Amherst Political Science Professor William Taubman takes us from Gorbachev to Putin
William Taubman, the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College and author of Gorbachev: His Life and Times, came to Reed on Friday, October 5. Taubman began his talk by discussing the end of the Cold War and the burden the war placed on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Working from a much smaller economic base than the United States, the USSR expended enormous amounts of money to keep pace with the US militarily, or, in the case of nuclear arms, surpass it. In the years before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, food shortages were bad in Moscow and far worse in the provinces, even as “twenty percent of the labor force work[ed] in agriculture,” according to Taubman While USSR manufactured 16 times more grain harvesters than the US, the USSR still had to buy grain abroad. An agricultural crisis had arisen after years of forced-draft industrialization. Imperial overextension in places like Afghanistan (an invasion the military leadership strongly opposed) further exhausted resources and ultimately cost the lives of 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 2 million Afghan civilians. That conflict remains eerily reminiscent to the war the United States has been involved in since invading the country in 2001.
Then, President Ronald Reagan came into the mix. Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States at the time, remarked that he had never seen Soviet leadership “so deeply set against an American president.” Reagan’s sins, as Dobrynin saw them from Washington, included his scrapping of détente, his abandonment of arms control, the rapidity of his military buildup, his attempts to separate Eastern Europe from Moscow, his military cooperation with China, his intimidation of Cuba, and his pushback against Soviet influence in the Middle East, to make no mention of the fact that he referred to the USSR as an “evil empire” whose leaders “reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat to promote world revolution.” Still more terrifying was his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), codenamed “Star Wars,” a fantasy of a defense system that entailed using lasers to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear missiles, leaving them unable to retaliate against an American attack This wasn’t the only side to Reagan’s Soviet relations. He sent “almost mawkish” handwritten letters to (Gorbachev’s predecessor) Brezhnev espousing peaceful intentions and visited the Soviet embassy in Washington to express his condolences following Brezhnev’s death. Dobrynin was assured by Reagan himself that “although people in the Soviet Union probably regard me as a crazy warmonger, I don’t want war between us, because I know it would bring countless disasters. We should make a fresh start.” While Dobrynin wasn’t quite sure what to make of this side of Reagan, leadership in Moscow interpreted it as “a sign of deliberate duplicity and hostility.”
As Taubman puts it, if Reagan had been hit by a bus and killed in 1984, Bush would’ve come to work with Gorbachev as he did after coming into office in 1989 and the Cold War would’ve ended just about the way it actually did. If Gorbachev had been hit by a bus in 1984 and Reagan was paired with the “troglodytes” occupying the Kremlin, the ending of the Cold War would’ve been indefinitely postponed. Gorbachev, Taubman argues, was unique in Moscow in his desperation to end the Cold War and democratize the Soviet Union. He had only three allies in the 15 member politburo who stayed with him (almost) all the way through his six year tenure, all of whom he’d appointed or worked to keep there. All of the other members who selected him in 1985 subsequently turned against him. In 1988, when asked by a reporter in the Kremlin whether he still considered the USSR to be an “evil empire,” Reagan, having just walked through Red Square with Gorbachev on a sunny day, replied “No. That was a different time. That was a different era.”
This remarkable change in US-Soviet relations can be attributed to, of all things, Gorbachev and Reagan getting along really well together. In fact, they had a significant amount of things in common. Both came from small farming communities, had happy upbringings in harsh historical realities (the Depression for Reagan, famine and collectivization for Gorbachev), preferred to reminisce about only one of their parents (Reagan’s father was an alcoholic, Gorbachev’s mother was abusive), were “big men on campus” and the lead men in their high school theater groups, grew up in places with a small town feeling (described by a Wall Street Journal reporter who grew up not far from Reagan as “people are basically good and will treat you right if you’re good to them”), and had remarkably similar relationships with their wives (who consequently hated each other). Reagan and Gorbachev had four summits at Geneva, Reykjavík, Washington, and Moscow, and a meeting at Governor’s Island in December 1988, just before Bush came into office, in which he promised Reagan to continue right where he’s left off.
Instead Bush instituted a pause in US-Soviet relations, which he waited a whole year later to resume in Malta, although not because of his own skepticism but because of that of his advisors, including Vice President Dick Cheney. They believed that Gorbachev’s friendly facade was causing the United States to lower its guard, and that he was actually more dangerous than his predecessors, even as Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan and rejected its ideology (at least in foreign affairs). Nevertheless by the time Gorbachev left office in 1991 he and Bush were as friendly as he and Reagan had ever been.
Still there are difficulties that arise during Gorbachev’s last two years in office, the most major of which is presented by Germany and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). When the Berlin wall falls in 1989 Gorbachev is almost happy. As an aide of his put it: “Gorbachev’s dream was to wake up one day and discover that the Berlin Wall had fallen of its own weight.” This came out of a larger dream, of east and west Europe coming together, for their regimes to resemble each other to the point where their differences disappeared and for NATO and the Warsaw Pact to be replaced by a new architecture of security in Europe, with the fall of the Berlin Wall as the beginning of that process. This explains the speed at which he accepted the reunification of Germany and the membership of the newly reunified country into NATO (the west expected him to oppose both measures, possibly even with the use of force). For this he expected something in return, which he believed himself to have gotten at a meeting in February 1990 with Secretary of State James Baker, during which Baker said, were the reunified Germany admitted into NATO, “the military jurisdiction of NATO would not extend one inch to the east.” Unfortunately for Gorbachev he failed to get this in writing, and NATO now reaches to the Baltic borders with Russia. Gorbachev felt betrayed, and the expansion of NATO’s jurisdiction remains a key source of post-Soviet Russian resentment towards the United States.
Gorbachev and Bush’s successors, Yeltsin and Clinton, found a number of ways in which they resembled each other. Both were “old boys” with (in Taubman’s words) “gigantic appetites.” Clinton reported that Yeltsin, on one of his visits to Washington, was found by secret service agents outside the White House clad only in his underwear trying to hail a cab to go buy pizza. On the more substantive side, Clinton offered economic aid and advice, endeavoring to push Russia in the direction of a more democratized, free-market economy. This approach backfired when the aid was found to be too little and the advice to privatize rapidly came to be seen by Russians as a contribution to the rampant inflation and political chaos that defined the Yeltsin years, seen by many as the intended consequences of the United State’s help. This view was shared by Gorbachev, who held that the US tried to “loot” Russia in the immediate post-Soviet years. 1999 saw the admittance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into NATO. Many saw the basis for that expansion as a self-fulfilling prophecy: NATO was expanded, in large part, to protect eastern Europeans from Russia, but the renewed threat from Russia NATO was expanded to protect against itself stemmed from Russia’s response to NATO expansion.
Putin, as a Committee for State Security (KGB) general, has protected communist power at home while advancing it abroad, although the communist ideology seems to not appeal to him as much. While intelligence operatives regularly develop a particularly jaundiced view of the world, it has been claimed by Putin and those around him that he came in already well disposed to the West. He was the first world leader to call President George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks, not only offering his help but actually giving it; arranging for our war effort in Afghanistan to be supplied through Soviet airspace. In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq without the support of the United Nations, where Putin would have vetoed it. 2004 saw color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia (both of which the United States was rather keen on) and the admission of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia into NATO. In 2008, NATO promised both Ukraine and Georgia would become members, leaving Putin enraged. That same year he ceded the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev, returning to the position in 2012 even angrier than when he’d left it, owing to Medvedev’s diplomatic relationship with the Obama administration and US intervention in Libya in 2011. In response to the United States’ involvement in the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Putin annexed Crimea and intervened with force in eastern Ukraine and Syria, bringing us fully into a new Cold War.