Mikhail Gorbachev: destruction of the Soviet Union

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, talks with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev at the start of a news conference at the Castle of Gottorf in Schleswig, northern Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2004. [AP Photo]

Mikhail Gorbachev died at 91, almost forgotten and not a happy man. His main achievement was in dismantling the Soviet Union system. The Soviet system was an experiment on governance based on the socialistic teachings of Karl Marx as adjusted by Vladimir Lenin. Grabbing power in 1917 as the United States entered the Great War or World War I, Lenin’s revolutionary ideas challenged US President Woodrow Wilson’s rising global leadership and forced Wilson to respond with his 1918 Fourteen Point proposals to stem Lenin’s appeal in Eastern Europe. The Fourteen Points had two outcomes, the creation of the League of Nations and the emergence of lasting power competition between the capitalistic United States and the communistic Soviet Union, which evolved into the post-World War II Cold War. Gorbachev, born at a time of Soviet governance and socio-economic experimentation in 1931, helped to destroy that Soviet experiment.

Gorbachev supported, and was influenced by, Nikita Khrushchev’s reformism, which in the 1950s denounced Joseph Stalin’s ways. Starting in 1970, he rose up the communist ladder and was increasingly entrusted with responsibility at a time of induced Soviet weakness in the early 1980s. Having lost the Vietnam War, the United States sought to give the Soviets a Vietnam of their own and to destroy what US President Ronald Reagan called an evil empire.

The Americans succeeded when Jimmy Carter’s administration tricked the Soviets into Afghanistan in 1979, which sapped Soviet resources, energy, global standing and forced rethinking in the Kremlin. Among those involved was Gorbachev who started thinking about the incompatibility of Russian and Soviet interests. He seemingly concluded that the two were in conflict and that Russian interests should prevail over Soviet's. His thinking played right into the Western geopolitical game plan and he became the unwitting instrument for the West in the destruction of the Soviet Union. Western leaders flattered him for talking the language that they wanted to hear; perestroika, glasnost, democracy.

Gorbachev was played because he had limited grand strategy ability. Helping to destroy the ideal state that Lenin had brought into being, he failed to think of the consequences to Russia of his dalliance with the West. After entering into some understanding with the George HW Bush administration that NATO would not threaten Russia by expanding into Eastern Europe, Gorbachev went on to dismantle the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. He lived to regret the destruction of the Soviet Union and saw Russia lose self-esteem and plummet as a global power, and lament American failure to assist his reform agenda.

His effort to export his policies to China, the other major communist power, failed. When Gorbachev visited Beijing in 1989, talking like a Euro-proxy, Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, considered him a failure. Although Deng, a real revolutionary, had been busy reforming the Chinese political economy by stressing the need to use different cats to catch the mice, he would not let power go. Instead, he crushed demonstrators at Tiananmen Square to ensure the survival of the communist order and then returned to his reformist ways.  

Gorbachev was in for geopolitical surprises. The West harrumphed about the end of Soviet history and ignored the Bush promise that NATO would not expand to the Russian borders. Despite warnings that it would be imprudent, Bill Clinton set the pace of cockiness to humiliate Russia. 

The cockiness produced two consequences. First are the current tensions in Europe at a time of global realignment. Second, humiliation and loss of Russian esteem prepared the way for the rise of Vladimir Putin to restore prestige, pride of place, and avoid Gorbachev’s geopolitical blunders. Having helped to destroy what one Vladimir (Lenin) started more than a century ago, Gorbachev died watching another Vladimir (Putin) trying to undo his damage.