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Hal Brands

Russia's War in Ukraine Is How the Soviet Union Finally Ends

Empires — especially the biggest ones — don’t end quickly or peacefully.

Ukranian soldiers rest near the Donbass frontline. 

Ukranian soldiers rest near the Donbass frontline. 

Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

Wars that are caused by people can also be caused by deep historical processes. For proof, look at the fighting in Ukraine. That conflict is the doing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a ruler determined to reassert Russia’s greatness by destroying an independent Ukraine. Yet it is also part of a bigger story about what happens when empires break up.

The fighting in Ukraine is the latest and worst of the wars fought over the remnants of the Soviet Union, an empire whose death throes continue some thirty years after the union itself ceased to exist. It will not, unfortunately, be the last.