Washington, D.C., February 26, 2021 – Thirty years ago this week, the U.S.-led coalition launched its ground offensive in the Persian Gulf after spending months trying to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait and comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions without conditions or linkages to a wider settlement in the Middle East. Only 100 hours after the ground offensive started (the air war had run for more than a month previously), the U.S. ceased hostilities as images of decimated Iraqi troops, strung along a “highway of death” out of Kuwait, ran on global media.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spent weeks before combat began trying to prevent the application of military force, which he saw as antithetical to his “new thinking” about a post-Cold War, norms-based world order. But Gorbachev failed, undermined by the erratic decisions and stalling of the Iraqi dictator, by the inexorable military logic of the coalition build-up, and by the growing determination of U.S. President George H.W. Bush that Saddam could not be trusted.
Today’s publication of Soviet and American transcripts of highest-level phone calls, meetings, and letters documents what top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev called a “diplomatic marathon” that Bush kept saying he appreciated – keeping Gorbachev inside the tent so to speak – while always pushing back and setting hard deadlines for action rather than just statements. The publication features, for the first time in English, memoranda of ten Gorbachev phone calls on February 23, 1991, alone – hours before ground combat started – with foreign leaders ranging from Bush to Iran’s Rafsanjani, India’s Gandhi, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Germany’s Kohl, among others. The collection also includes the declassified American summary of all the U.S.-Soviet discussions from January 11 through February 23, and the full U.S. memcons of the final set of Bush-Gorbachev calls on February 21, 22 and 23, 1991.
Military success in the Persian Gulf pushed Bush’s approval ratings to 90% in the U.S., yet he would lose his re-election bid less than two years later. The view from Moscow turned sour much sooner. Chernyaev wrote in his diary on February 25 that the war was the “swan song of new policy aimed at a new order.” Top Middle East expert on the Central Committee Karen Brutents commented ironically that instead of the last conflict of the Cold War, this was the first of the new unipolar world order. And Gorbachev wrote, “we had entered the new era, announced as the era of the new world order, to the thunder of cannons—not the best accompaniment.” American restraint in not going on to Baghdad certainly proved wise in view of the disasters that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq by Bush’s son; but the events of January and February of 1991 marked the end of Gorbachev’s vision that the non-use of military force would become the hallmark of a new era.
Soviet support for U.N. Security Council Resolution 678 (November 29, 1990) proved indispensable for creating a powerful international partnership willing and capable of reversing the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. From the first day of Saddam’s invasion through the end of the ground war, the Soviet Union provided unwavering support to the U.S.-led coalition, and was one of the main partners of the United States. The importance of Moscow’s support declined once the use-of-force resolution passed, because much of its leverage had come from its ability to prevent a military action, or otherwise to undermine American efforts in the region.
After passage of Resolution 678, the United States carefully watched events unfold in the Soviet Union where Gorbachev, under criticism for the failure of domestic reform and for his entanglement with the United States in the Gulf, steadily moved towards the conservatives and abandoned his democratic allies. On December 18, a senior NSC group on Soviet contingencies headed by Condoleezza Rice described the situation in the Soviet Union as “a creeping crackdown,” and a CIA analysis saw that Gorbachev had taken a “significant turn to the right.”
Just two days later, White House worries escalated with the sudden resignation of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Now the Bush administration pondered what their reaction should be if there was a serious conservative backlash in the USSR. A Scowcroft memo to the president on December 21 outlined possible scenarios and options, pointing quite accurately to the increased possibility of violence in the Baltics, where the army might “take advantage of the tense environment to create a pretext for the use of force. […] [A]n incident could flare without Gorbachev’s knowledge or acquiescence.” This was exactly what happened three weeks later. However, the memo concluded that while Gorbachev might have to take harsh steps to hold the Union together, “we will most certainly have the task of continuing our geostrategic cooperation with the Soviet Union – particularly in the Gulf – in the face of the rapid unraveling of the Soviet leadership’s commitment to internal reform.”
Meanwhile, as New Year's 1991 rolled in and U.S. intentions were becoming more clear, Gorbachev was trying desperately to keep his American partners from initiating military action, and at the same time hoping to persuade Saddam to agree to a full and unconditional withdrawal. In January 1991, Gorbachev created an emergency group on the Persian Gulf, which included Primakov, Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov, and KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov but also Gorbachev’s most liberal adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev. The Soviet leader spent hours on the phone with European leaders and with Bush trying to persuade them to give negotiations a chance. In his phone conversations with Bush, Gorbachev spoke about loss of life and economic destruction, while also agreeing that Saddam’s position was untenable and that he was not responding to diplomatic overtures. Gorbachev tried to postpone the start of the air campaign but then, once it started, agreed it was inevitable because of Saddam’s intransigence.
As early as January, the United States saw Gorbachev’s efforts to work out a peaceful solution as a problem and a nuisance. At that moment Washington was concerned that Saddam might actually comply with U.N. resolutions, which would undermine the grounds for Desert Storm. Gorbachev’s entreaties added to U.S. concerns and there was very little talk of the partnership. Scowcroft in his memoirs speaks about Gorbachev’s mediating efforts with condescension and tellingly admits: “we could not let him interfere with our Gulf diplomacy or our operations at a critical moment.”
The fact that the USSR's value as a partner had declined, and that the Soviet leaders were only informed rather than consulted about important military and political moves made even some Soviet reformers skeptical about U.S. intentions in the Gulf. Some felt deeply frustrated that the United States was still playing a geopolitical game even while demanding Soviet cooperation. Top Gorbachev adviser Anatoly Chernyaev reacted with dismay when he heard the news of the beginning of the ground war; this was characteristic of the exasperation of policy makers who were deeply committed to new thinking and a new vision of world order. In his diary Chernyaev wrote about Gorbachev's last efforts to persuade Western leaders not to start the ground offensive after Saddam, during Tariq Aziz’s visit to Moscow on February 22, had conditionally agreed to withdraw troops: "[The West was] deliberately confusing [Gorbachev]. Sometimes he felt it, but continued to believe that the criteria of the new thinking would work, that trust meant something. Not in this case! What had worked was the traditional logic of politics: the might, the riches, the interests determine what is right. And it is not that hard to find a moral explanation for actions against Hussein."
Gorbachev was incensed at this treatment at the time and complained bitterly to other leaders such as Rajiv Gandhi. But in retrospect, he came to a more restrained conclusion in his memoirs: “I knew that George Bush in his heart wanted to use the occasion to crush Saddam’s regime with all military might. But he was also ready for a political settlement, although without compromises. However, Hussein, by his ambitious, insolent actions, which aggravated [his] illegal aggression, ‘helped’ the U.S. President to carry out the military option.”
In the end, the coalition did not split, the Soviets stood firmly behind their American partners, and the aggressor was punished. But according to top Soviet expert Karen Brutents, writing in his memoirs, instead of the last war of the Cold War, this became the first war of the new era – previewing and symbolizing the new world order that was emerging – the unipolar world where the United States was calling the shots. Gorbachev was mistaken in his belief that the Soviet Union and the United States were genuine partners and that he and Bush shared the vision of a new, norms-based world. As historian Jeffrey Engel perceptively concluded: “Both wanted a new world order, but only one was willing to consider military force as part of it. Not surprisingly, it was the one with force to spare, capable of deploying troops across the world even as his counterpart struggled to bring his own forces home […].”