As the Soviet Union was breaking up 25 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev expected the United States and its Western allies to provide vital aid. The former Soviet president thinks their failure to offer significant help wasted a chance to build a safer world and resulted from short-sighted gloating at a Cold War rival’s demise.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, the 85-year-old Gorbachev voiced hope that Russia and the United States would do better and ease current tensions during Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The relations between us are so important and concern everyone else, so we must take the interests of others into account,” said the leader credited with helping to end the Cold War.
Gorbachev said he had expected Hillary Clinton to win the U.S. presidential race and was surprised by Trump’s victory. He declined to offer an assessment of Trump, saying it remains to be seen what policies the new U.S. administration will pursue.
“He has little political experience, but, maybe, it’s good,” he said.
Gorbachev walked slowly with a cane, but his smile was as captivating as always, his wits as sharp as usual and his reactions quick during the rare, hour-long interview at his foundation’s office in Moscow.
Gorbachev, who helped end the Cold War by launching sweeping liberal reforms, cutting nuclear stockpiles and allowing Soviet bloc nations in Central and Eastern Europe to break free from Moscow’s diktat, spoke bitterly about the West’s failure to embrace a new era of friendly cooperation he said his policy of “perestroika” offered.
“They were rubbing their hands, saying, ‘How nice! We had been trying to do something about the Soviet Union for decades, and it ate itself up!'” Gorbachev said.
He blasted what he described as Western “triumphalism,” saying it remains a key factor in tensions between Russia and the West.
Ties between Russia and the West are worse than they have been at any time since the Cold War following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and its support for a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. and the European Union responded with several rounds of economic sanctions, which along with low oil prices have driven Russia’s economy into recession.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the U.S. of trying to isolate and weaken the nation, pointing to the deployment of NATO forces near Russia’s borders as a sign of hostile intentions. The war in Syria, where Russia has waged an air campaign in support of the President Bashar Assad, has added to the tensions.
Gorbachev said Russian and U.S. leaders must sit down for talks and “stay at the table until they reach agreement.”
“The world needs Russia and the United States to cooperate,” Gorbachev said. “Together, they could lead the world … to a new path.”
He defended Russia’s action to annex Crimea, pointing out that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred Crimea from Russian to Ukrainian administrative control in 1954, a decision that mattered little until the Soviet collapse.
He also noted that the annexation followed a popular vote in which the residents of the Black Sea peninsula overwhelmingly backed joining Russia.
“When people say yes, a decision must be made,” he said.
The Crimean referendum was held after Russian troops flooded the peninsula, and the West has rejected the vote’s outcome due to the troops’ presence.
While he squarely backs Putin on the Ukrainian crisis, Gorbachev, who was born in southern Russia, is full of admiration for Ukrainian culture. After an interview, he sang a Ukrainian song he learned from his mother, who was Ukrainian.
Gorbachev also praised outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama. But he deplored what he described as a misguided policy toward Russia pursued by the U.S. and its allies both during his presidency and now.
“They have been badgering Russia with accusations and blaming it for everything,” Gorbachev said. “And now, there is a backlash to that in Russia. Russia wants to have friendly ties with America, but it’s difficult to do that when Russia sees that it’s being cheated.”
Gorbachev pointed to the productive relationship he built with U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s and the arms control agreements they reached despite sharp ideological differences.
“We accomplished a lot,” he said. “We could talk openly, in a real partner-like way. It’s necessary to take that approach again.”
Asked his opinion of Putin’s leadership, Gorbachev said he sees him as a “worthy president,” even though he has criticized some of his policies.
In the past, Gorbachev assailed the Kremlin for a crackdown on freedom of speech and rigid political controls. He also was critical of Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 after term limits forced him to switch to the premier’s seat for four years.
“I almost fully supported him first, and then I began to voice criticism,” Gorbachev said of Putin. “I can’t renounce my views.”
He added, however, that he approved of Putin’s recent state-of-the-nation address. The speech sent a conciliatory message to the West, and some observers also saw signs that the Kremlin may ease some of its rigid domestic policies.
“It was different from his previous speeches,” Gorbachev said. “The speech showed that he’s strongly worried.”
Gorbachev has received global accolades for his policy of “perestroika,” which eased government economic controls, and his role in ending the Cold War. At home, he has faced stinging criticism. Many held him responsible, and still do, for economic hardships, political turmoil and the loss of superpower status resulting from the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Gorbachev’s voice trembled with emotion as he recalled the waning days of the Soviet Union, when his arch-foe, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, and leaders of other Soviet republics plotted his ouster while pretending to support his efforts to negotiate a treaty that would give the republics broader powers.
“Yeltsin took part in that and supported it, but he was conspiring behind my back how to get rid of Gorbachev,” he said, alleging that a hunger for power motivated the Russian leader. “Russia was spearheading the Soviet breakup.”
Leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, meeting secretly at a government residence in a forest in Belarus, signed an agreement on Dec. 8, 1991, pronouncing the Soviet Union dead and setting up the Commonwealth of Independent States. The move caught both Gorbachev and the West by surprise. Two weeks later, other ex-Soviet nations joined the newly-created CIS.
Driven into a corner, Gorbachev stepped down on Christmas Day 1991. Hours later, Yeltsin and his lieutenants took over his office in the Kremlin, giving him no time to pack his personal belongings in a calculated gesture of humiliation.
Amid the Soviet meltdown, loyalties of the 4 million-strong Soviet army and the massive KGB apparatus were split between the central authorities and the newly-assertive governments of Russia and other republics who were proclaiming their independence.
Asked if he considered using force to prevent the Soviet breakup, Gorbachev said launching a violent domestic conflict in a nuclear superpower was never an option for him.
“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons,” he said. “And it would immediately have pushed the country into a civil war.”