(Updated Aug 11, 2020)
The biggest question about Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who essentially agreed to demolish the Soviet Union (*) is why. He took over in 1984 and, in less than the time-span of two U.S. presidential terms, the space-faring, globe-encompassing superpower he had once presided over was gone for ever.
The conservative explanation for this is that Gorbachev was smartly tricked into defeating himself by Ronald Reagan and his clever moves, such as the Star Wars missile defense that contributed to the Soviets bankrupting their economy out of fear that their nuclear deterrent would become obsolete. A more consensus-like explanation is the economy, you know, the economy. The Soviets produced terrible blue jeans and, after decades of a crappy, decreasing standard of living, nobody could take it anymore.
None of these two explanations account for much of what Gorbachev did. Without getting too much into the fascinating nitty-gritty of the period (which is well covered in John O’Sullivan’s 2008 “The president, the Pope and the Prime Minister,” for example, and some other books), there are some key open questions that illustrate Gorbachev’s actions and motivations. None more so than the question of why Gorbachev allowed the reunification of Germany within NATO.
This is an absolute key issue for the modern world. Just imagine how everything would look like if the leading country of the European Union were, instead of a key NATO member and U.S. ally occupied by tens of thousands of U.S combat troops, a neutral non-aligned power without U.S. troops. Just imagine how everything would look completely different, particularly the Russian periphery.
This outcome, that of Germany outside of NATO and American tutelage, was within Gorbachev’s power to obtain. In a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson comments on William Taubman’s latest Gorbachev biography:
In his great speech to the UN General Assembly in December 1988, Gorbachev announced enormous unilateral cuts to Soviet conventional forces in Europe, and said that a society’s ‘freedom of choice’ should be respected without exceptions. The frightful suspicion that Soviet power might no longer stand between them and their angry populations began to seep into the skulls of the smarter East European leaders: others, as in East Germany, still dismissed that as unthinkable. Dissidents and ordinary people calculated that there was now a fair chance – no better than that, yet – that Soviet tanks would not invade if they took matters into their own hands. The outcome was the multiple liberations of 1989. Gorbachev clearly hoped that the overthrow of Communism would be followed by some form of democratic socialism. But when that looked increasingly unlikely, he didn’t panic. He simply didn’t care enough about that part of the world. One of his finest legacies was that he precisely didn’t bring about revolutions in East-Central Europe. By standing aside, he allowed a generation of Poles and Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians and Germans to create the nourishing myth that their freedom had been won by their own courage on the street. When they woke Gorbachev one November morning to tell him that East Germany had opened the Wall, he merely said: ‘They did the right thing.’
By 1990, the reunification of Germany was on the table, Ascherson and Taubman write:
In 1990, while establishing the presidency and fending off Yeltsin, Gorbachev was also coping with the enormous new question of Germany’s future. The West, including Chancellor Kohl, assumed that he would oppose German reunification, but he accepted it. Then they thought that he would probably refuse to allow a united Germany to remain in Nato, and would certainly veto the extension of Nato into what had been East Germany. But in May he came to Washington and suddenly agreed with Bush that ‘united Germany … would decide on its own which alliance she would be a member of.’ The Americans couldn’t believe what they were hearing. Gorbachev’s own staff were thunderstruck. Why did Gorbachev not drive a much harder bargain over Germany, when he clearly had the chance? Taubman isn’t the only one to ask that question. The moment was so dramatic and desperate that if Gorbachev had asked for German neutrality as the price for recognising German unity, there was at least a possibility that the West might have agreed… Whatever his motives, Gorbachev’s reluctance to put up a fight over Germany had enormous consequences. Some were domestic: in abandoning the Soviet foothold in Germany, won at the price of such bloodshed, was he not betraying all that the Soviet people had gained in the Great Patriotic War? As one of many abusive letters to him put it, ‘Mr General Secretary: congratulations on receiving the imperialists’ prize for ruining the USSR, selling out Eastern Europe, destroying the Red Army, handing over all our resources to the United States and the mass media to the Zionists.’
Of course, there were promises made to Gorbachev by the West, that were later broken. Ascherson again:
Though Taubman doesn’t put it like this, the West took Gorbachev’s co-operation for weakness. He expected an economic and financial reward for his concessions: it didn’t come. Crucially, in February 1990, James Baker, the US secretary of state, and Chancellor Kohl assured Gorbachev that Nato wouldn’t expand eastwards, certainly not towards the Soviet frontiers. But Gorbachev failed to make them write it down and Bush later told Kohl that he and Baker had gone too far. ‘To hell with that! We prevailed. They didn’t. We can’t let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.’ A few years later, by 2004, all the ex-Warsaw Pact nations, including the Baltic republics and Poland, had been brought into Nato. After their triumphant experience with Gorbachev, Western leaders reckoned that they could get away with it. But the ‘broken promise’ grievance smoulders under Putin’s European policy to this day. Most Russians, whatever their view of Putin’s autocracy, still look on Nato’s surge up to their borders as the treacherous breach of an international agreement.
It wasn’t only Baker and Kohl who lied and cheated, though. It was the entire Western leadership, and very particular the U.S. government, that made specific commitments to the Soviets and then to the Russians, in exchange for withdrawals and disarmament, that were dishonored time and time again. You can check this extensive review of Western promises (well summarized here) to Soviet leaders and then completely ignored.
Russia, in fact, was led to believe that it would be allowed to join NATO, which would then turn into an wide Western security alliance. As late as 2001, Vladimir Putin was still asking for NATO membership for Russia, which of course was always off the table. The Russians were told they were invited to a banquet, but they were only the main dish, as the transcripts of top-level U.S. and British conversations show.
The evidence is all over. Reviewing the same Taubman biography in theTimes Literary Supplement, Geoffrey Hosking writes:
Meanwhile, on the international stage, Gorbachev won plaudits from the outset. His open manner, his eagerness to discuss serious problems frankly, his ability to interact with foreign leaders were an agreeable contrast to his stiff, unresponsive predecessors. He had decided that the endless build-up of weapons in both East and West had contributed to the stability of neither, but was especially damaging to the Soviet Union, with its less developed technology. He wanted to replace the arms race with a new security structure for the whole of Europe, a “common European home”, as he repeatedly called it, in which both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be dissolved.
He believed favorable US press coverage, in which he was only praised to contrast him with the hated Reagan, showed the Americans’ heart. No, seriously:
The rapturous reception he received from crowds in London, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere boosted his inveterate optimism: Gorbachev believed that his dream of a harmonious Europe was more advanced than it really was. Especially optimistic was his acceptance in 1990 that a reunified Germany should join NATO, as he never even received a written agreement that NATO would not expand further eastwards. It is true that he desperately needed financial help from Helmut Kohl’s wealthy Germany. All the same, to surrender so much without gaining reciprocal concessions seems remarkably sanguine. And of course, the resentment engendered in his homeland by his compliance (his Soviet opponents berated him for retrospectively “losing the Second World War”) underlies today’s disillusioned relationship between Russia and the West. Yet the fault was not his alone, as Taubman emphasizes. In effect, Gorbachev’s great achievement was the end of the Cold War. But that achievement was hijacked by the United States and NATO, which, instead of working to consolidate peace and mutual security as he had envisaged, took advantage of Russia’s weakness to impose their own version of security by expanding NATO one-sidedly.
Who ever thought there was any other possibility? Who ever thought the US had spent trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives just to set clock back to where it was in 1933?
The West’s failure to offer Gorbachev more support in 1991 was a major missed opportunity, the product of statesmen who lacked vision. As Margaret Thatcher, by then out of power, observed: “Just a few years back, Ron [Reagan] and I would have given the world to get what has already happened here”, and added that if the West did not come to Gorbachev’s aid, “history will not forgive us”.
In August 1991, Gorbachev’s opponents had set up an “Emergency Committee” and launched a coup to bring him to heel or overthrow him. Some commentators have charged that this was actually Gorbachev’s Machiavellian way of defeating Boris Yeltsin, a view Taubman rightly rejects as utterly out of character. However, it is true that Gorbachev had paved the way towards this moment when, overwhelmed by pressures in the winter of 1990–91, he briefly fell back on the cruder authority structures of the past by appointing a number of politicians who believed in restoring the Party’s full power. It was they who later formed the Emergency Committee. The coup in a sense represented Gorbachev versus Gorbachev. Or the result of Luther briefly trying to return to being the Pope.
Taubman treats Gorbachev’s stormy relationship with Yeltsin as a largely personal one and recounts it in great detail, justifiably. But it was also an institutional conflict. Once the Russian Federation, much the largest constituent republic of the Soviet Union, won tangible power of its own, it represented a dangerous rival to the Soviet Union itself. In August 1991, Yeltsin, now elected and therefore fully legitimate President of the Russian Federation, famously mounted a tank and challenged the authority of the Emergency Committee, warning that he would use Russian law to prosecute them. In other words, the event which finally condemned the Soviet Union to extinction was a clash between Russia and the Soviet Union.
Donald Freaking Trump, then a real estate developer as far away from international politics as one can be, understood what was going on. In a 1990 interview with, of all places, Playboy Magazine, he gave it straight, about Gorbachev:
I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere–which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader–and we should continue giving him credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union.
Then, there’s Boris Yeltsin. At this point, one must remember just who Yeltsin was. This is a man who abandoned communism after walking into a U.S. grocery store during a goodwill tour; an erratic drunk, by 1991 Yeltsin was openly propped by the American government, for which he acted as an agent, surrounded by American advisers. Here’s a good article on the recorded conversations that Yeltsin had with U.S. President Bill Clinton: the tone, throughout, is that a of servant begging or asking favors from his master; the most frequent line in the transcripts is Yeltsin’s “I agree.”
This trend went into overdrive in the newly-independent Russia and the 1996 election in which the U.S. cheated and bribed as much as needed to ensure Yeltsin’s corpse would be re-elected, and then gloated about it.
Yeltsin, by the way, was also duped by the Americans regarding NATO. They repeatedly promised no NATO expansion into the former Warsaw Pact. Repeatedly, and in writing, even though they also let Yeltsin dupe himself, and believe what he found most convenient to believe. But the gist of the American message was to include Russia within European defense arrangements: you know, the exact opposite of making Russia the target for European defense arrangements, as was the case in real life. Then again, Yeltsin was a playful idiot, so there’s that mitigating factor for all involved.
The key here is to realize that Gorbachev and Yeltsin were not alone. Lots of people, perhaps a majority of the Soviet elite, came to believe America propaganda that democracy, unilateral disarmament and cuddling was the way to go forward and to have Russia accepted as a pal of the West: Yuri Bezmenov most certainly did.
Here, one can see a Youtube video of a 1984 TV interview conducted with Bezmenov in which the alleged KGB defector (who may have been full of BS) explains how, fundamentally, he thought the whole ghastly Cold War was a misunderstanding: if only Communism were discarded, the Americans — good people at heart, as seen in Frank Capra movies — would remove all roadblocks to permanent friendship with Russians.
Bezmenov sounds like an intelligent guy in the interview; he certainly explains a lot of KGB tricks, and makes excellent points about how Communist subversion worked in the 1950s and 1960s. He lived long enough to see the very first stage of the American rape of the USSR, and died in 1993, before most of the egregious theft of state property was conducted (by Americans and others, as well as Russians).
I’m not sure what he would think of the present state of U.S.-Russian relations, and the fact that the least anti-Russian American government of the last two decades is willing to confront Moscow in all fronts and set up American troops in Ukraine, just because, like the U.K. before, the U.S. empire can’t fail to confront any possible adversaries, of whichever ideology, especially if they’re not a big American supplier. Hosking again:
Taubman summarizes Gorbachev’s strengths as “innate optimism and self-confidence, a substantial intellect, a fierce determination to prove himself”, and an “ability to maneuver to get what he wanted”. Yet he adds that Gorbachev’s “overconfidence in himself and his cause gave him the courage to reach so high that he overreached – and then warped his judgment when what he was trying to build started to shatter”. Mikhail Gorbachev’s achievements were indeed remarkable, but so were his failures: “he was a tragic hero who deserves our understanding and admiration”.
Or, like an actress once put it: Good girls go to heaven, while bad girls go places.
(*It was, of course, Boris Yeltsin who eventually got rid of the Union and gave us a world with an independent Belarus and Turkmenistan; but Gorbachev, as supreme Soviet leader like Stalin and Brezhnev before him, had endless opportunities to avoid this particular outcome, which he didn’t take; which is not to say that a worse outcome couldn’t have followed)