IThere was one belief shared in 1985 by Western politicians, leaders and peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet political elite, and that was that the maintenance of Soviet-style communist systems in the Warsaw Pact countries was non-negotiable for Moscow. As much as Washington politicians, especially in the 1950s, talked about going back to communism, communist systems continued. Western leaders condemned the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but no American president contemplated a military response. Like Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachevwho died on August 30 at the age of 91, later agreed that nuclear war could not be won and should never be fought.
What changed? The decommunization of Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War were not a consequence of Reagan’s military buildup and his strategic defense initiative. Even Robert Gates joked that “there seem to be only two people on the planet who really think SDI will work – Reagan and Gorbachev.” Gorbachev’s concern was not because he believed it would work the way Reagan hoped, but because to disable a missile defense system meant overwhelming it with the large number of incoming missiles, some with nuclear warheads, others without. In other words, accelerating the arms race. The Soviet Ministry of Defense was perfectly happy with this prospect, but Gorbachev was not.
Reagan’s presidency coincided with the last two years of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet leadership, the entire brief Kremlin tenure of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and Gorbachev’s first four years as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Nothing fundamentally changed in Eastern Europe or for the better in East-West relations until the last of these four leaders came to power.
In the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the US had military superiority over the Soviet Union. Yet Communism was not only sustained in Eastern Europe, it spread further afield. This makes it all the more strange to argue, as some do, that in the mid-1980s, when there was rough military parity between the US and the USSR, the Soviet leadership had no alternative but to seek to put end of the cold war.
As long as it was cold, not hot, this opposition had great advantages for the Soviet party-state bosses. Political isolation made it easier to avoid ideological contamination and maintain the status quo. Constant warnings of the imperialist threat helped to justify tight party control and the KGB’s vigilance against enemies at home or abroad.
Maintaining a military capability for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) took a larger share of the Soviet economy than a comparable policy in the larger American economy, but that was the price Soviet leaders were willing to pay, instigated by the most powerful institutional interests . For Gorbachev to maneuver the military-industrial complex required courage and political finesse. The way he used the unplanned and unchallenged flight to the end of Red Square of a young West German, Matthias Rust, in May 1987 was a case in point. Gorbachev took the opportunity to fire not only the conservative defense minister but also about a hundred other military leaders who opposed the concessions he was willing to make to secure massive arms cuts.
Gorbachev made three contributions that were fundamental to ending the Cold War. The first was the removal of its ideological foundations. In a break with Soviet Marxism-Leninism, Gorbachev called in 1988 for the “de-ideologization of interstate relations” and advocated prioritizing the values and interests that unite all humanity, rather than those of any class, nation or group. These include the “global environmental threats” that, ahead of most Western leaders, he declared in his 1988 UN speech to be “simply frightening”.
The second decisive contribution to the end of the Cold War was his embrace of the fundamental change of the Soviet political system and Soviet society. The new tolerance within the Soviet Union itself—from the end of religious persecution to the growing freedom of speech and, before long, of publishing—diminished the sense of Soviet threat. When Gorbachev announced in 1988 that there would be contested elections for a new legislature the following year, it was a decisive step towards making the political system one of a kind.
Gorbachev’s third major contribution to ending the Cold War was his recognition that the means in politics were as important as the ends, and this included his commitment to change by peaceful means. Former head of Soviet space research Roald Sagdeev, who emigrated to the US in 1989, noted Gorbachev’s belief in persuasion and how this also distinguished him from previous Soviet political bosses who simply issued an order and expected it to be obeyed.
Internationally, nothing was more important than Gorbachev’s avoidance of the use of force. What in 1985 seemed too distant to seriously consider – the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe – was calmly accepted by Gorbachev. Not for a moment did he think of using force to prevent this. In fact, he was in the process of dismantling the communist system in his own country. In response to later Russian criticism that he had surrendered the Soviet bloc countries without a fight, he replied: “Who did we surrender them to? To his own people.
Anyone who thinks that Soviet leaders had no choice but to accept the end of their hegemony in Eastern and Central Europe and the subsequent interrelated collapse of the Soviet Union (Eastern European countries gaining their independence raised the expectations of the most disaffected nations in the Soviet Union itself) we need look no further than Ukraine in 2022. The brutal war being fought there is a reminder that the militarily stronger Soviet Union did have the ability to preserve its statehood by force. It is confirmation that the values of political leaders – Gorbachev or Putin – still matter.
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