Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Hero Turns

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 11, 2014 --  

A new turning point in Russian relations follows unintended consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When Russian troops marched west into Ukraine earlier this year, it was a real turning point in Russia's relations with the West. No longer would the state act as the weakened rump of the Soviet empire, meekly obeying Western rules imposed after the collapse of communism. The Russians annexed the prized Crimean peninsula, host of the country's Black Sea fleet, and set up a puppet regime in the Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern provinces.

This turning point is disturbing to the West, especially compared with the last turning point -- when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. Back in 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signaled that Moscow would stop forcing regimes into its orbit at the barrel of a gun. This signal set off a chain reaction, and every communist regime collapse in Eastern Europe within a few months. Two years later, the nations that constituted the Soviet Union itself broke free, and Moscow found itself ruling nothing but the Russian republic.

In the West, Gorbachev is widely lauded a hero for overseeing this first turning point. He is the one who declined to use troops to stop the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is the one who refused to use violence to prop-up Moscow-friendly regimes from Poland through Bulgaria. So it was a surprise to many that the 83-year-old leader spoke in favor of Russia's new assertiveness at a ceremony commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In a speech to a Western audience in Berlin over the weekend, Gorbachev said the "collapse in trust" between the West and Russia is not just about recent events in Ukraine, but about mistakes of the 1990s, when "euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders," and they stopped including Russia in international solutions.1 Earlier this spring, Gorbachev said he supported Russia's annexation of Crimea.2

Could Gorbachev -- a Western hero for ending the Cold War -- be right? Should the West rethink the way it is dealing with Russia?

The answer is no. The fact that many people are surprised by Gorbachev's comments says less about his speech, and more about widespread ignorance about Gorbachev. Gorbachev is popularly viewed as a two-dimensional caricature -- the Soviet who made peace. But this perception is incredibly flawed.

In reality, Gorbachev was totally opposed to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of communist rule. He let Germany and Eastern Europe go their own way to avoid responsibility for their problems. But he did not feel the same way about Ukraine or the rest of the territories of the Soviet Union. Simply put, he wanted to retain Moscow's empire -- a view widely held even today by older Russians.

During the euphoric mood in Russia after the annexation of Crimea, a group of legislators sought to prosecute Gorbachev for allowing the Soviet empire's collapse.3 This anger is understandable, but misplaced. Gorbachev had no intention of breaking up the empire. In 1991, his power was eclipsed by Boris Yeltsin, then the leader of the Russian Republic, who saw dissolving the Soviet Union as a way to gain personal power and destroy the communist system once and for all. Gorbachev fought against this -- but after being subjugated by Yeltsin, he was powerless to stop it. Simply put, it was an accident of history.

The breakup of the Soviet empire sowed the seeds of today's conflicts. Colonies of Russian settlers on the fringes of the old Soviet Union found themselves foreigners or ethnic minorities overnight. Places like the Trans-Dniester, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donbass and Eastern Latvia became persistent international flashpoint. If Gorbachev and Russian President Vladimir Putin had their way, these places (as well as the whole of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) would still be under Moscow's rule. Fortunately, for tens of millions of non-Russians who don't want to be under the thumb of Moscow, that didn't happen.

The recent resurgence of Russian nationalism is not surprising. Declining oil prices have hurt the Russian economy, which has little hope of turning around in the near-term.4 In the absence of prosperity, Putin must find some other basis for popular support, and nationalism fits the bill. It is highly likely that he will continue to support Russian nationalist causes in isolated pockets of the former Soviet Union. But these campaigns often cause horrible pain for non-Russians in places like southeastern Ukraine or northern Georgia where violent Russian intervention has made refugees out of millions.

The West is absolutely right to assist victims of Russian aggression, and it is right to isolate Russia for bad behavior, even if it means souring of relations that Russians will denounce as a "new Cold War." The fact that an 83-year-old former Soviet leader disagrees with this isolation, should be of little surprise, and of absolutely no consequence.

Related Web Columns:

Under Control? April 8, 2014

An Amicable Divorce, February 25, 2014

The Accidental Revolution, June 14, 2011


1. Russia Today, 'World on Brink of New Cold War, Some Say It's Already Begun' - Gorbachev in Berlin (FULL SPEECH), November 8, 2014

2. Guardian, Mikhail Gorbachev: It Was the Will of Crimea's People, April 18, 2014

3. Washington Post, Crimea-Happy Russians Want Gorbachev to Pay for Loss of Soviet Empire, April 10, 2014

4. Bloomberg Businessweek, Will Cheap Oil Choke the Russian Economy? October 13, 2014