Gorbachev was the last leader of the USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republic). He was elected general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. He is best known for ending the cold war by bringing two new initiatives to USSR – (1) to reform the economy (Perestroika) and (2) to reform the political system (Glasnost). Recently, he took his last breath amid the political upheaval in Russia and tensions with Ukraine. Indeed today’s war in Ukraine is a direct consequence of the collapse of the USSR. Today his actions are still criticized at home.
Even Russian president, Putin belongs to the same camp. Once he famously said – “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain”. It indicates that a large number of people in Russia share the same boat where they feel nostalgic about the USSR. For Putin, Gorbachev was a weak leader who initiated the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” – the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, he can’t be the only reason but indeed he was one of the important reasons behind the disintegration of the USSR.
Footprints of surrendering USSR
The first indication of the disintegration of the USSR was witnessed when his thought started synchronizing at a faster pace with the western leader. When Margaret Thatcher met him in 1984, she was impressed with his aligning thoughts. She encouraged the then US president Ronald Reagan to talk to the Soviet leader. A trust was built between the USSR and the west. However, in the process of trust building, the removal of Soviet forces from eastern Europe paved the way for eastern European countries to become independent.
Subsequently, the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan within 10 years in 1989. The USSR entered Afghanistan in 1979. Russia bordered Afghanistan considered it as one of the important countries from a security and economic point of view. It was viewed by the Soviets as the gateway to Asia under the pretext of the Soviet-Afghan Friendship Treaty. Mr Gorbachev failed to anticipate the realism of the US before shaking hands with her in the context of Afghan Mujahideen supplied by Pakistan and backed by the USA.
Apart from the removal of Soviet forces from the eastern border and the withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan, Mr Gorbachev formally declared the end of the cold war before George H.W. Bush in Malta in 1989. Coincidently, Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1989. For the first time, there was no opposition from USSR in the Gulf war 1990. This was enough to show Russia’s declining power. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was proved as the last nail in the coffin for ending the cold war.
Why did Gorbachev bring such reforms to USSR?
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1885 and remained in the office for next 6 years, he tried to transform the stagnant Soviet Union into a dynamic, prosperous, and powerful socialist country. When he inherited the leadership of the Soviet Union, the Soviet was in trouble. Economic growth was slowed down. The living standards of Soviet citizens were declining.
Mr Gorbachev was very much concerned about the growing environmental catastrophe, and the need to make socialism relevant in an increasingly globalised capitalist world. People’s faith in communism was declining. To arrest the decline of communism, he brought reforms. He brought reforms like perestroika (restructuring), glasnost (openness) and demokratizatsiya (democratisation). These were designed to save the Soviet Union and make the life of people better in the Soviet Union.
He tried to highlight the dangers of nuclear weapons in the context of Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was set up to develop the new city of Pripyat. But adequate measures were not taken. Overall, it lacked critical examination. Thus, Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet media and allow more investigative journalism to report on aspects of Soviet life that were traditionally hidden. Chernobyl incident made ‘Glasnost’ inevitable for the USSR in which citizens were allowed to discuss important issues.
Contentions behind deeming him a culprit
Due to bringing these reforms, Mikhail Gorbachev was accused of helping the west in ending the cold war by surrendering himself. Gorbachev dreamed of a utopian idea of a “nuclear-free world”. He negotiated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to build trust. In the process of building trust, in a meeting at United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), he gave indication to remove thousands of Soviet troops and tanks from Soviet-occupied eastern Europe. Consequently, it reduced the cohesiveness of eastern Europe with the USSR.
Apart from reducing Soviet troops from the eastern border, Glasnost (openness) policy of Gorbachev became the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Across the summer and autumn of 1989, the eastern Europeans pushed down ruling dictators from power. It is because Gorbachev allowed eastern Europeans the right to go their own way as per the logical consequence of glasnost in the face of Sinatra doctrine. In the other words, he ended the Brezhnev doctrine (Strong control over east European countries).
Subsequently, the Baltic states first called for more autonomy and then for the right to secede from the USSR followed by Ukraine. Similarly, another fallout of Gorbachev’s Glasnost was that it gave a political voice to Gorbachev’s opponents and people’s resentment. It destabilized Russia too. Hardliner communists in Russia were not happy with these reforms. They removed Gorbachev from power while he was on holiday in Crimea through a coup.
A glass of half full: Other factors behind the end of the USSR
It would not be fair to blame only Mikhail Gorbachev for the disintegration of the USSR. Communism was not the choice of the people. It was externally imposed. Even the countries in eastern Europe didn’t come with the USSR with their own will. It was forcefully bound with the help of the Brezhnev doctrine. It was bound to end either today or tomorrow. Alex de Tocqueville says that ‘tyranny collapsed not when they are at their worst rather when they are their best’. The only difference is that Mikhail Gorbachev became the scapegoat for this change.
Apart from this, the US followed realism under the leadership of Ronald Reagan. He adopted the Beggar-thy-neighbour policy that seeks to promote a country’s economy at the expense of another country. For example, the US was knowing well about the economic crisis of the USSR. In spite of it, the US reduced oil prices, engaged Russia in Afghanistan and started a nuclear arms race. All three add another layer of stress to the weakened economy of the USSR.
Subsequently, the US reduced Russia to a landlocked country by limiting Russia from accessing the Black sea, Mediterranean sea and Adriatic sea through a containment policy. The US started the coloured Revolution in the periphery of the USSR by supporting democracies in eastern Europe along with Puppet regimes. Mikhail Gorbachev made the promise that NATO would not expand to the east if Russia accepted Germany’s unification. But the same promise was broken by the end of 1991 when NATO adopted an ‘open door policy‘. Since then till 1999, NATO has added 14 new members.
Implications of the cold war equation
These changes were undesirable for the USSR. Robert D. Kaplan in his book “The revenge of geography” claims that “Russia suffers from revenge of Geography”. USSR died its natural death due to a lack of natural borders and lack of access to the sea for all-weather ports. It is not fortunate at par with the US having seas on both sides. Russia has to include the neighbouring area to establish a line of defence. Russia requires a centralized political system to keep them within the system and it can’t afford an open economy too.
However, Germans were certainly grateful to Gorbachev because he had helped them in unifying their country. Previously East Germany had been separated from West Germany by a wall with security posts. Later, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Subsequently, in 2022 Russia attacked Ukraine. Today world is divided on Russia’s move toward Ukraine. China, on the one hand, rejected calling Russia’s moves on Ukraine an “invasion”. India did not join the Western powers’ condemnation of Russia’s intervention either in Crimea or Ukraine.
Indeed, the policy of Mikhail Gorbachev was one of the important factors behind the disintegration of the USSR. But we should not forget the fact that nothing lasts forever. This included the Soviet Union itself. Until and unless a nation understands the reality of power politics, there is no end to this predicament. It is as true as the sun rotates on his own axis as well as revolves around the sun.
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