The former Soviet leader was more similar to Putin than either of them would have wanted to admit
CON COUGHLIN DEFENCE EDITOR 31 August 2022 •
As the leader most responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is tempting to view Mikhail Gorbachev as a friend of the West, as someone who held a grudging respect for the principles of democratic rule and market capitalism. The architect of Moscow’s perestroika reform programme in the 1980s, he was, after all, the man who, as the last general secretary of the Soviet Union, sought to implement profound changes as to how that 15-nation union of communist states was run.
But while it is certainly true that many of the reforms introduced by Gorbachev during his six-year term as Soviet leader aimed to provide ordinary citizens with more transparency about how their country was run, it was never his intention to bring genuine Western-style democracy to the “evil empire”, as Ronald Reagan famously called the Soviet bloc.
On the contrary, the sole aim of radical – at least by Soviet standards – policies like glasnost was to save the communist system, not dismantle it. This became evident during the lengthy discussions he had with Margaret Thatcher about the respective merits of their different systems of government.
Even though Gorbachev was able to persuade Mrs Thatcher that he was someone she “could do business with”, the Soviet leader’s primary aim was to prevent the bloc from suffering imminent collapse, which was very much a possibility when he took office in 1985.
Years of stagnation, together with the prohibitive cost of the long-running war in Afghanistan, meant that Moscow was struggling to compete with its wealthier Western rivals, especially the United States. For Gorbachev had inherited an economic basket case, with ordinary citizens required to queue for hours to purchase paltry supplies of food and shoddy goods, while factory towns polluted the air and water as they churned out armaments.
The health service was abysmal, and the population, especially the Russian majority, suffered from pervasive alcoholism, low birth rates, and decreasing life expectancy.
Gorbachev’s willingness to engage in nuclear disarmament talks with the Reagan administration, therefore, was motivated far more by the need to reduce the economic burden of maintaining the arms race with the Kremlin’s superpower rival than by any high-minded notion of securing world peace.
Indeed, although Gorbachev was willing to engage with his Western adversaries, famously arguing with Mrs Thatcher for nine hours over ideology when she visited the Kremlin in 1989, he was, and remained, a proud Soviet apparatchik. His overall outlook was, in essence, not all that dissimilar to that of his modern-day successor, Vladimir Putin.
Like the current Russian leader, he deeply mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union, and would no doubt have subscribed to Putin’s view that it constituted “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
And, like Putin, Gorbachev’s rise to power was due to his close association with the Soviet-era KGB intelligence service. His rapid promotion through the ranks of the provincial communist party owed much to the patronage of Yuri Andropov, the head of Soviet intelligence for 15 years before he became party leader in 1982.
Gorbachev’s lifelong dedication to the old Soviet bloc can be seen in his support for Moscow’s invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, with his statements earning him a five-year ban from entering Ukraine.
If he really had any interest, as was often suggested, in Western values such as the right to self-determination and freedom of expression, then he would not have so readily embraced Moscow seizing a part of another independent country.
Instead, many of his pronouncements in later life assumed a decidedly anti-Western tone, especially with regard to the problematic issue of Ukraine. Before the current invasion, he blamed the deepening tensions between Moscow and the West on the “arrogance” of America’s response to the end of the Cold War, and Nato’s eastward expansion.
Gorbachev’s disdain for the rules-based system upheld by Western leaders was evident, moreover, in remarks he made in 2016 to the effect that, on the issue of Crimea, he would have acted in the same way as Putin, and seized the territory by force.
Indeed, the current Russian leader has a lot more in common with his Soviet predecessor than he might like to admit. It could even be argued that the creation of Putin’s autocratic regime is the direct result of the economic and political chaos that afflicted Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For his part, Putin is said to have had little regard for Gorbachev, whom he believed held a romanticised view of the West. This may explain why the Kremlin has no plans to give the former Soviet leader a state funeral. Yet, in terms of their anti-Western outlook, the Russian leader should understand he is very much Gorbachev’s heir.