Gorbachev's complex legacy is beyond the popular belief

The last major figure with a decisive Cold War role, Mikhail Gorbachev was not as bad as Putin’s Russia portrays him, but also not as heroic as the West thinks.

Expert comment
Published 3 September 2022 3 minute READ

Arguably the worst year of the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis was 1983, with three major incidents which escalated East-West tensions – and any one of them could have led to a full-scale war.

The first was the Korean Airline KAL007 being shot down by an SU15 fighter aircraft for straying into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers and crew. Then came the identification of signals from Soviet satellites as being incoming US intercontinental ballistic missiles – Colonel Stanislav Petrov, going against all protocols, thankfully decided to report them as a false alarm before he could be sure.

The third was perhaps the most dangerous, being the misinterpretation of a live-fire NATO exercise which was believed by some in both East Germany and Russia to be a front for an imminent attack.

The greatest disappointment in Gorbachev’s legacy was he completely believed the USSR could be reformed and still survive as an entity while others, such as Boris Yeltsin and Ronald Reagan, understood it had to be dismantled

All three incidents occurred in the few months following the infamous March 1983 ‘Star Wars’ speech by US president Ronald Reagan, in which he talked about nuclear arms control and laid out the US case for a ballistic missile defence programme.

At that time Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was the youngest serving member of the USSR Politburo, known to be a favourite of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, and it is highly likely he had been aware of these close calls and was part of discussions within Kremlin decision-making circles.

A changemaker both inside and outside the USSR

Following the deaths of Andropov in 1984 and his replacement Konstantin Chernenko in 1985, Gorbachev’s appointment as general secretary of the Communist Party saw him immediately begin to change the Soviet Union from within – and also change relationships with the major Western powers, especially the US, Germany, and the UK.

His policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) were primarily aimed at internal reforms but translated into a major reset of international relations and international security. During his six years as leader, Gorbachev initiated many arms control negotiations which resulted in treaties and increased both the transparency and the confidence between the USSR and the US.

These included the 1986 Stockholm Accord which emanated from the Helsinki Process and allowed for the observation and inspection of large-scale military exercises, the 1985 resumption of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks which lead to START I, and the 1987 INF Treaty in which the USSR ‘out-yessed’ the US – the most open and transparent disarmament treaty in terms of notification and verification measures ever agreed.

There was also a reciprocal moratorium on nuclear weapons tests starting from 1985 – which laid the groundwork for the 1996 CTBT – the 1991 Chemical Weapons Convention, and the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

The most dramatic moment of all was when Gorbachev and Reagan met at a summit in Reykjavik and came close to deciding to eliminate nuclear weapons – but the initiative failed to reach agreement, mainly because Reagan could not drop his commitment to ballistic missile defences and Gorbachev could not accept the offer of joint development.

Nonetheless, all these nuclear arms control treaties led the way for their descendants which have kept nuclear weapons in check ever since and are still in place in the form of the New START agreement.

During his six years as leader, Gorbachev initiated many arms control negotiations which resulted in treaties and increased both the transparency and the confidence between the USSR and the US

But despite these outstanding achievements, Gorbachev had blind spots – such as enabling rather than destroying the USSR bioweapons programme, unlike the US which had dismantled its own bioweapons offensive capability by 1973.

And it is now known that, despite negotiating the Chemical Weapons Convention, Russia withheld information on new chemical weapons agents – Novichoks – which have since been used to lethal effect by Russia in Salisbury and against figures opposing the current regime.

His misguided faith in a Soviet future

Gorbachev was markedly different to his predecessors as secretary general. He was neither as decrepit nor as hardline, and he understood from the outset that the Soviet Union was, by the 1980s, finally dying.

Using the intellectual abilities of Aleksandr Yakovlev, he forced through the reforms which simultaneously captured the imagination of the free world and liberated his countrymen and women.

But although he built solid relationships – even friendships – with the world’s major heads of state and improved the USSR’s human rights, releasing dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov, but many – especially Ukrainian dissidents – continued to languish in camps.

The greatest disappointment in Gorbachev’s legacy was he completely believed the USSR could be reformed and still survive as an entity while others, such as Boris Yeltsin and Ronald Reagan, understood it had to be dismantled.

This shortcoming is especially uncomfortable as today’s Russia continues to insist it has a given right to control other former Soviet states, to the extent it is willing to destroy them if they do not concede.

Gorbachev's complex legacy is beyond the popular belief 2nd part

Gorbachev’s unwillingness to condemn Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea compounds this although perhaps, to be charitable, his silence was forcibly imposed by a regime far more malignant than he anticipated, plus he would not have been heard anyway – his opposition might even have reinforced support for Putin.

It is often thought the Cold War ended peacefully and that the Soviet Union crumbled with barely a whimper – whereas the death throes actually came with violence as independence movements across the region were brutally, albeit ultimately unsuccessfully, put down during Gorbachev’s remaining tenure.

A fine if somewhat inadequate human quality is that history tends to judge flawed achievers generously. Gorbachev’s achievements were seismic in moving the world away from a highly dangerous confrontation, and so they will rightly be remembered while his flaws and mistakes may well be forgiven.

But the exception in is Russia itself, where his name and his initiatives have long been derided by the Putin regime, and have helped set the stage for what is happening there now – defined perhaps as the ‘anti-Gorbi’ agenda.