The Gorbachev Problem

Mikhail Gorbachev recently gave a speech to the New Policy Forum symposium in Berlin on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. According to Andrew White, that speech can be described at the very least as provocative. Here he assesses the claim that the souring of relations between Russia and the West is the result of Western actions.

Gorbachev in 2010. Photo by Veni, used under creative commons license.

Gorbachev in 2010. Photo by Veni, used under creative commons license.

Gorbachev’s thesis for explaining the breakdown of trust between the West (particularly the United States) and the Russian Federation over the past 20 years, from his speech on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, is simple: the blister turned into a “bloody, festering wound” exclusively because of actions taken by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In support of his thesis, the aging former Soviet leader makes the case that the West’s “euphoria and triumphalism” in declaring victory in the Cold War led leaders to “[claim] monopoly leadership and domination in the world, refusing to heed words of caution from many of those present here.” This in turn, led to the security dilemma Europe currently faces.

However, Gorbachev’s argument is completely devoid of any criticism of Russian policy in the post-Cold War era. It is true that Western governments have made missteps in the policies they pursued towards the Soviet Union’s successor state. But those missteps were not made in a vacuum. Russian policymakers must also accept blame for the “poisoning of the well” that has occurred over the past twenty years.

The nuances of NATO expansion

The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe and beyond has troubled Russian policymakers since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By 2009, all of the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe had joined the western-dominated security organization, a reality which many Russian security analysts saw as a significant threat to Russian national security. In addition, NATO bases were being established in countries throughout the former Soviet Union, including in multiple Central Asian and Caucasian states. For Gorbachev, Vladimir Putin and the Russian national security apparatus at large, this expansion was a violation of promises made in the 1990s not to do so and represented a concerted Western push (led by the United States) to marginalize the power of the Russian state.

However, in an age when analysts are all too often willing to describe international politics as the product of actions by great powers, it is important to understand the reasons why these states sought to enter or collaborate with western-oriented security organizations. Indeed, NATO expansion cannot be seen as a process by which the United States and its partners coerce membership in or participation with western-oriented security organizations. During the first wave of NATO enlargement, the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe were eager to join, seeing membership as a crucial contributor to their own national security. A similar situation has played out in Central Asia over the past decade. While no Central Asian state has expressed interest in joining NATO, the invasion of Afghanistan provided states like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan with an opportunity to exploit the competing interests of several great powers to their own benefit.

Russia must share the blame

Some may argue that the aspirations of these independent states are irrelevant. The way Gorbachev frames the European security complex wrongly insists it is the product of great power politics. But his thesis fails on another front as well—Russian security policy has done more to destabilize the European security complex over the past two decades than any aspect of NATO’s expansion. Its involvement in numerous post-Soviet conflicts has made states wary of Russia’s objectives throughout post-Soviet space.

Russian participation in the region’s frozen conflicts, particularly South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh as well as its outright invasion of Georgia in 2008 forms the historical context behind Putin’s current involvement with Ukraine. Gorbachev seems to forget about this context in his speech. Instead, he only mentions a “shortlist” of failures perpetuated by the West (particularly NATO and the United States)—NATO enlargement, Kosovo, the plan for a missile defense shield in Europe, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Russia is not really looking for a way out

The last part of Gorbachev’s speech, in which he seeks to outline ways to move forward and reestablish meaningful dialogue between the West and Russia, is unrealistic. Gorbachev claims that the Minsk ceasefire agreement between Russia, Ukraine and the EU is a modest sign of a renewed dialogue. Instead, the agreement is crumbling—according to UN estimated more than 1,000 people have been killed since the ceasefire was signed in early September.

Similarly, Gorbachev’s more powerful claim – that a speech Putin gave to the Vladai Forum in late October (despite its harsh criticism of the West and the United States in particular) signaled a “desire to find a way to lower tensions and ultimately to build a new basis for partnership” – make the independent-minded former Soviet president seem, at best, a naïve idealist (something he has been called before), and at worst an apologist for the Putin regime.

Just last week, Putin left the G20 summit in Australia after numerous western leaders confronted the Russian president over the situation in eastern Ukraine. British Prime Minister David Cameron is reported to have told Putin that the crisis represented a “fork in the road” for Russia’s relationship with the west, while Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was less prosaic, simply saying to Putin, “I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” Fleeing in the face of criticism does not ring akin to a “desire to lower tensions” nor an attempt to “build a new basis for partnership.”

Confrontations like those between Harper and Putin are not a helpful way to ease tensions between the West and Russia. However, even someone who has tried to take a moderating approach to the situation is running out of patience. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tried throughout the past year to mediate between Putin and the Western leaders with little success. Instead, Putin has moved forward by escalating Russian support for the Ukrainian rebels and continues to thwart any effort to deescalate.

Merkel, despite her best efforts, has finally run out of patience and said as much on November 17, in a speech to an Australian think tank in Sydney. Describing Russian action in Ukraine as a clear violation of international law, the Chancellor said that the current crisis is “not just about Ukraine. This is about Moldova, this is about Georgia, and if this continues that one will have to ask about Serbia and one will have to ask about the countries of the Western Balkans.”

Little hope for a new security system

So, in total, what can we make of Gorbachev’s speech on the anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall? Simply, the thesis that the West is solely responsible for poisoning its relationship with Russia is unsubstantiated. Mistakes have been made on both sides over the past twenty-five years that have brought the world to this point. But as the frost begins to settle again in the realm of Western-Russian relations, for Gorbachev and much of the Russian leadership, that simple truth is difficult to acknowledge.

As Merkel said, the current crisis is not just about the situation in Ukraine. How the West responds to Russian aggression has important implications for other conflicts in former Soviet space. While Gorbachev might see hope in the idea of creating some new system of European security that supersedes the EU and NATO, the truth of the matter is that as long as Russia continues down the authoritarian path that it is on, the likelihood of conflict with the West will only grow.


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