35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The End of the Soviet Union 1991

Published: Dec 25, 2016
Briefing Book #576

Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton

For more information: svetlana@gwu.edu, 202.997.1811

U.S. Policy to Gorbachev: “We Support the Center and You Personally”

New Book Publishes Every Gorbachev-Bush Conversation  

Washington, D.C., December 25, 2016 – On Christmas Day 25 years ago, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, stepped down and the hammer-and-sickle flags over the Kremlin were replaced with the red-white-and-blue of the Russian Federation. Triumphalists and conspiracy theorists ever since have attributed this epochal event to the machinations of U.S. policy makers.

But close review of the now-declassified documents of all the conversations between American and Soviet leaders published for the first time in the new book, The Last Superpower Summits (CEU Press)[1], shows that keeping the Union together, and backing Gorbachev personally, remained at the core of U.S. policy all the way through 1991, for fear of a bloody disintegration that would dwarf the slaughter taking place at that time in Yugoslavia. “Yugoslavia with nuclear weapons,” as one official put it.

The August 1991 attempted coup by hardliners, which humiliated Gorbachev, discredited the state security organs, and made Boris Yeltsin a hero for his defiance (standing famously on top of a tank in Moscow), unleashed the centrifugal forces that brought down the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had been attempting to work out a new Union Treaty for a more decentralized system giving the various Soviet republics more autonomy – the scheduled signing date of August 20 was a key precipitator for the coup. 

But when the coup failed, the republic leaders had tasted sovereignty and were concerned about an assertive Russia, whether run by Boris Yeltsin now or hardliners in the future. At the same time, each of the republic leaders was attempting to hold on to their own centers of power and not let the opposition form new governments. Eventually, almost all the Communist Party first secretaries would become leaders of new independent states. To achieve that, they had to take the banner of nationalism away from the authentic nationalist and dissident movements--a process that was especially important in Ukraine, where the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, professional Soviet apparatchik Leonid Kravchuk, maneuvered to coopt both the nationalist Rukh and the dissident opposition.[2]

President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, believed that keeping the Soviet Union going, even with a weak center, was the best alternative to violent disintegration. (The Americans did not know at the time that tactical nuclear weapons were spread about in 14 of the 15 republics, but it was bad enough that over 3,000 strategic nuclear weapons were stationed outside Russia in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.) At a key National Security Council meeting on September 5, 1991, senior members of the administration presented their views. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was the strongest proponent of encouraging the rapid disintegration of the USSR because he saw the fracturing of the former enemy as a diminution of threat. When he argued that “the voluntary breakup of the Soviet Union is in our interest,” Baker reminded him of bloody Yugoslavia.[3] Shockingly, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft confessed he “thought there was positive benefit in the breakup of command and control over strategic nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union to several republics. Anything which would serve to dilute the size of an attack we might have to face was, in my view, a benefit well worth the deterioration of unified control over the weapons.”[4] By comparison, President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis worried about a single bomb landing on an American city.

President Bush saw both the opportunity and the danger. Gorbachev was not going to be around much longer to make the arms-race-in-reverse happen. So Bush insisted on pushing the envelope, and given the reality in the Soviet Union, with so many ideological blinders about Soviet behavior in tatters on the floor of the Situation Room, the NSC agreed with the president’s push to offer significant and unilateral disarmament initiatives.

Bush’s understanding that the sand was running out in the hourglass jump-started U.S. thinking, propelling it past a fistful of hard-and-fast previous positions on matters like tactical nuclear weapons on U.S. Navy ships. Never in the U.S national security interest (with far more coastline to protect than the USSR), the Navy’s sticking point came apart quickly when the president ordered immediate moves toward denuclearization--ironically, based on a proposal Gorbachev had first tabled at the Malta summit in 1989. Bush’s urgent post-coup search for deep disarmament initiatives led to a dramatic package of proposals and unilateral moves, which he presented to Gorbachev on September 27 in hopes that Moscow would reciprocate. The Soviets responded with their own counterproposals on October 5. Both sets of initiatives were truly groundbreaking but they came too late in the game, after Gorbachev was already unable to push them through to full implementation. Yet, without this back-and-forth, hundreds if not thousands of nuclear warheads would have been in place in more than a dozen Soviet republics at the point of the Soviet Union’s demise. In the history of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, spanning virtually the entire atomic age, this set of agreements in the fall of 1991 produced the biggest shift away from midnight.

These proposals gave Gorbachev an opening to invigorate his “autumn offensive,”[5] on which he had embarked in early September, both in domestic politics and internationally. Yeltsin might have had the popular imagination, the podium in the Russian Supreme Soviet, the ability to undermine Gorbachev in the republics, and the initiative for political change; but Gorbachev retained a special camaraderie with international leaders, and the status of official representative of whatever Soviet federation survived--something Yeltsin could only envy. That was Gorbachev’s survival strategy.

On September 10, the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) opened in Moscow. The achievement was bittersweet. It was Gorbachev’s dream to have a CSCE meeting in the Soviet capital as a way to recognize how the country had changed--in fact, Shevardnadze had proposed it in November 1986, in his speech to the opening session of the CSCE Vienna review conference. At the time it was met with a skeptical and even negative reaction from Western delegates, given the history of Soviet human rights violations. After a lot of work by the Foreign Ministry together with its U.S. counterparts and an unprecedented domestic opening, the West was finally persuaded. Gorbachev was enthusiastic; he addressed a hall filled with foreign ministers and ambassadors who had come to Moscow mainly to pay respects to the man responsible for the tremendous change that made the gathering possible.

Gorbachev probably was the only person at the meeting who still believed in the possibility of integrating the Soviet Union into Europe. In the perceptive words of his spokesman, Andrei Grachev, “he was inspired by an almost religious faith in the feasibility of finally joining these two separate worlds and a burning desire to bring this about.”[6] The humanitarian conference was in some ways the crowning symbol and the final note of Gorbachev’s domestic reform. Several dissident groups took part in the sessions and international NGOs were welcome participants with unobstructed access to anybody they wished to contact.

Visiting Secretary of State Baker found Gorbachev revitalized by the experience: “the shaken Gorbachev of late August was gone, replaced by his former self--the Soviet reformer with little if any self-doubt.”[7] Baker also wrote to Bush about the newfound closeness and cooperation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev--although it was not to last.

With Yeltsin on vacation later in September, Gorbachev was able to play the role of global statesman and gracious host. He resumed his flurry of international meetings. He met with Giulio Andreotti and Hosni Mubarak to discuss the Middle East and the upcoming Madrid conference. On October 1, he met with Henning Christopherson, the vice president of the European Commission, and soon after that with Michael Camdessus, director of the International Monetary Fund, to discuss the economic structures of the new Union Treaty and international assistance. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan came to discuss the agricultural credits Bush had promised at the Moscow summit. Negotiations with British prime minister John Major about a program of emergency aid were especially active, resulting in a preliminary pledge of 10 billion dollars on November 14. Gorbachev understood that ensuring external aid was the strongest means of keeping his new Union project on track.[8]

But the August coup had resulted in significant changes in the political landscape. The Congress of People’s Deputies disbanded itself in early September 1991, leaving in place a quite dysfunctional Supreme Soviet at the Union level. Legislative initiative had shifted to the Russian parliament, still named the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, and presided over by Yeltsin. The KGB was eliminated, broken into three agencies, thus also weakening ties that bound the republics together. A new structure was created--the State Council consisting of leaders of the republics—designed to negotiate a new union treaty and oversee the process of transition. It held its first meeting on October 11. Grachev described it as an “awkward imitation of the U.N. Security Council composed of former members of the Politburo.”[9] However, Gorbachev put his faith and hopes in this Council. Very soon it produced a vague Economic Community Agreement, signed on October 18 (Ukraine signed on November 6). The accord included a commitment to a single currency and the preservation of economic ties. Yeltsin supported it and acted cooperatively. Meanwhile, negotiations for a political agreement were proceeding. For a fleeting moment in mid-October, it seemed that Gorbachev’s project was on the right track, providing a promising setting for the Madrid conference on the Middle East.

Bush and Gorbachev arrived in Madrid on October 28, 1991, ready to preside together over the opening of this very ambitious conference, which grew directly out of their understandings reached during the Helsinki summit in September 1990. During Helsinki, Gorbachev had asked to link his support for U.S. decisions on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait with a comprehensive international conference on the Middle East. Bush refused the explicit linkage but promised that after the Persian Gulf conflict the superpowers would co-sponsor a meeting on the region. After months of diplomatic efforts, most importantly by Secretary Baker, but also by Soviet diplomats, the main Middle East actors were about to meet in Madrid. Moscow granted diplomatic recognition to Israel just days beforehand. The mere fact that U.S. and Soviet leaders would open the event together was an important symbol of the end of the Cold War.

Gorbachev wanted Madrid to serve as a forum where the two presidents would discuss the fate of the world on the eve of the conference and cement their cooperation as the key global security dynamic. He was also hoping to get to talk to Bush privately about his need for urgent financial assistance for his reform program--to keep the USSR from disintegrating and to show Yeltsin who still had the ear of global leaders. For his part, however, Bush was expecting to see a president without a country, almost anticipating losing Gorbachev as a partner in his diary: “Reports recently that he might not be around long. The briefing book indicates this may be my last meeting with him of this nature. Time marches on.”[10] The scene-setter memo for the summit declared succinctly, “Prospects for a political union, and therefore a long-term role for Gorbachev as union president, seem nil.”[11] The briefing book’s prediction turned out to be on target.

As Gorbachev rode to the airport on the way to Madrid, Yeltsin addressed the Russian parliament with an explosive speech. (Gorbachev spoke with Yeltsin about it ahead of time but the latter did not reveal the full content.) The address asked the Russian Supreme Soviet for emergency powers to implement radical economic reform, including speedy price liberalization. This unilateral program, not discussed or coordinated with other republican leaders, essentially undermined previous economic agreements, and decisively chose the “go it alone” path for Russia, including dramatic cuts in funding for most central structures. (The Foreign Ministry would be cut by 90 percent.) From the Soviet transcript of the Bush and Gorbachev one-on-one meeting in Madrid, we know that the U.S. side had information about the content of the upcoming speech and contacted the Russian leadership with requests to tone it down, but the attempt was in vain.[12]

Gorbachev believed at the time that Yeltsin was under the influence of his close advisers, and that this explained his frequent turnabouts. Gorbachev’s memoir dates the turning point in Yeltsin’s evolution to a particular moment in September 1991, when Yeltsin’s secretary of state, “the evil genius” Gennady Burbulis, brought to his boss in Sochi a secret memorandum entitled “Strategy for Russia in the Transition Period.”[13] Drafted by Burbulis, it called for the speedy formation of a Russian state that would be the sole legal heir to the Soviet Union and would embark on a radical economic reform alone, leaving behind the center and the rest of the republics. This was the strategy--to get rid of Gorbachev by dismantling the Union.

Gorbachev’s interlocutors in Madrid, including King Juan Carlos, expressed their sincere outrage at Yeltsin’s speech and their support for Gorbachev. Bush spoke very frankly: “I hope you know the position of our government: we support the center. Without giving up contacts with the republics, we support the center and you personally.” He even mentioned that his speech in Kiev had cost him politically--on the eve of an election year he was seen as clinging to Gorbachev rather than throwing his support behind the “democratic forces” led by Yeltsin.[14] All conversations involved detailed discussions of the new Union Treaty. Gorbachev insisted on a single country with unified armed forces and a popularly elected president, a unified power grid, a transportation network, communications, space exploration, and a single economic space. At different times Gorbachev agreed with Bush that Yeltsin was trying to substitute Russia for the center in the new structure but then also said that Yeltsin understood the need for the center and realized that Russian economic reform was impossible without it.

The high point of the summit was the state dinner hosted by King Juan Carlos along with Prime Minister Gonzalez, the foreign leader Gorbachev felt was closest to him in his thinking and ideas. The four-hour conversation ranged from Soviet domestic to international subjects and allowed Gorbachev to play the role of global statesman once again. Yeltsin’s speech was one of the first subjects. Bush was concerned by Yeltsin’s statements about the borders and Russian minorities in the republics, especially in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Gorbachev noted the volatility of the Ukrainian situation: “Ukraine in its present form emerged only because the Bolsheviks did not have a majority in the Rada, and they added Kharkov and Donbass to the Ukraine. And Khrushchev passed Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine in a brotherly gesture.” Crimea, he said, decided to stay with Ukraine only on the assumption that Ukraine would be inseparable from Russia, which might change if Ukraine decided not to join the Union.[15] Gorbachev made a passionate statement about his determination to see his country hold together, and although all the principals were outspoken in their sympathy for his predicament, they also understood that his chances were slim. Madrid turned out to be the last superpower summit.

Upon arriving home, Gorbachev found his new Union project disintegrating even further. He was able to stanch the process by applying pressure on Yeltsin and threatening resignation, but that would not work for long. On December 1, Ukraine held a referendum in which 70 percent of the population voted for independence. Kravchuk was elected president and soon made it clear to Yeltsin that he was not going to be part of the new Union Treaty negotiations in any form, no more “big brother” Russia. On December 8, during a protracted negotiation at a hunting lodge in Belarus (and at the suggestion of Burbulis), the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belovezhie agreement to dissolve the USSR and create a Commonwealth of Independent States. Yeltsin rushed to phone Bush to inform him, emphasizing that Gorbachev did not know yet about it.[16] Gorbachev actually heard the news after Bush did, from Belarus’s leader, Stanislav Shushkevich. The most prominent non-Slav republic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had declined to join the Belovezhie crew, demanding instead a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to work out the details of a successor federation.

On December 25, 1991, just before delivering his farewell speech as president of the USSR, Gorbachev phoned Bush, who was at Camp David for Christmas with his grandchildren. Gorbachev expressed appreciation for all they had done together and his hope for a future partnership in some new form.[17] The U.S. president felt that he was “caught up in history” at some “enormous turning point.”[18] This turning point was also the end point of the superpower summits. Gorbachev said a simple “good bye” and shook Bush’s hands virtually; Bush responded, “good bye.” These were the parting words in the conversations that ended the Cold War and transformed the world.





[1] Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, The Last Superpower Summits: Gorbachev, Reagan, and Bush: Conversations that Ended the Cold War (Budapest/New York: Central European University Press, 2016).

[2] The best analysis of politics of Ukrainian independence is in Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (New York: Basic Books, 2014), pp. 158-161.

[3] A World Transformed, p. 541

[4] Ibid, p. 544.

[5] Plokhy, Final Days, p. 29.

[6] Ibid., p. 25.

[7] Baker, Politics of Diplomacy, p. 527.

[8] Gorbachev, Zhizn’ I reformy, vol. 2, pp. 609-612.

[9] Grachev, The Final Days, p. 93.

[10] Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, p. 548.

[11] Document No. 147.

[12] Document No. 151; Gorbachev Foundation transcript donated by Andrei Grachev.

[13] Gorbachev, Zhizn’ I reformy, p. 589.

[14] Document No. 151.

[15] Document No. 150.

[16] Document No. 154.

[17] Document No. 157

[18] A World Transformed, p. 561