 500,000 soviet soldiers surrendering, leaving only 90,000 soviet defenders with no reserves and 150 tanks left to face off against the Germans.

Also Stalin did order the evacuation of the Communist Party, the General Staff and civil government offices from Moscow Oct 15 1941. Which caused panic among Muscovites. As told in "When Titans Clashed" by David M. Glantz chapter 6, pg 74

from Agent Orange #2
We know that the Wehrmacht was depleted and exhausted at the gates of Moscow, and we know that fresh Soviet troops were arriving in waves. You need to demonstrate that these historical facts are compatible with your thesis that Soviet collapse was in fact imminent (or nearly so). Why would the Soviet leadership be broken when they had clearly weathered the 1941 storm and had the situation under control around Moscow? -

It is true that the Battle of Moscow was the single largest battle of WWII. A Battle in which the Soviet's lost 4x the number of troops (killed, missing, captured) than the Germans. To put it in perspective the Soviet's lost more troops during the Battle of Moscow than the United States, Britain, and France combined in all of WWII. It was frankly the most important battle of the entire war.

What you left out is that the Germans had to stop their advance for a month due to weather and their own logistics problem. Without that pause the German force which had just taken 500,000 Soviet defenders of Moscow prisoners and killed 5 million soviet soldiers (total soviet losses in Battle of Moscow) would have only had to deal with the remaining 90,000 defenders with almost no remaining Soviet armor support. It's true the Soviets were re-enforced, but it was the weather which turned the roads into impassible gelatinous mud and then froze the Germans and finally buried them in snow which gave the Soviet's the time to transfer 30 divisions of Siberian Troops along with armor and logistics via rail to buttress Moscow.

By the time the Germans renewed their attack they were facing an entirely different Soviet defense.

Also I think it's important to note that Moscow was of vital strategic importance to the Soviet Union. It's not like in Napoleon's days when Moscow was lost and the Russians were able to come back. In Napoleon's days there weren't any railroads. Moscow was not only the Soviet's most populous city, but was also it's manufacturing, communications and transportation center. One of the few advantages the Soviet's had over Germans was the ability to use railroads to move troops and logistics efficiently, while the Germans had to rely on undependable roads. If moscow fell the Soviet's ability to use it's railroads would have been dramatically effected because Moscow was the central railroad hub of the entire country. Logistics, reinforcements, and western aid three important assets which allowed the Soviets to recover and eventually turn the table on the Nazi's would have been impacted.

I will preface all my comments on the heroism of the Soviet soldiers, that cannot be overstated.

When the Soviet Union collapsed it was revealed that the Stavka had ordered a general retreat after the failed Red Army Spring Offensive of 1942 so my personal view is not only could the Wehrmacht have defeated the Red Army in the summer of 1942 but in fact they SHOULD have defeated the Red Army with Case Blue.

There are a multitude of reasons why this didn't happen… not least being Hitler was in charge. Stalingrad was not even a primary objective ironically… so the Red Army truly made the German military pay for a series of truly incredible blunders not the least being their complete contempt for the "Ostlanders" and ignorance of "Ost Politik."

Militarily speaking "taking Crimea as a Christmas Gift", wiping Sevatstapol off the map, dividing Army Group South into two, failing to heed the lessons of the Battle of Vorehnez, then bombing Stalingrad into a defenders paradise… ?against Hitler's express orders actually… all just added up to a bunch of losses from which Germany has never recovered from… even today.

The Fall of the Soviet Union

In order to understand the consequences related to the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is critical to first examine the overarching causes for the USSR&rsquos downfall. Gorbachev&rsquos loosening of governmental power created a domino effect in which Eastern European alliances began to crumble, inspiring countries such as Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to declare their independence. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, leading East and West Germany to officially reunite within a year, ending the Cold War. Once the Berlin Wall fell, citizens in Eastern European countries such as Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania staged protests against their pro-Soviet governments, hastening the collapse of communist regimes across the former Soviet bloc. Other countries&mdashsuch as the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine&mdashfollowed suit, creating the Commonwealth of Independent States. By the end of 1989, eight of the nine remaining republics had declared independence from Moscow, and the powerful Soviet Union was finally undone. By the summer of 1990, all the formerly communist Eastern European officials had been replaced by democratically elected governments, setting the stage for the region&rsquos reintegration into Western economic and political spheres.

The dismantling of the Soviet Union had many long-lasting effects on the global economy and the region&rsquos foreign trade. Its downfall increased the United States&rsquo influence as a global power and created an opportunity for corruption and crime in Russia. It also prompted many cultural changes and social upheavals in former Soviet nations and smaller neighboring communist countries. Between 1989 and 1991, the gross national product in Soviet countries fell by 20 percent, ushering in a period of complete economic breakdown.

The Soviet Union Is Gone, But It’s Still Collapsing

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of 15 new countries in December 1991 remade the world overnight. The Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation disappeared, and democracy and free-markets spread across the now defeated Soviet empire. Of course, 25 years later, events didn’t exactly unfold as initially predicted. The forces of globalization have mutated former Soviet countries in unseen ways, emboldening autocrats and entrenching corruption across the region. Meanwhile, the geopolitical animosities of the Cold War are resurgent, with relations between Moscow and Washington at their lowest point since the Soviet-era arms race. The creation of new countries, meanwhile, has given rise to nationalism and autocracies that are shaping foreign-policy decisions and altering societies in unforeseen ways.

Yet, the significance of this quarter-century of change is still not fully understood. Why did the Soviet Union really collapse and what lessons have policymakers missed? How is history repeating itself across the lands of the former superpower? In search of answers, Foreign Policy asked six experts with intimate knowledge of the region from their time in finance, academia, journalism, and policymaking. Here are the unlearned lessons from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union is still collapsing.

Serhii Plokhy is the professor of history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union , The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine , and his latest book is The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story .

The 20th century witnessed the end of the world built and ruled by empires: from Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, which fell in the final days of World War I, to the British and French empires, which disintegrated in the aftermath of World War II. This decades-long process concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the mighty successor to the Russian Empire, which was stitched back together by the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s, only to fall apart 70 years later during the final stage of the Cold War.

Although many factors contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, from the bankruptcy of communist ideology to the failure of the Soviet economy, the wider context for its dissolution is often overlooked. The collapse of the Soviet Union, like the disintegration of past empires, is a process rather than an event. And the collapse of the last empire is still unfolding today. This process did not end with Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation on Christmas Day 1991, and its victims are not limited to the three people who died defending the Moscow White House in August 1991 or the thousands of casualties from the Chechen wars.

The rise of nation-states on the ruins of the Soviet Union, like the rise of successor states on the remains of every other empire, mobilized ethnicity, nationalism, and conflicting territorial claims. This process at least partly explains the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the burst of popular support for those acts of aggression in the Russian Federation. As the victim of a much more powerful neighbor’s attack, Ukraine found itself in a situation similar to that of the new states of Eastern Europe formed after World War I on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires. Those states struggled with the enormous tasks of nation building while trying to accommodate national minorities and defend themselves against revanchist powers claiming the loyalty of those same minorities.

Although the historical context of the collapse of empires helps us understand the developments of the last 25 years in the former Soviet space, it also serves as a warning for the future. The redrawing of post-imperial borders to reflect the importance of nationality, language, and culture has generally come about as a result of conflicts and wars, some of which went on for decades, if not centuries. The Ottoman Empire began its slow-motion collapse in 1783, a process that reached its conclusion at the end of World War I. The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine is not the only reminder that the process of Soviet disintegration is still incomplete. Other such reminders are the frozen or semi-frozen conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the semi-independent state of Chechnya.

A lesson that today’s policymakers can learn from the history of imperial collapse is that the role of the international community is paramount in sorting out relations between former rulers and subjects. Few stable states have emerged from the ruins of bygone empires without strong international support, whether it is the French role in securing American independence, Russian and British involvement in the struggle for Greek statehood, or the U.S. role in supporting the aspirations of former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. The role of outsiders has been and will remain the key to any post-imperial settlement. Looking at the current situation, it’s difficult to overstate the role the United States and its NATO allies can play in solving the conflict in Ukraine and other parts of the volatile post-Soviet space. The fall of the Soviet Union, which carried the legacy of the last European empire, is still far from over. RETURN TO LIST.


Abandonment has consequences.

Bill Browder is the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and the head of the Global Campaign for Justice for Sergei Magnitsky.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 25 years ago, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief as the threat of nuclear annihilation was all but eliminated. Russia transitioned into a democracy, and the West could refocus its efforts on peace and prosperity. In the process, however, the pendulum swung from intense anxiety toward Moscow to inattention and neglect.

Unfortunately, while the West was ignoring Russia, it was quietly mutating into something far more dangerous than the Soviet Union.

With no real laws or institutions, 22 Russian oligarchs stole 40 percent of the country’s wealth from the state. The other 150 million Russians were left in destitution and poverty, and the average life expectancy for men dropped from 65 to 57 years. Professors had to earn a living as taxi drivers nurses became prostitutes. The entire fabric of Russian society broke down.

Meanwhile, the West wasn’t just ignoring the looting of Russia it was actively facilitating it. Western banks accepted pilfered funds from Russian clients, and Western real estate agencies welcomed oligarchs to buy their most coveted properties in St-Tropez, Miami, and London.

The injustice of it all was infuriating for average Russians, and they longed for a strongman to restore order. In 1999, they found one: Vladimir Putin. Rather than restoring order, however, Putin replaced the 22 oligarchs with himself alone at the top. From my own research, I estimate that in his 18 years in power he has stolen $200 billion from the Russian people.

Putin did allow a fraction of Russia’s oil wealth to seep into the population — just enough to prevent an uprising, but nowhere near enough to reverse the horrible injustice of the situation. But that didn’t last long either. As the oil boom waned, the suffering of ordinary Russians resumed, and people took to the streets in 2011 and 2012 to protest his rule. Putin’s method of dealing with an angry population comes from the standard dictator playbook: If your people are mad at you, start wars. This was the real reason behind his invasion of Ukraine, and it worked amazingly well: Putin’s approval rating skyrocketed from 65 percent to 89 percent in a few months.

In response to the annexation of Crimea, the war in Ukraine, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which killed 298 innocent people, the West had no choice but to respond with a range of sanctions against Russia. These sanctions, combined with the collapse of oil prices, led to more economic hardship, which made the Russian people even angrier. So Putin started another war, this time in Syria.

The problem the world now faces is that Putin has effectively backed himself into a corner. Unlike any normal world leader, he cannot gracefully retire — he would lose his money, face imprisonment, or even be killed by his enemies. Therefore, what started out as a profit-maximizing endeavor for Putin has transformed into an exercise in world domination to ensure his survival.

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the West still faces a menacing threat from the Kremlin. It is now driven by kleptocracy rather than communist ideology. But it is still the same menace, with the same nuclear weapons, and an extremely dangerous attitude.

The real tragedy is that if Western governments hadn’t tolerated Russian kleptocracy over the last quarter century, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But as long as Putin and his cronies continue to keep their money safe in Western banks, there is still leverage: Assets can be frozen, and accounts can be refused. If one lesson is to be taken from the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is that we in the West cannot continue to keep our heads in the sand and ignore kleptocracy in Russia, because the consequences are disastrous. RETURN TO LIST.

Ideology should not guide foreign policy

Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces from 1972 to 1993. His latest book is Should We Fear Russia? .

The Soviet Union saw itself as an ideological power. Moscow believed that communism offered, as the old communist slogan went, a “bright future for all humanity.” Leaders in Moscow were convinced that communism was the right recipe for any country, regardless of history, development, or culture — and 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, that misplaced logic is still shaping events around the globe.

The Soviet Union’s first major success in communism promotion came in Mongolia, where Moscow prided itself in shifting the country from feudalism to socialism by the late 1930s. After World War II, in addition to Eastern Europe and East Asia, Soviet-sponsored regimes spread across the globe, from Latin America to East Africa, with nominal success.

But then came Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow went in first to ensure that leaders in Kabul remained loyal to the Soviet Union, but once it was in, the mission changed to helping the Afghans build a state and society based on the Soviet model, like it did in Mongolia. It was in Afghanistan that the Soviet Union discovered the power of militant Islam and eventually understood that it was so much easier to invade a deeply religious country than to reshape its society. By the time Moscow sent military forces into the country, the Soviet Union had revealed its cardinal weakness: imperial overreach. Moscow was already beginning to struggle to keep in line its allies in Eastern Europe — and to support dozens of client states across the globe.

Discontent at home was grossly enhanced by the war in Afghanistan, which was both costly and unnecessary. At the same time, the Soviet economy had run out of steam by the 1980s, with infrastructure crumbling and popular rancor growing. The cost of supporting a long list of satellites and surrogates was sapping the finances of the Soviet Union. Moscow, which had always been wary of borrowing abroad, began to take more and more loans. In the final years of the Soviet Union, its foreign policy was heavily influenced by the constant need to seek more funding from abroad: The pace of domestic liberalization was increased, steps toward the German reunification were taken, and Moscow did not intervene when Eastern Europe pursued its own political course in the 1980s.

The lessons from this historical episode apply first of all to the Russian Federation, the successor to the Soviet Union. It immediately rejected any state ideology, abandoning not only the global empire but also the lands traditionally seen as Russia’s historical heartland, such as Ukraine. Twenty-five years later, as it seeks to rebuild itself as a global great power, Russia is realizing that founding an empire under a different name is not in the cards. Having entered the war in Syria, Russia has also made it clear from the start that it will not send in its ground forces, lest Syria becomes another Afghanistan.

But the lessons shouldn’t be limited to the former Soviet space. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. U.S. interventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 developed into massive nation-building projects under the guise of democracy — at great human and financial cost. Any ideology, not just communist, is a poor guide for foreign policy. Foreign military misadventures result in disappointment at home and loss of prestige abroad. And a growing national debt is a ticking bomb that threatens the very stability of the state.

In the end, the Soviet Union paid the ultimate price for its imperial hubris. RETURN TO LIST.

Russia can’t lead through imperialism.

Nargis Kassenova is an associate professor and director of the Central Asian Studies Center at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research in Almaty.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the five new countries of Central Asia —Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — were initially left on the outside looking in. The Belavezha Accords — the document signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus on Dec. 8, 1991, that marked the dissolution of the Soviet Union and created a much looser Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place — were signed with no input from the Central Asian republics. This process revealed an important truth about relations between the opposite sides of the Soviet empire: The Slavic leaders called the shots, while the Central Asians accepted the consequences.

For the westward-looking Russia of the early 1990s, Central Asia was a burdensome backwater that it did not mind shedding off. After painful efforts to a keep a single economic space and share a currency, Yeltsin’s government pushed other CIS states out of the ruble zone in 1993. This move was particularly painful for Central Asian states, which were highly dependent on Russian banks for financial transfers to stabilize their battered economies.

As Russia became less democratic and more nostalgic about Soviet glory in the late 1990s, Moscow began to show interest again in Central Asia. As the Kremlin revived talk of its “privileged interests” and “spheres of influence,” it sought new ways to establish itself as the center of economic and political activity in Eurasia. Moscow poured new resources into the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance that contains three of the five Central Asian countries. In 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic bloc of Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan — widely heralded by Vladimir Putin — came into effect to more closely bind the former Soviet countries.

Through its alliances, Moscow continues to behave as a sovereign and not as the first among equals in a union. When the West sanctioned Russia over its interference in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow responded with its own set of retaliatory sanctions against European products. This was done without consulting Belarus or Kazakhstan, the other members of the Eurasian Customs Union, the precursor to the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia also carried out missile attacks from the Caspian Sea to targets in Syria in fall 2015 without taking into account the concerns of its military ally and closest partner Kazakhstan, which was forced to reroute flights on short notice out of the region.

At the societal level in Russia, there is not much interest or love for Central Asians. Millions of labor migrants from Central Asia work in Russia, sending back money to support the families they left behind. This has grown anti-immigrant and racist sentiments in the country, and some key opposition politicians have even sought to channel it. Mikhail Prokhorov, a billionaire and presidential candidate during Russia’s 2012 elections, condescendingly promised that he would close the border with “Middle Asia” (the Soviet term referring to Central Asia minus Kazakhstan) and introduce a visa regime with these countries. Alexei Navalny, the charismatic activist planning to run in the 2018 presidential elections, has campaigned in the past on introducing a visa system with Central Asia and the Caucasus. With nationalism on the rise, Central Asians have increasingly become the “other” for Russians.

This trend should urge Central Asians to keep in mind the lesson of the early 1990s. Without shared identity or a shared dream for the future, it’s impossible to build a political community or have any kind of meaningful economic integration. Central Asian states and societies need to reflect on their past and present dependencies and develop identities that are separate from their Soviet history and attachment to Russia. After 25 years, it’s time for Central Asians to abandon the type of self-victimization typical of colonized people and truly embrace their countries’ independence. RETURN TO LIST.

Globalization only enriched and empowered autocrats.

Alexander Cooley is Director of Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Claire Tow of Professor of Political Science at Barnard College in New York. His forthcoming book, co-authored with John Heathershaw, is Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia .

The five new countries of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a forgotten region seemingly cut off from the forces of globalization. Scholars and policymakers came to view Central Asia as isolated, disconnected, and insufficiently integrated into the global economy. The region’s governments became increasingly authoritarian, and economies were left stagnant and unreformed from their Soviet days.

The Central Asian states, however, were not exactly shielded from globalization. Rather than facilitate the transition from a communist command economy, Central Asia’s relationship with the liberal world system after the collapse of the Soviet Union suggests that globalization actually encouraged capital flight, enshrined corruption, and allowed some of the world’s most brutal dictators to cement their rule.

This legacy of offshore finance has played out across Central Asia, shortchanging the region’s economies and empowering its autocrats. The region’s elites may not have transitioned their countries to liberal political and economic systems, but they did use state institutions to personally enrich themselves — relying on anonymous shell companies and offshore bank accounts to camouflage their shady transactions. Although the West chastised these countries for pervasive corruption, it rarely paid attention to the international accountants, lawyers, and external advisors who helped to structure these illicit arrangements.

In Tajikistan, a small mountainous country north of Afghanistan, political battles have been waged over the Tajik Aluminum Company (Talco), the country’s largest exporter, whose management structure is registered in the British Virgin Islands. Accusations of millions of dollars siphoned off and embezzled overseas, allegedly by President Emomali Rahmon and his relatives, have played out in London, Swiss, and New York courtrooms. Similarly, in Turkmenistan, an investigation by the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness estimated that $2 billion to $3 billion in the country’s foreign currency reserves — accumulated from the trade of natural gas under Turkmenistan’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov — was held by Deutsche Bank in an account that was “solely controlled” by the Turkmen president.

In oil-rich Kazakhstan, a massive bribery scandal implicated a half-dozen major Western energy companies, including ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, over lucrative energy concessions in the 1990s. The accusations alleged the companies funneled some $80 million in bribes to senior Kazakh elites via offshore bank accounts. In 2010, James Giffen, an American middleman and senior advisor to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, pled guilty to one minor violation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, after mounting a “public authority” defense under which he argued that he acted on behalf of various U.S. government entities, including the CIA, to promote American interests through these opaque deals.

Meanwhile, in Kyrgyzstan, two presidential regimes, both of which were ousted in separate popular uprisings in 2005 and 2010, used the U.S. air base at Manas to enrich themselves and their associates. Although the base was critical to the U.S. military’s campaign in Afghanistan, billions of dollars from lucrative fuel contracts were channeled through mysterious offshore companies registered in Gibraltar. Neighboring Uzbekistan’s economy is generally considered closed, but it, too, was engulfed in an international bribery scandal. Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of the country’s late president, reportedly used a variety of offshore vehicles to structure more than $1 billion in payments and kickbacks from Western telecommunications companies.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, outside observers have frequently characterized Central Asia as a reclusive part of the world. However, by overlooking how regimes strategically used offshore vehicles, bank accounts, and financial intermediaries, the West has ignored its own complicity in fostering the global networks that supported autocracies in Central Asia and around the former Soviet world. RETURN TO LIST.

Moscow is still sacrificing innovation for state security.

Andrei Soldatov is an investigative journalist and cofounder of, a Russian information hub on intelligence agencies. He is the co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries .

On Dec. 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law the country’s information security doctrine. The 17-page document outlines the Kremlin’s perception of the threats posed by terrorism, foreign propaganda, and cyber-espionage, before calling for a major change — the creation of a “national system of managing the Russian segment of the internet.” The doctrine goes on to suggest that telecommunications and information technology (IT) companies should consult with the security services ahead of introducing new services and products and that the country needs to liquidate the “dependence of domestic industries on foreign information technologies.”

Although this might seem like a bold new direction for Russia, it’s actually a remnant of the past — and a sign that the Kremlin has learned nothing from its Soviet history when it comes to embracing technological change. Like the Soviet Union before it, the Russian government and its security services are aiming to restrict innovation for fear of the social and political upheavals it could bring.

That’s exactly how things were organized in the Soviet Union, where authorities traded technological development for the specter of state security. In our book The Red Web, journalist Irina Borogan and I describe how in June 1975, Yuri Andropov, then-chairman of the KGB, reported to the Central Committee about Jewish “refuseniks” making international phone calls. Andropov’s recommendation was “to suppress the use of international communication channels for transmission abroad of biased and slanderous information.” The measure was adopted and worked to limit the spread of dissent, but as a result, the Soviet Union fell far behind the West.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, accounting for this technological deficit needed a new approach, and Vladimir Bulgak, the minister of communications under former President Boris Yeltsin, was willing to break with the past. Russia desperately needed modern communications, but local industry couldn’t provide the technology. Due to Soviet-era restrictions, the Russian telecommunications industry now lagged behind the West by 20 to 25 years. “We came to think that our industry would never catch up, and that meant we had to go and buy,” Bulgak told me during an interview.

And Moscow did just that. In the span of three years, more than 70 percent of all Russian intercity phone stations were replaced by modern digital ones, made in the West, and Bulgak increased the number of international lines in the country from 2,000 analog ones to 66,000, all of them digital.

Bulgak bought equipment from abroad, bypassing old Soviet factories at enormous cost — many of them were forced to close, leaving thousands of people high and dry. But by 1995, Russia had established a modern, national communications industry. Thriving and profitable internet businesses sprang up in the early 2000s, something that would have been impossible without the lines and stations purchased by Bulgak.

The infrastructure of the Russian internet was built on Western technology, primarily Cisco, an American conglomerate, because the new national telecoms companies believed that reliability was more important than the origin of the supplier. Putin has not learned this lesson. When Western sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, Putin called for import substitution to replace foreign products with domestic ones. The new security doctrine cements this idea, saying that “the level of dependence of the domestic industry from foreign IT” is too high and that this makes Russia dependent on “foreign geopolitical interests.”

But the country’s industry simply can’t produce all the equipment that is needed, and desperate officials have since turned to China to replace Western technology. And although it’s an open question whether this new doctrine will actually make Russia any safer — it will surely limit the country’s economic potential. RETURN TO LIST.

The Fall of the Soviet Union Accelerates

The shrinking Soviet Union received another major blow when the biggest republic, Russia, elected its own president, Boris Yeltsin. A former Politburo member turned militant anticommunist, Yeltsin announced his intention to abolish the Communist Party, dismantle the Soviet Union, and declare Russia to be “an independent democratic capitalist state.”

For the remaining Stalinists in the Politburo, this was the final unacceptable act. Barely three weeks after the Bush-Gorbachev summit in Moscow, the head of the KGB, the Soviet defense and interior ministers, and other hard-liners—the so-called “Gang of Eight”—launched a coup. They placed Gorbachev under house arrest while he was vacationing in the Crimea, proclaiming a state of emergency and themselves the new leaders of the Soviet Union. They called in tanks and troops from outlying areas and ordered them to surround the Russian Parliament, where Yeltsin had his office.

Some eight decades earlier, Lenin had stood on a tank to announce the coming of Soviet communism. Now Yeltsin proclaimed its end by climbing onto a tank outside the Parliament and declaring that the coup was “unconstitutional.” He urged all Russians to follow the law of the legitimate government of Russia. Within minutes, the Russian defense minister stated that “not a hand will be raised against the people or the duly elected president of Russia.” A Russian officer responded, “We are not going to shoot the president of Russia.”

The image of Yeltsin boldly confronting the Gang of Eight was flashed around the world by the Western television networks, especially America’s CNN, none of whose telecasts were blocked by the coup plotters. The pictures convinced President Bush (on vacation in Maine) and other Western leaders to condemn the coup and praise Yeltsin and other resistance leaders.

The attempted coup, dubbed the “vodka putsch” because of the inebriated behavior of a coup leader at a televised news conference, collapsed after three short days. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he found that Boris Yeltsin was in charge. Most of the organs of power of the Soviet Union had effectively ceased to exist or had been transferred to the Russian government. Gorbachev tried to act as if nothing had changed, announcing, for example, that there was a need to “renew” the Communist Party. He was ignored. The people clearly wanted an end to the party and him. He was the first Soviet leader to be derided at the annual May Day parade, when protestors atop Lenin’s tomb in Red Square displayed banners reading, “Down with Gorbachev! Down with Socialism and the fascist Red Empire. Down with Lenin’s party.”

A supremely confident Yeltsin banned the Communist Party and transferred all Soviet agencies to the control of the Russian republic. The Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia declared their independence. As the historian William H. Chafe writes, the Soviet Union itself had fallen “victim to the same forces of nationalism, democracy, and anti-authoritarianism that had engulfed the rest of the Soviet empire.”

President Bush at last accepted the inevitable—the unraveling of the Soviet Union. At a cabinet meeting on September 4, he announced that the Soviets and all the republics would and should define their own future “and that we ought to resist the temptation to react to or comment on each development.” Clearly, he said, “the momentum [is] toward greater freedom.” The last thing the United States should do, he said, is to make some statement or demand that would “galvanize opposition . . . among the Soviet hard-liners.” However, opposition to the new non-communist Russia was thin or scattered most of the hard-liners were either in jail or exile.

On December 12, Secretary of State James Baker, borrowing liberally from the rhetoric of President Reagan, delivered an address titled “America and the Collapse of the Soviet Empire.” “The state that Lenin founded and Stalin built,” Baker said, “held within itself the seeds of its demise. . . . As a consequence of Soviet collapse, we live in a new world. We must take advantage of this new Russian Revolution.” While Baker praised Gorbachev for helping to make the transformation possible, he made it clear that the United States believed his time had passed. President Bush quickly sought to make Yeltsin an ally, beginning with the coalition he formed to conduct the Gulf War.

How close was the USSR really at being defeated in WW2?

That would depend on what you would consider "defeated". Knocking out active military capability is somewhat of a shot in the dark. Based on some reflections after looking at the critical aspects of the offensives in 1942, John Mosier came to the conclusion that they should have pushed for Moscow (Army Group Central should have been priority) because it was the hub of the nation, but it's difficult to say whether or not it would have knocked out the USSR as a functioning military entity, for a variety of reasons. First is that not all of the industrial capability was centralized around Moscow, second was that the USSR was receiving a fairly significant chunk of planes, tanks, and trucks from the United States, and third is that guerilla war was definitely a possibility.

I fear that I might veer into the ideas of hypothetical here, so I won't stick too long on it, but from anything I've read, I cannot say that the USSR was close to being defeated in any (lasting) capacity. Accounts from German soldiers that were published later on showed that while they were winning in 1941 and 1942, there were several cracks in the armor, so to speak.

So while I don't believe anyone can say for certain, and without going too far into what we don't know, I would say that the USSR wasn't close to being defeated. They had lost several defenses, but with the industrial backing of the United States, as well as their own functioning industrial capacity, combined with the attitude of the Red Army (the whole not one step back thing), and the fairly crudely prepared German forces for winter all seems to point to an eventual Soviet victory no matter how you look at it. The only question that can't be answered is what if Army Group Central over Army Group South?

I would recommend reading Reader's Digest Illustrated History of World War 2 for a lot about this. Great primary sources from soldiers and officers on the Eastern Front. John Mosier wrote The Cross of Iron, Rise and Fall of the German War Machine and I personally found that quite informative (in the sense that it made me think very differently about the war), but I'm unaware of how his book holds up to scrutiny.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. The only chance Nazi Germany had of defeating the USSR was a very swift knock-out punch, as a war of attrition the Germans would never win. Most German commanders realized this quite well.

And while they came close to nabbing Moscow, from there on it's very much 'what if' as you say. It would've been a blow to the Soviets for sure, but they definitely wouldn't have folded as simply as that. If anything it might've just pissed the Ivans off even more.

The size and capacity of the USSR at that point was very difficult for the German military to overcome. Let alone doing so whilst already engaged on the other end of their Reich.

edit: touching back upon the comment I replied to, the idea of �ting the Soviets' deserves further clarification for sure, since what does that really constitute? The USSR potentially losing central control, with all the benefits to Germany attached to that, is still a completely different story than the Germans having actual complete control of the vast territory the USSR commanded. The German military was stretched already when it was close to Moscow, even if they took it they were in no state to just roll on and occupy all the rest of the USSR. Supply lines and all that jazz. Quite a complicated topic.

John Mosier is an English professor who has written some "controversial" military history books. Many prominent "real" historians do not take him seriously at all, ever. I personally think he is a wingnut who imagines himself to be quite clever and insightful. Reader's Digest is a prominent source of high school level history. Just my opinions.

First is that not all of the industrial capability was centralized around Moscow

By the January 1942 barely any military related industry remained in Moscow region. For example, tank factory №37 was evacuated to Sverldovsk yet in October, although remaining facilities were organized into car-repairing shop №6 and were used to produce SU-76i SPG's (from captured German Pz. Kpfw. III and StuG III).

200 SU-76i were produced in 1942-1943.

Do you know if there was guerrilla warfare in the parts of Russia captured by the Germans in WW1?

Could you elaborate on what equipment the Americans were sending to Russia? Or perhaps a resource where I might learn more?

Thank you for your answer. I just asked this question because I am fairly interested in WW2 and often I see written that the USSR were on the verge of collapse, or that the winter saved them. Stuff like that. I was just interested to see if that was true or not. Thank you.

In your opinion, would an earlier attack like in April 1941 have made a difference?

That is a very difficult question to answer, for a few reasons.

Firstly, which factors do we take into consideration? Obviously the USSR wasn't defeated, so to some degree we are already speaking of hypotheticals if we want to determine which factors that, when tweaked, would yield a different result. Do we only take into consideration that which directly concerns the Soviet Union itself? Do we look at what the Germans could have done differently? I will be focusing on internal Soviets factors, although some German factors are unavoidable. What I won't be doing is entertaining "what if" ideas (What if the Germans had focused on Moscow? What if the Germans hadn't been encircled at Stalingrad? What if the Germans were better prepared for winter warfare? You get the idea). This answer isn't about what the Germans could have done to defeat the USSR, but how close the USSR came to defeat in reality, and why.

Secondly, as /u/HaroldSax says, what does "defeated" mean? A complete military defeat? The collapse of the political system? The former seems unlikely in the extreme. The Soviet Union wasn't just a geographically large country with large untapped resources, it also had a much larger population than Germany. And those two combined in part with the Stalinist system meant that the Soviets could and did move large parts of their industrial base beyond the reach of the Germans and continue to supply (with ample Allied assistance) a growing military. Evan Mawdsley argues that the German economy was not really geared towards "total war" before the winter of 41/42, which was likely already too late. Contrast this with the sort of "anything to be victorious" structural flexibility that was already built into the Soviet system.

That last point plays into the latter of the two main points, which was the potential collapse of the political system. Here it is important to involve Germany more directly. An inherent quality of the Nazi system was its belief that the people(s) of the Soviet Union were largely inferior to their own, and they treated people in the conquered territories as such. This meant that instead of playing on the very real tensions that existed within the Soviet state, politically and ethnically, the Germans actually strengthened the Soviet sense of comradeship and unity. The name "The Great Fatherland War" isn't all propaganda. There really was a genuine sense of comradeship through massive adversity (just look at Leningrad). Add to that the fact that the Soviet leadership bar Stalin had already evacuated Moscow, and it makes it difficult to argue that the capture of Moscow would cause the entire state to collapse. It would certainly complicate matters, but then matters were already fairly complicated.

To sum up: the Soviet military was unlikely to ever be completely defeated on its own, with the backing of a growing industrial base and allied supplies. That backing wasn't going to disappear unless the state itself was compromised, and I can see little reason to believe that the political system was close to collapse, even with the Germans parked outside of Moscow and elsewhere. Some historians actually argue that Germany lost the war as soon as they started it, but all I will commit to saying is that I do not believe the USSR was ever really on the brink of defeat. It was large, populous and increasingly united.

Causes [ edit | edit source ]

Soviet Prisoners of War held in German camp

Citizens of Leningrad leaving their houses destroyed by German bombing.

The Red Army suffered catastrophic losses of men and equipment during the first months of the German invasion., Η] ⏯] In the spring of 1941 Stalin ignored the warnings of his intelligence services of a planned German invasion and refused to put the Armed forces on alert. The units in the border regions were not prepared to face the German onslaught and were caught by surprise. Large numbers of Soviet soldiers were captured and many perished due to the brutal mistreatment of POWs by the Nazis 𖏜] U.S. Army historians maintain the high Soviet losses can be attributed to 'less efficient medical services and the Soviet tactics, which throughout the war tended to be expensive in terms of human life" 𖏝]

Russian scholars attribute the high civilian death toll to the Nazi Generalplan Ost which treated the Soviet people as "subhuman". Contemporary Russian sources use the terms "genocide" and "premeditated extermination" when referring to civilian losses in the occupied USSR. To suppress the partisan units the Nazi occupation forces engaged in a campaign of brutal reprisals against innocent civilians. The extensive fighting destroyed agricultural land, infrastructure, and whole towns, leaving much of the population homeless and without food. The Nazis confiscated food stocks which resulted in famine in the occupied regions. During the war Soviet civilians were taken to Germany as forced laborers under inhuman conditions. 𖏞] 𖏟]

This paper considers the countries: Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia in terms of the circulation of GOODS, CAPITAL and PEOPLE around the region. The Central European buffer zone countries represent the most successful group of countries in terms of economic and political reform and social stability.

North Korea during and after the Cold War, seen by some analysts as a buffer state between the military forces of China and U.S. forces in South Korea, Japan and U.S. fleet in Taiwan.

How Russia Won the Battle of Stalingrad

Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round.

Hitler to General Paulus, January 24, 1943

In the spring of 1942, the German offensive against the Soviet Union was nearly a year old. Hitler, believing that he could win in the East by staging a decisive offensive in the south aimed at the Soviet Union's economic resources, launched a two-pronged attack on 28 June. Army Group A pushed towards the oil-rich area of Baku, and Army Group B advanced towards Stalingrad and the Volga. Stalingrad was a key strategic target. It was an important industrial centre, communications hub, and sat astride the Volga River. Capturing Stalingrad would cut this waterway – the principal supply route from south to central and northern Russia.

The Red Army, demoralised and disheartened by a year of bitter and costly defeats, began to employ a new strategy: the fighting retreat. Instead of defending their positions at all costs – a strategy which had led to heavy losses during the first year of the war – Soviet units were now ordered to withdraw in the face of strong German attacks. This tactic would turn the vast expanse of the Russian steppe against the Germans, and put huge strain on their supply lines.

The German Sixth Army, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, advanced quickly, assisted by the Fourth Panzer Army. By the summer of 1942 they had reached the suburbs of Stalingrad on the west bank of the Volga. Here the Soviet retreat ended, and Vasily Chuikov prepared to lead a determined defence of the city. As the battle began in earnest, the Luftwaffe dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on Stalingrad, a misjudgement that created a rubble-strewn landscape perfect for defence.

German troops were taken aback by the fierce street fighting they found themselves engaged in during their advance to the city centre. For soldiers accustomed to the well-choreographed mobile warfare, ferocious close-quarter fighting in the city's ruins was a new and terrifying experience.

The Soviets had their own problems. Reinforcements had to be ferried into the city across the Volga, often under heavy shelling and bombing. Many units suffered large casualties before even going into action. Soviet Penal Units, several containing political prisoners, were used for suicidal charges. The average life expectancy of a Soviet soldier during the height of the battle was just 24 hours.

In 19 November 1942, the Soviets used one million men to launch a counterattack, Operation Uranus, encircling the city and trapping the German Sixth Army within it. For Paulus and his men, the situation was desperate. Winter was setting in, and they were running out of food, ammunition and medical supplies. Despite the Luftwaffe's efforts, it was not possible to get enough supplies in by air. In December, a relief operation mounted by General von Manstein narrowly failed to break through to the city. It was the last hope for the Sixth Army.

On 2 February 1943, General Paulus surrendered with the 91,000 troops that remained. The tremendous human cost of the battle is difficult to comprehend. The Axis forces (comprised of German, Italian, Romanian and Hungarian troops) suffered 800,000 casualties, the Soviets more than one million. The battle marked the furthest extent of the German advance into the Soviet Union, and is seen by many historians as a key turning point in the war.

Did you know?

In the narrow streets of Stalingrad's suburbs, the Germans had to fight for every house. During the fighting, it was not uncommon to find houses in which the basement and ground floor were occupied by the Soviets, and the top floors by the Germans

The Soviet Union Had a Hidden Key To Victory in World War II

The Soviet military used deception on numerous occasions to thwart the Germans.

Here's What You Need to Know: Soviet blood and maskirovka turned the tide in the East and helped achieve Allied victory in World War II.

Promoted to full colonel in the German Army and an award of the prestigious Knight’s Cross were significant accomplishments, even in the waning days of World War II. Yet, Lt. Col. Heinrich Scherhorn managed to get the promotion and the Knight’s Cross while languishing well behind the lines in a Soviet prisoner of war camp, and his promotion was fully aided and abetted by his Soviet captors.

Operation Berezino

The Soviets had deceived the Germans into believing that Scherhorn had rallied a group of some 1,800 German soldiers who were behind enemy lines in Belorussia and surrounded near the Berezino River in the summer of 1944. The group was reportedly making a determined yet desperate attempt to reach German lines. The report was based, in part, on truth. However, Soviet forces had earlier destroyed the unit near Minsk, with Scherhorn and 200 troops taken captive. The Soviets seized upon the opportunity, knowing that the Germans already believed that some Wehrmacht soldiers were stranded in the forests near Berezino.

Before Operation Berezino was over nine months later, the hard-pressed Germans had been convinced to fly 39 sorties to the fictitious fighters, dropping 13 radio sets and 225 cargo packs consisting of ammunition, food, medicine, and more than two million rubles, according to Robert W. Stephan, a former CIA counterintelligence specialist. In addition, 25 German agents and intelligence officers were rounded up in the successful deception, adds Stephan, author of Stalin’s War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against The Nazis, 1941-1945.

As the Germans slowly took the bait, the Soviets further added to the ruse, with the trapped unit supposedly growing nearly 40 percent in size, including 16 officers—all quietly captured earlier—and 884 wounded. This supposed growth, in turn, created the need for even more medicine, ammunition, and supplies.

“The German sense of duty, and the potential political and military value of rescuing 2,500 troops trapped behind Soviet lines, proved stronger than the suspicions surrounding the operation,” reports Stephan. Despite some serious doubts and rapidly depleting resources, the Germans continued to supply food and ammunition to the nonexistent unit. Whenever the Germans asked detailed questions about various officers supposedly working with Scherhorn, the Soviets would isolate them and obtain the information requested by the Germans.

Luck certainly played a part when a German intelligence officer landed on a primitive airfield to meet Scherhorn. The excited Oberleutnant Barfeldt jumped out of the aircraft a bit too early as it was taxiing, and a propeller blade decapitated him. The rattled crew quickly recovered the body and flew off, perhaps saving Operation Berezino from being uncovered.

32 Officers, 250 Servicemen

The Soviets invested considerable resources to Operation Berezino, including 32 intelligence officers and more than 250 servicemen. These included high-ranking Leonid Aleksandrovich Eitingon, who had earlier coordinated the assassination of Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s political rival. A number of POWs were pressed into service to create a convincing camp, complete with dugouts and tents to further convince the Germans.

Adding even greater authenticity to the troops’ predicament, Soviet counterintelligence convinced the Germans that some of the planned airdrops needed to be postponed because of approaching enemy troops. The Soviets even managed, according to reports, to have the cooperative Scherhorn initially talk with recently dropped German parachutists who radioed back that everything was as stated. The fresh Germans were then captured by NKVD (Soviet Intelligence) security troops hidden nearby.

The Soviet deception skills had developed to the point that they were able to continue the ruse for nine months while convincing their wily opponents to supply ammunition and food desperately needed elsewhere.

Operation Barbarossa’s Devastation

The Soviets had come a long way since the early phase of World War II when the Red Army was overwhelmed and scattered as the powerful German Wehrmacht rolled across the Motherland in June 1941. The advancing Germans had swept down on the town of Orel, only 200 miles from Moscow, so quickly that they found the trams still running. The Wehrmacht moved so fast that within a few months the invaders were at the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, threat- ening the very existence of the Soviet Union.

More than three million Axis troops had invaded the Soviet Union, organized in 146 German divisions along with 14 Romanian divisions in the south and Finnish units in the north. They were supported by more than 2,000 aircraft and 3,300 tanks.

The Soviets had been caught flat footed, nearly totally surprised. Soviet aircraft were exposed and lined up “in inviting rows at major air bases,” notes British historian Richard Overy. Many forward units had limited ammunition, and within the first month 200 out of 340 military supply depots fell into German hands.

By the end of December 1941, some 3.8 million Soviet prisoners had been taken and were stranded behind barbed wire in desperate conditions. Perhaps a million more had been killed. Leningrad, Russia’s old imperial city, was surrounded, and the lack of food began to take its toll. The city’s death rate rose to 5,000 per day during that first winter of the epic siege. Moscow itself teetered on the verge of collapse with many of the government offices evacuated to Kuibyskev, some 500 miles to the east.

Even Lenin’s body had been whisked from Moscow, and Stalin himself had a special train on standby, but he decided at the last moment to remain in the capital city. His decision to stay helped calm the populace of Moscow, which had seen widespread looting and civil unrest.

The Germans had overrun some 40 percent of the Soviet Union’s population and nearly the same percentage of its production capacity. Only 90,000 Soviet troops stood between the Wehrmacht and Moscow, which was so close that some German troops reported seeing the city’s spires.

Soviet Maskirovka

Stalin, in many ways, was like a prize fighter who had been knocked into his own corner. He and his comrades were dazed by the onslaught, but the decision had been made to stand and fight. The coming of winter certainly played a significant role in halting the German tide, as did information from a well-placed Soviet agent in Japan. The spy had informed Moscow that Japan had set its eyes on potential oil-rich war prizes to the south, rather than Soviet territory. Based on that information, Stalin moved winter-hardened Siberian units across the length of the Soviet Union to successfully shore up the defense of the capital.

Soviet military leaders had long held that maskirovka, or military deception, was a viable weapon in protecting the Motherland. They had believed firmly in Sun Tzu’s centuries old contention that “all warfare is based on deception.”

It was, perhaps, during the fighting for Moscow that the Soviets first demonstrated their affinity for maskirovka. The overly confident German commanders unwittingly assisted the effort. The Germans had convinced themselves that the Soviets had depleted their reserves. They further failed to realize that elements of three Soviet armies, including the experienced Siberian troops, had been redeployed around Moscow under a new commander, General Georgy Zhukov. Those Russian armies would serve as the shock troops to spearhead the early December 1941 Red Army counteroffensive before Moscow.

Bad weather, the repositioning of troops at night, and comparatively crude maskirovka efforts assisted in catching the tired and overextended Germans by surprise. The Germans were successfully pushed back, giving the Soviets a much-needed respite as winter fully closed in on the opposing forces.

“At best, Soviet experiences at Moscow partially indicated what could be done with maskirovka,” noted David Glantz, author of Soviet Military Deception in the Second World War. “Moscow was only their first lesson in a long combat education.” Successful early deception efforts prompted the Soviet high command to consider an even broader range of deceptive moves that could contribute to future operations.

The Soviet Counterintelligence Advantage

The Germans did have some successes with their own military deceptions. An operation that began in Warsaw in the summer of 1943 lasted nearly a year. It led to the capture of 52 Soviet agent teams and enabled the Germans to determine the scope of some Soviet military operations in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Upper Silesia during that time frame.

However, as the war progressed so did Soviet sophistication in the use of deception. Basic practices such as false and misleading radio traffic, camouflage to conceal troops and equipment, and fake troop movements gradually gave way to more complex, coordinated, and sophisticated measures such as Operation Berezino.

The Soviets had a number of advantages over their German opponents when it came to deception. Russian-born American journalist Issac Don Levine summed up the Soviet system well in 1960. The government was “esstentially a counterintelligence apparatus. It was conceived in 1903 by Lenin as an operation in counterintelligence against the Czarist regime, and it remained a conspiracy ever since…. It was a front…,” with real power resting with the Communist Party.