Sunday September 04, 2022

A leader who tried to rescue flagging Soviet Union

A leader who tried to rescue flagging Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev was a peacemaker, revolutionary, and visionary whose efforts to thaw relations between Russia and the West, reform the sclerotic Soviet economy, and promote a world without war came to naught. Nevertheless, Gorbachev, who died a week ago at 92, changed history and became one of the 20th century’s great leaders. Although he was not accorded a state funeral, tens of thousands of Russians queued for hours to show respect and lay flowers at the Pillar Hall in the iconic House of the Unions where his body was displayed in accordance with Russian/Soviet tradition.

On the domestic plane, Gorbachev sought to rescue the flagging Soviet Union, put an end to authoritarianism, repression and censorship, instal multi-party politics with contested elections, allow Russians to journey, live and invest abroad, and open the door to a competitive economy.

On the foreign plane, he ended the East-West Cold War, brought down the wall which divided Germany, freed from the Soviet grip the countries of eastern Europe, and promoted trade with the Western bloc.

However, on both planes, Gorbachev’s efforts were doomed to failure because he was succeeded by two leaders who did not share his vision. He was compelled to step down as president of the Soviet Union following its December 31st, 1991, dissolution by Boris Yeltsin and other non-Russian leaders after a drunken dinner party. In the stroke of a pen, Russia was shorn of its East European satellite states and transformed into a second-rate power. Yeltsin took over as president of the Russian Federation.

A critic of Gorbachev’s measured pace of reforms, Yeltsin adopted rapid transformation of Russia’s command economy into a free-market economy and privatised public firms, enabling a small number of oligarchs to gain control of Russia’s major assets. When he lifted price controls, instability and inflation ensued. In 1993, he ordered the dissolution of parliament after it voted to impeach him. He sent troops into parliament to prevent an armed uprising and introduced a new constitution which expanded the powers of the president, reverting to authoritarianism.

While Yeltsin revived relations with Europe and signed arms control agreements with the US, he ignored Gorbachev’s adversion to warfare and commitment to free and fair elections. Yeltsin waged war on Chechen separatists and was re-elected in 1996 in a fraudulent election. He was forced to resign by the end of 1999 and was succeeded by Vladimir Putin.

During his first term as president, Putin focused on reforming and growing the economy.

He was fortunate that the price of oil and gas increased five times, providing Russia with funds to fight another war with the Chechens. As prime minister, he conducted a war with Georgia and initiated military reform. During his next term as president he annexed Crimea, sponsored warfare in eastern Ukraine and intervened in the civil war in Syrian on the side of the Syrian government. During his current term he has invaded Urkaine, attracting punishing sanctions on Russia. While in power he has suppressed the media, faked elections, and jailed opponents and critics.

Yeltsin and Putin have totally reversed Gorbachev’s well-meaning policies on the domestic front while the West has finished off his efforts to cultivate rapprochement between Russia and the West on the foreign front.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the US and its NATO partners breached multiple commitments to Gorbachev and colleagues not to expand the Western alliance eastwards by promoting membership to countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact.

The initial pledge was made in February 1990 to Gorbachev by US Secretary of State James Baker. This, to quote US official sources, “was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified US, Soviet, German, British and French documents posted today (December 12, 2017) by the (US) National Security Archive at George Washington University.”

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Russia complained about “being misled about NATO expansion” as assurances that these countries would not join the alliance were “founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.”

This being the case, Gorbachev and his successors should have been reassured. AS one after the other former Soviet satellite countries joined NATO, Russia’s leaders felt increasingly encircled by the hostile alliance.

Writing in The Washington Post four days BEFORE Russia invaded Ukraine, David Ignatius said Putin had warned NATO against eastwards expansion 15 years ago from the podium of the Munich security conference. “NATO has put its front-line forces on our borders,” Putin said. He reminded leaders attending that the US had pledged that NATO would not expand east of Germany. He added, “We have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?”

Writing in The Guardian four days AFTER Putin invaded Ukraine, Ted Galen Carpenter argued that Putin bears “bears primary responsibility for this… development, but NATO’s arrogant, tone‐deaf policy toward Russia over the past quarter‐century deserves a large share as well.” Carpenter warned in his 1994 book, “Beyond NATo: Staying Out of Europe’s Wars, that NATO’S expansion “would constitute a needless provocation of Russia.”

In his article Carpenter continued, “What was not publicly known at the time was that Bill Clinton’s administration had already made the fateful decision the previous year to push for including some former Warsaw Pact countries in NATO. The administration would soon propose inviting Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to become members, and the US Senate approved adding those countries to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1998. It would be the first of several waves of membership expansion.”

US Cold War containment warrior, George Kennan said this “is the beginning of a new cold war.” He predicted the Russians would “react quite adversely… I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.” Exactly.

Having protested for decades the expansion of NATO without taking action, Putin drew a “red line” around Ukraine.

If Ukraine’s leaders and senior members of alliance had simply said two words, “No NATO,” well ahead of the Russian build-up on Ukraine’s borders last year, there may have been no war, no flood of Ukrainian refugees, no shortages of fuel and grain in developing countries, less inflation, and no punitive sanctions on Russia which violate humanitarian laws against collective punishment.

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