CREDIT: Dennis Doyle, Carnegie Council
CREDIT: Dennis Doyle, Carnegie Council

The Collapse of the Soviet Union: Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary

Aug 24, 2011

U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock explodes some myths that are current in the United States, in Russia, and in Europe about just how and when the Cold War ended and how and when the Soviet Union collapsed.

This speech was given at a conference entitled "Carnegie Council's Program on U.S. Global Engagement: a Two-Year Retrospective."

The conference took place at the Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund from June 1-3, 2011. Organized by the Carnegie Council in cooperation with the U.S. Army War College, the conference served to review and report on two years of program activity, and to generate new ideas and resources among an international group of innovative thinkers on U.S.-Russian relations, nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, European and NATO security challenges for the future, including Afghanistan, and competition and cooperation in the Arctic region.

The U.S. Global Engagement program gratefully acknowledges the support for its work from the following: Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Donald M. Kendall, Rockefeller Family & Associates, and Booz & Company.


DAVID SPEEDIE: It is my pleasure to introduce our speaker. I made a joke yesterday on the bus that my favorite toast from Britain in years past was when a dinner speaker was to be introduced and the introduction was, "It has often been said that the speaker needs no introduction. That's never been truer than now, because the blighter hasn't shown up." I am delighted to say that not only has Jack shown up, but he has graciously done so after taking a long trip, where he crossed the International Date Line and, as he told me earlier today, spent two Sundays at sea, which is an interesting concept. It's also true to say that he really doesn't need much introduction, so I won't prolong this because time is moving along here. His bio that we have here modestly says "Jack Matlock, a retired diplomat, has held academic posts since 1991." Well, to say Jack is a retired diplomat is a masterpiece of understatement. But most recently, he has been a professor of international relations at Hamilton College. He has been Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and has also been the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor in the practice of international diplomacy at Columbia. That follows a truly distinguished career as a diplomat, where Jack had tours in Vienna, Munich, Accra, Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, and, of course, Moscow, where he spent three tours, culminating in the ambassadorship in these momentous years from 1987 to 1991. He is the author of Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended; Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union; and most recently his book from last year, Princeton University Press, Superpower Illusions. Jack, welcome and thank you so much for joining us.


JACK MATLOCK: I have been asked to talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union. We are coming, within a few months, on the 20th anniversary. I'm reminded, as I'm sure many of us are, of Chou En-Lai's comment when asked about his assessment of the French Revolution. This was about two centuries after it happened. He said, "It's too soon to say." If the question is, "Was the collapse of the Soviet Union a good thing or a bad thing?" that is a question we will never be able to answer. People will be debating it, if they wish to debate that sort of thing, for a long time to come, maybe indefinitely, and there is no definitive answer. At the same time, those of us who went through this process close to where the decisions that made a difference were made, can point to certain lessons that we should have taken and which, for the most part, we seem to have ignored.

I would say particularly there are myths, very current, in the United States, in Russia, and in Europe about how the Cold War ended and how the Soviet Union ended. Did the West, or the United States and NATO, force the collapse of the Soviet Union? Was that the victory in the Cold War? Many people seem to think so. That's absolutely not correct. Many people would place the end of the Cold War with the end of the Soviet Union. I don't know how many of you saw this multivolume series on CNN. The producer was Sir Jeremy Isaacs. It ends the Cold War with the Russian flag replacing the Soviet flag on the Kremlin. Was that really the end of the Cold War? I think not. And that's an important point. Or was the end of the Soviet Union a geopolitical catastrophe, as Prime Minister Putin has indicated? That depends upon whether one thinks that the collapse was a good thing or not. One of the things about these ideas that lead us astray is that they do influence what sort of policy we have had since that time, in the United States, NATO, Russia and, to some degree, elsewhere in the world. Regarding the first—that the United States forced or encouraged the collapse of the Soviet Union—it's the opposite of the truth. American policy in 1991 did everything we could, which was not very much, to preserve the Soviet Union in the form of a voluntary federation. You may recall that Bill Safire, The New York Times columnist who had been one of Nixon's speechwriters, called Bush the Elder's speech in Kiev "a chicken Kiev speech." Why? Because he endorsed Gorbachev's idea of a union treaty. The point is that the United States did not want to see the Soviet Union break up as it did. One of the reasons was that it was no longer what Ronald Reagan had called "an evil empire." Having been in Moscow in 1991, I would say that although the economy was a mess, the country never before or since has been as free politically as it was in 1991. The Soviet Union of 1991 was not the Soviet Union of the past. But that was not the only reason. Of course, we had a very strong reason that we didn't want to see perhaps 12, maybe ten, maybe eight nuclear powers in the world. Also, we had found that by late 1990, early 1991, on most international issues, the Soviet government, Gorbachev's government, had aligned Soviet policy more closely with American policy than even many of our allies had. This even spilled over into personal relations. I remember once in the fall of 1990 when Secretary of State Baker had a particularly rough time talking to a series of our allied foreign ministers, and he called his aide and said, "Would you get in touch with Eduard Shevardnadze and see if he's free this evening? I've got to relax a bit." Yes, our relations were getting pretty close, at a personal level. We did not want to see happening what we understood was happening. I sent my first message suggesting that Washington should develop contingency plans for a possible collapse of the Soviet Union in July 1990, 18 months before it happened. One of these minor myths out there is, "Oh, we were taken by surprise. We didn't know what was happening." We weren't taken by surprise. We didn't want it to happen, and we very well knew that if we started predicting it in public or let the CIA make a formal prediction that it might happen, everybody would assume we wanted it to happen. As Condi Rice said at the time, or just afterwards, if it was going to happen, we didn't want our fingerprints on it. Today, because of things that I will mention later, many people think those fingerprints are there. But they are not. How about the one that the Cold War ended with the end of the Soviet Union? It just isn't true. Any of us who were negotiating with the Soviet Union can tell you that certainly by 1989 and early 1990 we were negotiating off the same game book, and it was one that was trying to find a win-win solution to the problems that had been generated by the Cold War. And we did find them, with remarkable rapidity. The Cold War ended well before the Soviet Union collapsed. That's one of the reasons that the United States did not want the Soviet Union to collapse. Of course, we wanted the three Baltic countries to regain their independence. We had never recognized that they were legally part of the Soviet Union, and throughout 1990 and 1991, Baker would often tell Shevardnadze, "Look, let them go and then have a firebreak." Of course, Shevardnadze, being a Georgian, would answer, "They're not the only ones that were taken by force." But our attitude was, "Yes, you must let the Baltics go." How about the end of the Soviet Union being a geopolitical catastrophe? I can understand how many Russians would feel that way. What happened to their lives after the Soviet Union collapsed was not pleasant for most of them, to put it mildly. On the other hand, for Vladimir Putin to make that statement, when the key person in bringing an end to the Soviet Union was the person who named him acting president and put him on the way to being the president of Russia, seems perhaps a little bit forgetful of the past and where the responsibility really lies. The fact is that we don't know whether the Soviet Union, in some form, could have been preserved in some way or not. But we do know that in August, before the attempted coup, Gorbachev had seven or eight signatories for his Union Treaty. It was precisely that prospect that caused Vladimir Kryuchkov, Mr. Putin's old boss during much of his career, to lead an attempted coup, which so weakened Gorbachev and the Soviet Union that, without Russia's support, it could not have been retained. Did it have Russia's support? Well, no. The elected president of Russia went to Belovezhskaya Pushcha and made a deal with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine to dissolve the Soviet Union. Where was the West? Where was the United States? Do people forget that? They seem to. It seems to me, looking back at this period from the late 1980s up to 1991, that three very important geopolitically seismic events occurred. They were so unexpected for most people who were specialists in this area, and they happened in such quick succession, that people conflate them. But they had different origins. First, the Cold War ended. I personally place the end of the Cold War on December 7, 1988, when Gorbachev, in a speech to the United Nations—you might say ex cathedra—in effect, ditched the principle that Soviet foreign policy was based upon the international class struggle. There was no Marxism left. Soviet foreign policy was to be based on the common interests of mankind. That is a profound difference from Marxism, because with Marx there was no common interest of mankind; there were only class interests. Sure, we had a lot of debris from the Cold War to clean up in negotiations. But from 1989 on, as the Soviet Union itself was democratizing internally and opening up, with elections, opening up to the outside world, we were very quickly dispensing with all of this debris that had been left from the Cold War, including unification of Europe and even the unification of Germany. Those events confirmed that ideologically the Cold War had ended. Though things had been changing rapidly before then. As an American diplomat, I found that we and the Soviet diplomats were trying to reach the same goals: ways that we could serve the interests of both sides and get rid of the problems of the Cold War. The Cold War ended, ideologically, at the end of 1988, confirmed that it was ended certainly by the time Germany was unified and remained in NATO, and the Soviet Union voted to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Nothing of the Cold War was left there, not a single important issue. True, a few months later we signed the Strategic Arms Treaty, but if the Gulf War had not intervened, that would have been signed a year earlier, because essentially all the problems were over. The second of these events was the end of Communist Party control of the Soviet Union. When it comes to the end of the Cold War, it seems to me that this was a negotiated end in the interests of all the parties. When you look at the agreements we made, these were solving problems, but in the interests of peaceful relations in the future. I don't believe that one can say that Gorbachev or Reagan or Bush the Elder is most responsible. It required them all. In particular, it required both Gorbachev and Reagan, because those were the only two that could have made these agreements and made them stick at home. When it comes to the end of Communist rule in the Soviet Union, that didn't occur because of Western pressure. That occurred because Mikhail Gorbachev understood when he began to try to reform the Soviet Union that the party apparat was beginning to oppose it. Therefore, he had to take them out of power in order to move the country where he wanted it to be. He placed the interests of the country above the interests of the party, the first party secretary to do so. Of course, in these cases, he made mistakes along the way. Who doesn't? But the fact is that clearly his idea of reform did require removing the Communist Party from total control of the country. He couldn't have done that if we hadn't ended the Cold War, because pressure from the outside tends to strengthen dictators. This is one of the great lessons we have not learned in looking back at the Cold War.

But if anybody receives credit for ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union, it's Mikhail Gorbachev, no foreigner. In my opinion, he's the only person who could have done it. That was a system that, as long as it was intact—and our ideologists who would oppose our efforts to negotiate would say, "That's a system that can't change. Look at the ideology," and so on. Gorbachev not only changed the ideology; he took them out of power. That could not have been done bottom-up. It had to be done top-down. He deserves great credit that most of his own countrymen still don't give him. So that was the second of these seismic events. The Soviet Union begins to be substantially open to the rest of the world and substantially democratized. Then the end of the Soviet Union—who brought that about? Of course, Gorbachev made mistakes, as most leaders do. But it seems to me that there were two people who were key: Kryuchkov, who was head of the KGB and who led the attempted coup which so weakened Gorbachev, and Yeltsin, who could have saved at least part of the Soviet Union by backing the Union Treaty instead of getting out of it. This was something that the Russians did to themselves. So if they regret what happened—and, frankly, they should—they have only themselves to blame. Yet one of the problems today is that so many people assume that it was the West's doing. That has come about because of some of the myths that have occurred here—the whole "we won the Cold War" stuff. We negotiated a balanced and reasonable agreement to end the Cold War, in the interests of both countries, meaning the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies—in the interests of all. The fact is, by treating it as a victory—even Reagan, if you read his memoirs, doesn't say we won the Cold War. He says our system prevailed, and it prevailed in part because Gorbachev began to accept parts of that, to open up the country and so on. This was not a victory. It certainly was not a military victory. Obviously, our negotiations were, as we said at the time, negotiations from strength. One of Reagan's goals in dealing with the Soviet leaders was to point out that we don't want an arms race, but if you want one, you're going to lose it. So, yes, there was a military buildup, but a military buildup to build down. Many people didn't believe it at the time, but that was the purpose, and we proved it with the INF agreement. That was certainly his genuine feeling about it. We did not feel that we had won some victory, certainly not a military victory, though, obviously, our military power, our economic strength, the fact that we could win an arms race if we chose to was a factor, and it gave Gorbachev an argument at home that they must end the arms race in their own interests, because the West was trying to trap them into one, which they were going to lose. A beautiful argument, and one which worked. But at the same time, we didn't try to push the Soviet Union to do anything that would be against its own interests as a peaceful country. One of my most emotional moments was at a meeting that George Shultz had with Shevardnadze, it must be either spring or fall of 1988, when Shultz gave Shevardnadze our usual "representation list." This was a list of human-rights cases. These were things that, when Gromyko was foreign minister, he had tended either to reject or at least give us a lecture on how it was none of our business. Shevardnadze took it and looked at Shultz and said, "George, I'll take this back, and if what you say is correct, we'll do what we can to correct it. But I want you to know one thing. I'm not doing this because you asked me to. I'm doing this because it's what my country needs to do." Shultz stood up, put out his hand, Shevardnadze stood up, they shook hands across the table, and Shultz said, "Eduard, I will never ask you to do something I don't think is in your country's interests to do." The Cold War was over. There were a lot of problems still, but suddenly we were going. The idea that somehow this was a victory which we brought about by our military and economic superiority and forced upon them is the actual opposite of the truth. There are a lot of mistaken notions that came out of this. We used to talk about the superpowers. In what respect were the United States and the Soviet Union superpowers? Oh, yes, we could destroy the world—once, twice, some people said seven times. Big deal. You know what? The United States and Russia still can, at least once, maybe twice. What neither of us could do was transform another country with this power. The Soviet Union couldn't make Eastern Europe socialist states that were completely happy with the system they had. Neither of us, before or since, has been able to solve problems in the Middle East. Look at the problems in the world since the end of the Cold War. Has superpower status had anything to do with it? I think not. Power to destroy is one thing. Is that power to create? Is that power to change? That is something different. Flowing out of that, once you start thinking in terms that there were two superpowers and now there's only one—which wasn't true, if you were thinking of nuclear weapons—then you have a unipolar world. Everything is going to be decided in one place. Well, that doesn't work either. If the basis of the so-called superpower is not the sort of power that can be used to transform states—if you are using military power, yes, you can invade Iraq. Can you create a democracy there, stability? We're still trying. A million refugees, tens of thousands of people killed. I don't know what history is going to say about it. I hope things don't get worse. But the fact is, there was never a unipolar world, in the sense that people meant it. There was not even a unipolar moment, to use one of the slogans used by our neocons, who said, "Now we are supreme. Let's go out and we'll change the world. We'll make it not only safe for democracy; we'll make it democratic. And democratic countries, you see, will always support American policy." It sure sounded like the Brezhnev doctrine to me. A socialist country is going to be friendly. Tito and then Mao began to question that. The idea that somehow if you have the same form of government you are going to support the policy just because of that seems to me awfully naïve. It certainly didn't work for the Soviet Union, and we're seeing that it's not working for the United States. I'm not going to spend a lot of time pointing out where these misconceptions have led us. Let me just introduce another idea here. Often we find, both in the United States and in Russia and Europe, that you get a whole series of conspiracy theories—"Gorbachev was hoodwinked." Some would even say he was hired by the CIA. "He was really working for the West to bring us down." The fact is that the role of accident and chance is extremely important in international relations. One of the criticisms you often hear of Gorbachev was that he started to change without really thinking through what the consequences would be. If you decide that profound changes are necessary, you will never know what the consequences are going to be; you are going to have to do it by the seat of your pants, and you are going to have to change when things don't work. But let me just recount one incident which illustrates this point, that you simply cannot predict how things are going to happen. In late June of 1991, I was preparing officially to leave Moscow. I had invited people to lunch, and I got a call from Moscow Mayor Popov saying he couldn't come to lunch, but could he call on me earlier; he would like to pay a farewell call. I had announced that I would be leaving in a few weeks. I said, "Of course." The lunch was at 1:00. I received him at noon. He came in and we talked a bit about Moscow city politics and whatnot. While he was there, he wrote a note saying that a coup was being organized against Gorbachev and he wanted to get the word to Yeltsin, who was then in Washington. So he was not informing us; he was sending a message to Yeltsin. He said, "Can you get this word to Boris Nikolayevich?" I simply wrote, as we talked of other things, "I will report. But who's behind this?" Then he gave me four surnames. He wrote four surnames down: Kryuchkov, Yazov, Pavlov, Lukiyanov. He picked them up, tore them, put them in his pocket. I asked Jim Collins, who was then my deputy—later ambassador—to come by before lunch, and I gave him an urgent message to Washington, to give to Yeltsin. I knew that Yeltsin had an appointment with Bush that morning at 10:00. Later in the day, I got a call on our secure phone saying that the president asked me to warn Gorbachev. I said, "Well, fine, but I really don't think that I should name these names, because we can't confirm that. I'll have to give him a general warning." They said, "Of course." Then I said, "Of course, we don't name our source." "Of course." So I immediately called, got an immediate appointment, went in, and told Gorbachev that we had information, which was more than a rumor but we could not confirm it. I wanted to emphasize that this was not an intelligence report. He at first sort of laughed it off. Then he seriously said, "Thank you for coming in. You have done the right thing. Your president has proved that he is—but you will see that I've taken care of things." What I learned later was that they gave the report to Yeltsin and asked Yeltsin, "What should we do?" He said, "You must warn Gorbachev." In retrospect, clearly, I probably should have named these names, because we did have a pretty good confidential relationship. But at the time I thought it was not appropriate, and I didn't. He really thought I was talking about some intelligence report from some of these colonels—Petrushenko, these guys who were shooting off their mouths. Everybody who knew the Soviet system knew that colonels couldn't pull off a coup against the government. We never took that seriously. Then the next day Bush gets through to Gorbachev on the phone, and in the conversation he asked if he had talked to me and he said yes. Then Gorbachev said, "I'm taking care of it. Don't worry. Thanks for sending the report." I still don't know how this happened, but Bush told him that my source was Mayor Popov, on a phone line, on which, all of us professionals knew, the communications were maintained by the KGB. How President Bush, who had been director of CIA, could let something like that slip, I don't know. But I will hand it to him. They immediately called me on the secure phone and told me he had done it. Actually, he put in his memoirs that he did it. He doesn't himself understand how he could let it slip. At that time, Gorbachev and Popov were very much at loggerheads. Gorbachev was accusing the democrats, one of the leaders, of trying to create a change in government—actually, a coup. We never understood how he could really believe that, but apparently this was one of the KGB reports he was getting. This was also the same week that in the Supreme Soviet the prime minister, Pavlov, newly named, had asked for some of the powers of the president, in a closed session, on Monday. By Wednesday, it had leaked and it was all over the press. When Gorbachev told me on Thursday, "You will see tomorrow this is taken care of," he meant he would go before the Supreme Soviet and get it voted down, which he did, on Friday. But there's more. My cable goes through the secretary of state. Baker and Bessmertnykh, the then-Soviet foreign minister, were in Berlin. When Baker gets the cable and sees it, he calls Bessmertnykh and says, "Sasha, I have to see you." Bessmertnykh said, "I have some appointments this evening. Could we make it tomorrow morning?" Baker said, "No, no. I have to see you this evening. Cancel them." So he goes in and he gives Bessmertnykh the names. Bessmertnykh said, "Look, Jim, I don't have private communications with the president. If these are the people involved, only Jack can warn him." His communications also were controlled by the KGB. Bessmertnykh had the names. He said later that when he got back to Moscow on Saturday, he didn't have a private session with Gorbachev, but they were walking at some sort of ceremony—laying a wreath or something like that—and he said, "Well, did you talk to the American ambassador?" Gorbachev said, "Yes, and I'm going to have to talk to those fellows." So Bessmertnykh thought I had given him the names. Three of them were active members of the coup leadership. Lukiyanov clearly had supported it, but probably legally kept himself out of it. Just to conclude this, the next year I talked to Popov before I wrote about this. It was all very classified for a while. I said, "Can I write about this?" He said, "Yes, of course. Just keep it straight." Then he said, "I was really furious when Gorbachev knew that I was your source." When he came into a reception for Gorbachev—this was during Bush's visit—Gorbachev shook his finger at him and said, "What are you doing telling these fairy tales to the Americans?" He said, "How in the world did he know? I didn't think you were so indiscreet." I said, "Well, it was my president. It wasn't me." Then he said, "But maybe it was a good thing." I said, "What in the world do you mean?" He said, "Kryuchkov understood he had a leak and he had to stop his preparations, and the coup failed because it wasn't properly prepared." Take it or not. But chance, mistakes, not a conspiracy. And so much, frankly, that goes on internationally is that way. Don't think that everything is planned properly. Don't think that even the most senior people act as if they know what they are doing. Sometimes it turns out that it's a pretty good thing.

Questions and Answers

PARTICIPANT: [Not at microphone]—I'm all for the cock-up theory rather than the conspiracy theory of history. But in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union, surely it was a bit more than cock-up and an accident. How could it be possible that a prison house of nations, which is where the Austrian-Hungarian Empire [inaudible] could hold together whilst the class struggle withered away, the ideological justification for yoking countries that didn't want to be [inaudible] and whose standard of living went down and whose intelligentsia was destroyed? How could they want to stay together in the Soviet Union? It's not accidental. JACK MATLOCK: How could the prison house of nations want to stay together? I don't argue that it necessarily was possible to keep the Soviet Union in some form. You have situations where one country with different nationalities has evolved in a way that you keep people with different backgrounds together. You can think of the English, Scots, and Welsh, for example. Maybe they are getting more apart now. Also, it would be wrong to think the Soviet Union achieved nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Look at literacy. Compare it to a democratic country like India, particularly female literacy, much less Pakistan, which has occasionally been democratic. Look at the educational system, particularly in many technical subjects. There were many advantages, if you were growing up in Central Asia, the Caucasus, or Siberia, if your native language wasn't Russian, to acquire that. How far are you going to go as a nuclear physicist if your only language is Turkmen? There were definite values there. There were definite reasons that, if they could have moved in a democratic way, they would have been better off. I visited all the republics, except the three Baltic republics, because of our non-recognition policy. I met them, not in the Baltic countries. The democratic forces from 1990 and 1991 that were developing in all of them existed because they were supported by Moscow. I remember that one of the leading Belarusian writers, Bykau, told me that he could not get his stuff published in Minsk without appealing to the Central Committee in Moscow that would prevail upon the Belarusian comrades. I talked to democrats—with little "d's"—in Uzbekistan, who probably didn't last three weeks after Uzbekistan became independent. They were being supported by Gorbachev's democratization. So there were things that were going on, as I said, in the Soviet Union. It was no longer the prison house of nations. Gorbachev was trying to create something where they could keep what was good about the old and do it in a way with freedom. Obviously, different people react in different ways. I believe that the Central Asians would have stayed in if they could have. The Belarusians almost certainly would. Without the coup, the Ukrainians for a while would have. The people who pushed the thing were precisely the area that Stalin took over in the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the three Baltic states, the western Ukraine, which until 1940—practically speaking, after World War II—had never been part of the Russian Empire. These were the real Ukrainian nationalists. They had developed their national culture in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then in Poland between the wars. They organized the others. A lot was going on that actually would have been to their benefit. Furthermore, Gorbachev was pushing economic reforms, the sorts of things that were being resisted by the nomenklatura that were running things. What happened in places like Ukraine—you had an unholy alliance between the nationalists and the managers in the east, and Ukraine still has that split. One can argue they would all be much better off in a democratizing union where there was a great deal of autonomy. But it pushed to democratize. That's the reason I keep saying that the Soviet Union of 1991 was not the Soviet Union of 1961 or 1931 or 1941. It was quite a different country. PARTICIPANT: [Not at microphone] - from 1995 to 2002. What we are talking of here reminds me of an interview I did with Gorbachev ten years ago in 2001, on the coup anniversary. I asked the question that really puzzled me. I asked, "Why on earth did you [inaudible] perestroika [inaudible] you needed to do something about the country? Why did you [inaudible]? If everyone is allowed to say what they think, then sooner or later the Baltic states would say out loud that they do not want to be here in the first place and are about to leave, and to launch the collapse." The answer he gave was one of the few truthful answers he gave me. Otherwise, he claimed that he knew nothing about [inaudible]. To that question he answered this: "I needed the support of the people because otherwise the party would have sidelined me the way they sidelined Khrushchev." That sounded like the truth. The question [inaudible] you mentioned that in 1990 you sent a cable to Washington asking to prepare contingency plans for the collapse of the Soviet Union. I am not sure if my question is historical or practical. How does one prepare for such a collapse? JACK MATLOCK: What I recommended specifically was that we, as rapidly as possible, open small consulates in as many as possible of the Union Republic capitals. At that time we had a consulate general in Leningrad. We were opening one in Kiev. Nothing else in the whole Soviet Union. But that gets me into a long bureaucratic thing, because in 1989 the president and the secretary of state agreed that we would, but the bureaucracy in the State Department had it planned for 1993. But anyway, I should say a little more about the three Baltic countries. Actually, the Lithuanians first sent a delegation in the summer of 1989. Tom, you may have been in that meeting when they came. They were the first, then the Estonians, then the Latvians. They never came together, but separately, and would share with us their plans to move, first, for autonomy and then they would talk about independence, or restoration of independence. This was an important part of it. Of course, we were sympathetic. We had never recognized legally the incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union. Since these people had been elected, I began to deal with them. Because of our non-recognition policy, I was not supposed to deal with Baltic officials, but I knew better than to send this to the lawyers in Washington. I figured, "These people have been elected. I am going to meet with them. Nobody will dare challenge it in Washington." I would make the point each time—they would tell me what they planned, and I would say, "Obviously, we don't recognize you are legally part of the Soviet Union, but we cannot recognize you as independent until you are independent. And if there is a crackdown, we cannot protect you." I remember, with the first group of Lithuanians, there was a pause, then they said, "In other words, we're on our own." I said, "Yes. We can't start a nuclear war over your independence. Keep it peaceful. If you move in this direction, you are going to be full of provocations. Keep it peaceful." They did. However, in the Baltic countries there was a lot of misunderstanding about Gorbachev's position. When the Lithuanians declared restoration of their independence—this was either March or April, just before Easter, in 1990—we were very close to a coup against Gorbachev over that. I was asked to come for a private meeting by Shevardnadze. He was by himself. I sat down at a small round table, and I noticed all of his notes were in Georgian, which showed that he had written them himself, coming directly from Gorbachev. He said, "I understand you have a meeting with the Lithuanian leaders today." I said, "Yes, I do." He said, "Could you cancel it?" I said, "Why?" He said, "Well, our people"—meaning the KGB—"are blaming you for masterminding this. The problem is, if they declare their independence this weekend, as they have declared, it is very likely that Gorbachev will be removed." He said, "Could you cancel the meeting or at least persuade them to wait two weeks?" The following Monday was planned to establish the post of president, and Gorbachev was to be elected president. He said, "Once Gorbachev is president, we can handle the situation. But if it happens before then, we don't know what will happen. There are great risks being run." I said, "Look, I can't cancel the meeting because it's in about 15 minutes from now." I was only a couple of blocks from the foreign ministry. I had walked over. He had made it clear it was private, so I didn't want my car and the flag sitting out in the foreign ministry. So I walked back, and sure enough, Landsbergis and the Lithuanians were coming in the gate. They were telling me they were going to declare restoration of independence Sunday. This was a Friday. I said, "Why are you doing this so precipitously?" "We have to do it before Gorbachev becomes president." I said, "Why do you have to do it before Gorbachev becomes president?" He said, "Because he wants to be president to suppress us." I said, "Wait a minute. Are you telling me that the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union could not have suppressed you already if that was his intent?" I didn't get an answer. They went ahead and declared their independence. They squeaked through it. I won't go on and on. There were other exchanges here. But I tried to—and, Tom, you may have been in that meeting also at that time—I tried my best to encourage them to think about how you don't really need to rush on this. It was very clear to me that Gorbachev, under a lot of pressure—and the word then was that if he let the Baltic states go, there was going to be a coup against him; he would be removed. He declared a boycott, first, of Lithuania, but didn't really enforce it. Every time Secretary of State Baker came, he would meet with each of the prime ministers of the three Baltic countries separately. At one point I was seeing Mrs. Prunskiene out, the Lithuanian, and I asked her, "How are you traveling back to Vilnius?" She said, "Oh, the government plane." Gorbachev was letting them fly the government planes in and out of Moscow as if they were independent countries. Yet they couldn't believe that Gorbachev was [not] against them. It got a little wild. Then when the attack on the television tower occurred in Vilnius in January, clearly that seemed to be a preparation for what they tried later in the coup against the Soviet Union. You had this committee formed—in this case they didn't name them—and giving orders there. Clearly it was KGB-inspired. Gorbachev must have understood that, but he was afraid of being removed. I took in a a three- or four-page letter from Bush, telling him that if the violence continued in the Baltic states, we would have to terminate a number of things we were doing. I read the letter to him in Russian, handed it to him, and he asked me, "Jack, did my friend George say he has done these things or he will do them?" I said, "He said he would have to do them if these continue." He then asked me, "What is your reading of the situation here?" I gave him a little lecture. I was quite surprised. He had had this turn to the right. Pugo had been named interior minister, and this idiot Pavlov was prime minister and whatnot. I said, "I thought I knew where you were going, but I'm confused. What you are doing recently doesn't seem consistent." He listened patiently and he said, "Look, try to explain to your president that this country is on the verge of a civil war [Russian phrase], and as president I must do everything to avoid that." He was speaking very sincerely. He said, "Try to get your president to understand the position that we are in." Looking back, it is very clear that Gorbachev, and probably only Gorbachev, prevented a crackdown on the Baltic states, and he has never gotten any credit for it. PARTICIPANT: [Not at microphone] While all this is going on, the State Department is negotiating with the Russian foreign ministry on a 1,500-mile boundary in the Bering Sea, Bering Strait [inaudible], fast-track, super-fast-track. It gets the advice and consent of the Senate [inaudible]. There has to be an explanation for why that was happening so quickly right then. It wasn't just another [inaudible]. Why was this a priority [inaudible]? I have always wondered. JACK MATLOCK: At one point we counted the number of simultaneous negotiations and it came to 86. The one on the maritime boundary and the Bering Sea was an argument—there are several types of geographic lines. I don't remember the names. One would have given us a little more; the other would have given the other. This was one of the things that we had been negotiating for a long time. We were trying to clear up as much of this as possible. Of course, we did a lot at once. We tried to keep some of the most explosive ones out of the public eye. It was in 1990 when we finally got a defector from Sverdlovsk and the biological weapons program and realized that it was much larger than we thought. The British ambassador and I went in privately to Bessmertnykh and then to Chernyaev, in effect saying, "We've got this evidence. You have to terminate it. We don't want this to get public." So we had a lot of these going on. You couldn't exactly prioritize them, because they all needed settlement. In a sense, maybe it was too bad, but we did put off concluding the START treaty until after the Gulf War, for example. While the buildup to the Gulf War—the administration was really concentrating on that at the presidential level. But things like the maritime boundary, although the president would have to approve it eventually, were essentially carried out by specialists. As I said, these were ongoing negotiations. Most laymen in both countries had no idea of how many simultaneous negotiations we had going on. PARTICIPANT: [Not at microphone]—were you worried that if you waited on any of these, they might get caught up in events and not happen, so you were seizing the moment? Was that the reason for doing so much so quickly? JACK MATLOCK: Actually, this tended to happen more in Washington. Iran-Contra cost us the START agreement in 1988, for example, because we lost most of the people who were working on it. By 1988, Bush decided he didn't want to have to get a Reagan treaty through the Senate. He wanted his foreign policy to look different. If we hadn't had Iran-Contra, we would probably have had the START treaty earlier, and some other things would have fallen in place. PARTICIPANT: [Not at microphone]—when I first met you, in the time of the Cold War. We were both "Cold Warriors." I was a young Cold Warrior; you were a mature Cold Warrior. For me, Jack Matlock at the time looked like the perfect [inaudible]. I remember when you were at the National Security Council in the first Reagan Administration— JACK MATLOCK: How do you think I survived the Reagan Administration? PARTICIPANT: [Inaudible] to talk to you. There were such heated debates on the [inaudible] expressions. I learned a lot from you. I really think that it's great to learn from a wise man, as you are, Jack, a man who understands achievements and mistakes of your own country and the other country, a man who does not permit mythology and rejoicing—"Oh, we won the Cold War. Great. The Soviet Union was defeated"—a man who understands that the Soviet Union collapsed, not because of the United States, but because of us, Russians and other Soviets. It was not the prison, like the stereotype you mentioned. It's a long story. I don't want to talk much about it. But the key question is whether we learned the right lessons from the end of the Cold War. I'm afraid that most Russians, most Estonians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks,and Americans learned wrong lessons. I'm really very thankful to you, Jack, that you helped us understand how to learn the right lessons. History is not done by conspiracies. History is done by the people who are committed to change, who want to change their country. Sometimes they succeed; sometimes they fail. But your contributions in learning the right lessons are extremely precious. I'm very thankful to you, Jack. JACK MATLOCK: Thanks very much for your kind words. DAVID SPEEDIE: Jack, thank you so much.

You may also like

MAY 13, 2024 Podcast

The Continuing Exploitation of the Global Sugar Trade, with Megha Rajagopalan

In collaboration with Marymount Manhattan College's Social Justice Academy, Tatiana Serafin & "New York Times" reporter Megha Rajagopalan discuss human rights & the global sugar trade.

MAR 27, 2024 Article

The Specter of EMP Weapons in Space

Visiting Fellow Zhanna Malekos Smith details the danger of electromagnetic pulse weapons. How can nations protect themselves from this catastrophic threat?

Uruguay signs the Artemis Accords, February 15, 2024, Washington, DC. CREDIT: NASA HQ Photo.

MAR 6, 2024 Article

Empowering the Artemis Accords Coalition for Peace and Stability

As missions ramp up, Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that the U.S. should lead an effort with the Artemis Accords for space sustainability and security.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation