If there was one belief shared in 1985 by Western politicians, the leaders and peoples of Eastern Europe, and the Soviet political elite, it was that maintenance of Soviet-type Communist systems in the Warsaw Pact countries was for Moscow non-negotiable. However much Washington politicians talked, especially in the 1950s about rollback of Communism, Communist systems carried on. Western leaders condemned the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but no American president contemplated a military response. As Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who died on August 30 at 91, later agreed, nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought.
What changed? The decommunization of Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War was not a consequence of Reagan’s military build-up and his starry-eyed Strategic Defense Initiative. Even Robert Gates joked that “there appeared to be only two people on the planet who actually thought SDI would work—Reagan and Gorbachev”. Gorbachev’s concern was not because he believed this would work in the manner Reagan hoped, but because to nullify a missile defense system meant overwhelming it with the sheer number of incoming missiles, some with nuclear warheads and some without. In other words, an acceleration of the arms race. The Soviet Ministry of Defense were perfectly content with that prospect, but Gorbachev was not.
Reagan’s presidency coincided with the last two years of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet leadership, the whole of the short Kremlin tenures of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, and the first four years of Gorbachev as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Nothing changed fundamentally 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 U.S. had military superiority over the Soviet Union. Yet, Communism was not only sustained in Eastern Europe, it spread further afield. That makes it all the odder to argue, as some do, that in the mid-1980s when there was a rough military parity between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., a Soviet leadership had no alternative but to seek to end the Cold War.
So long as it remained cold and not hot, this standoff had big advantages for the Soviet party-state bosses. Political isolation made it easier to avoid ideological contamination and to preserve the status quo. Constant warnings of the imperialist threat helped justify strict party control and the vigilance of the KGB against enemies at home or abroad.
Maintaining the military capacity for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) took a larger share of the Soviet economy than a comparable policy did in the larger American economy, but it was a price Soviet leaders were willing to pay, egged on by the most powerful of institutional interests. For Gorbachev to out manoeuvre the military-industrial complex required boldness and political finesse. The way he used the unscheduled and unchallenged flight to the edge of Red Square of a young West German, Matthias Rust, in May 1987 was an example. Gorbachev seized the opportunity to dismiss not only the conservative Minister of Defense but about a hundred other military leaders who were opposed to the concessions he was prepared to make to secure large-scale arms reductions.
Gorbachev made three contributions that were fundamental to ending the Cold War. The first was to remove its ideological foundations. In a break with Soviet Marxism-Leninism, Gorbachev called in 1988 for a “deideologization of interstate relations” and argued for priority to be given to values and interests that united the whole of humanity rather than those of any one class, nation or group. These included “the worldwide ecological threats” which, ahead of most Western leaders, he declared in his 1988 speech at the United Nations to be “simply frightening.”
The second crucial contribution to ending the Cold War was his embrace of fundamental change of the Soviet political system and Soviet society. The new tolerance within the Soviet Union itself—from an end to persecution of religion to a burgeoning freedom of speech and, before long, of publication reduced the sense of Soviet threat. When Gorbachev announced in 1988 that the following year there would be contested elections for a new legislature, this was a decisive step toward making the political system different in kind.
Gorbachev’s third fundamental contribution to ending the Cold War was his recognition that means in politics are as important as ends, and that included his commitment to change by peaceful means. The former head of Soviet Space Research, Roald Sagdeev, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1989, remarked on Gorbachev’s faith in persuasion, and how this, too, differentiated him from previous Soviet political bosses who would just issue an order and expect to have it obeyed.
At the international level, nothing was more important than Gorbachev’s eschewal of the use of force. What had appeared in 1985 too remote for serious consideration—the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe—was calmly accepted by Gorbachev. Not for a moment did he consider the use of force to prevent this. Indeed, he was in the process of dismantling the Communist system in his own country. Responding to later Russian criticism that he had given up the countries of the Soviet bloc without a fight, his response was, “To whom did we surrender them? To their own people.”
Anyone who thinks that Soviet leaders had no option but to accept the end of their hegemony in East-Central Europe and then the interconnected dissolution of the Soviet Union (East European countries gaining their independence raised the expectations of the most disaffected nations within the Soviet Union itself) need look no further than Ukraine in 2022. The brutal war being waged there is a reminder that the militarily stronger Soviet Union did have the option of preserving their statehood by force. It is confirmation that the values of political leaders—a Gorbachev or a Putin—still matter.
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