The role the West played in the collapse of the Soviet Union remains a subject of debate. As it is still entwined in the ongoing political struggle, neither side can be expected to be objective. Still, 20 years provides enough distance to soberly reflect on what really happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Did the West (above all the United States as its strategic spearhead) seek the Soviet Union’s downfall? In a word, no, because at that time no one could even imagine it was possible at all.
Ronald Reagan, a man obsessed with fighting “godless Communism”, was a fierce opponent of the USSR. He pursued a strategy of undermining Soviet power on all fronts – from supporting anti-Soviet and anti-Communist movements in other countries to driving down world oil prices to deny the Kremlin a vital source of revenue. But even Reagan could not have dreamed of achieving such a decisive victory, completely eliminating his main opponent. Partly this was because he thought he was up against a dangerous and incredibly strong enemy. This belief was reinforced by his security advisers who exaggerated the Soviet Union’s strength (with all the attendant effects on the U.S. budget) .
Reagan and his aides understood better than most how vulnerable the Soviet economy was, and so they conspired with Saudi Arabia to lower world oil prices and bated the Soviet Union into a new phase of the arms race with the threat of the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was essentially a bluff. But their thinking behind this power play was to force Moscow to make strategic concessions, not to bring the country to its knees. By the end of his first term, Reagan had completed the initial phase of his plan – to escalate tension. The second phase was to enter into talks with the Soviet Union and tilt the balance of power toward the United States. Regan thought the new man in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, would be an amenable negotiating partner.
But Gorbachev and Reagan’s relationship was one of equals. The Soviet Union’s real moment of geopolitical generosity occurred during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. A realist in matters of foreign policy, Bush believed in the need for a balance of power more than his predecessor and mentor Ronald Reagan. The Americans were amazed – some Europeans were exasperated – by how readily the Soviet Union backed down. Gorbachev and Shevardnadze’s constructive approach on the issue of German unification by far surpassed what Bonn’s NATO allies – Italy, France and even Britain – were prepared to accept.
It would be too simplistic to chalk this up to the idealism, naivety and even the treachery of the Soviet leadership. In 1989-1990, the Gorbachev team could feel in their bones what the West only had an inkling of. The country was coming apart at the seams, partly due to mismanagement at the top and partly due to causes beyond anyone’s control. The Soviet leadership was fighting a loosing battle against a deepening crisis. They sought to shed the country’s foreign policy burden (releasing the socialist camp, unifying Germany, etc.) to free up resources and gain time to tackle crippling domestic problems. The U.S. did not understand just how grave these problems were, so Moscow’s willingness to meet the U.S. half-way aroused suspicion – did the concessions conceal a crafty plan?
Steeped in the realist tradition, with its emphasis on balance, George Bush and his closest advisers like Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft were leery of the claims about Soviet decline even after it had became obvious. Bush’s famous August 1, 1991 speech in Kiev – in which the president warned Ukraine against “suicidal nationalism” and spoke of the risks of independence – is a classic example of political shortsightedness. Reading it today, you can’t help but be struck by how Bush pinpoints the future problem of the post-Soviet space, where independence has not led to real freedom.
Following the August coup attempt, it was impossible to pretend that nothing was happening, but even then there was resistance to the idea that the Soviet Union was doomed. The magnitude of this prospect, and what it would mean for the geopolitical order, was simply too great.
I asked a high-ranking Soviet diplomat, who worked on U.S. affairs, when Washington finally became convinced that the Soviet Union was gone for good. His answer shocked me. “I believe this was the fall of 1992,” he said. “For a few more months the Americans still suspected that the CIS was just a transitional phase and that it might become the reincarnation of the single state.”
But realists weren’t the only breed at the very top of the U.S. government. There were some who imagined life without the Soviets and, later, even without the Russian Federation in the borders it came to occupy. They huddled around Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, later vice president and informal neoconservative leader. But official policy was shaped by Bush and his inner circle, and the president was troubled by the prospect of Soviet nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands and the mass destabilization of Eurasia resulting from the disappearance of the country that constituted its backbone.
Cheney and his associates got their chance a decade later. The global disaster that Bush the Elder and his team feared would result from the collapse of the Soviet Union never came to pass, and this emboldened the neoconservatives.
None of the Soviet Union’s rivals mourned its downfall. There was a geopolitical inheritance to divide up, in keeping with the realist school. The post-Soviet and early Russian leadership adopted a faulty practice, however, which it employed for several years, probably in response to circumstances – threatening the West with its own weakness. If you fail to back us, the argument went, malicious, vengeful reactionaries will gain the upper hand. Occasionally, this would result in some tactical gains, but this approach not only contradicted the basic principles of classic diplomacy (why deal with the weak?), it was also unbecoming and led us down new dead ends. In this regard, Vladimir Putin’s diplomacy, however peculiar his style, seems more sane.
Twenty years on, it’s clear what the Washington realists were instinctively afraid of. The disruption to the geopolitical balance caused by the Soviet Union’s rapid disintegration made America a hegemonic power, a role it has proven ill-suited for despite all its might.
The United States is now facing huge challenges largely rooted in the Cold War. The world, however, lives in a different reality, one in which people don’t really care who won that war.