Paul H


John F.




INT: That's a great piece of description and analysis. Can you tell me - January '91: Bloody Sunday in Lithuania - what was the reaction of the Administration?

CR: Bloody Sunday, January 1991 - in fact all of January 1991 - was truly difficult inside the Administration. You have to remember that we were getting ready to fight the Gulf War; American forces had been building up in Saudi Arabia since the summer, since the invasion in August. The date for the actual beginning of the war if Saddam Hussein did not evacuate Kuwait, was known to be some time in January. And just in the middle of that crisis, with everything already coming apart in the Soviet Union, Shevardnadze resigning in December of 1990, and so forth, the Soviets began, on January 8th, 1991, landing troops in the Baltic states. The ostensible reason was to enforce the draft, but I think many of us believed that they had finally decided that the Baltics were a cancer that had to be cut out, and that they were now going to crack down in the Baltic states. The really hard thing for the United States was, we needed the Soviets in the coalition against Saddam Hussein. After all, it had been Soviet accession to the first resolution in the UN - Shevardnadze and Baker had actually negotiated that statement - that allowed the United States to put together the coalition. So just imagine sitting in the White House and worrying, on the one hand, about the coming crackdown in the Baltic states, and on the other hand trying to keep the Soviets in the coalition. The Soviets were also doing all kinds of secret diplomacy in Baghdad; we didn't really know what was going on. This was a very hard time to manage. But it's important to understand the Baltic crisis, not as an isolated crisis, but as a twin crisis for the United States, because it's the entire picture of the Gulf War and the Baltic states that made it such a hard policy problem.

INT: That's very interesting. But I've read that you considered... did you consider breaking off friendly relations? There was a summit planned for February that was cancelled.

CR: There was a summit that was planned for February that was cancelled. We considered what to do about the Soviet Union. Indeed, President Bush issued very strong statements about what the Soviets were doing in the Baltics, calling it one day a "provocation", what they had done in the Baltics, which in diplomatic speak is pretty strong language. And so, yes, there were considerations about what we could do. But the February summit was really cancelled by mutual agreement. I think that the Soviets didn't really want to come to the summit, given what was happening to them at home. I think the United States definitely didn't want a summit, given what was happening in the Baltic states. And everybody was pretty busy anyway with the Gulf War, so it was probably in everybody's interests that there not be a summit. And we did it in a way that didn't appear to be a slap at the Soviet Union. There was a meeting in the Oval Office, in which the Soviets and the Americans agreed, and then the statement was made jointly that the summit would be postponed, not cancelled.

INT: OK. You talked about the Gulf War. Just very briefly, in terms of the end of the Cold War, if you like, and this whole period, what was the significance of the Gulf War?

CR: I'm always struck that the Gulf War came right on the heels of the end of the Cold War. Indeed, it's a very interesting point that in September of 1990, we of course signed the articles of German unification, on September 12th, 1990. We met with Gorbachev two weeks before that, and the issue of German unification barely came up. It meant that the Cold War was now really over, and the Gulf War was the first post-Cold War crisis. And it demonstrated a couple of things: it demonstrated that the Soviet Union would not any longer, I think, be an anathema for everything that the United States wanted to do; it demonstrated that the UN, freed of its bipolar cloak, in which everything that the United States wanted to do, the Soviet Union vetoed, and vice versa, that that was no longer the fate of the UN. And perhaps most importantly, it demonstrated that it was American power that would be the dominant force in international politics. The Soviet Union was basically no factor in that war, and that to me said very, very much about how the end of the Cold War was going to be.

INT: That's a wonderful answer. Can I just come to the August coup, the coup in '91. It was prompted by the signing of the Union Treaty. Was there support in America for this new Union Treaty?

CR: The coup that takes place in 1991, I think really begins in March of 1991. Gorbachev really believed that if he could get an all-Union treaty, he would have a new basis for a loosened confederation of the Soviet Union, again going back a little bit to his utopianism and his sense that he could do the most difficult things, so he could hold the Soviet Union together in this treaty. Boris Yeltsin, of course, had no interest in an all-Union treaty; he had an interest, by this time, in seeing Russia an independent state. Ukraine had an interest in being an independent state. And all of Gorbachev's efforts to negotiate this treaty, simply exposed, I think, the weakness of his position. By the time that the coup took place, the coup was really just the last death throes of the Soviet Union: the old trying one last time to fight back. But the demise of the Soviet Unicomes well before the coup, and very well before December 1991, when it formally dies as a state.

INT: Just on a more personal level, how did you hear about the coup? Did you believe the TASS announcement that Gorbachev was ill?

CR: I heard about the coup because I had returned to California and I was staying at my father's house for a couple of days, and he said, "There's something about Gorbachev being thrown out of power in Moscow." And I have to say it didn't surprise me, because I had been waiting for Gorbachev to be thrown out of power since... for almost a year at that point. But I never believed the TASS announcement that Gorbachev was ill; I assumed he was under house arrest some place. The real give-away was that the statement that the coup plotters put out sounded like someththat could have been written in 1960: it had none of the ease, the legitimacy, the authority, the authenticity of the statements that we had begun to expect out of the Soviet Union, and it was very clear that something was up.

INT: What's your assessment, if you like, of the hard-liners and the emergency committee? And what was your reaction, when at this emergency press conference, Yanayev's hands are shaking? Did you see that? What was your reaction?

CR: The coup plotters... the emergency committee was an almost pathetic, in some ways, last-ditch effort to save something that was long since dead. The interesting question, I think, for us as students of the Soviet Union, and indeed policy-makers, is: what if they'd gotten their act together a little bit earlier? By August, the army had very strong reformist elements in it that were now loyal to Yeltsin. The KGB had very strong reformist elements that were now loyal to Yeltsin. If they had launched this coup in January or February or March, I really believe it might have succeeded. Indeed, again we were lucky that they waited too long. There comes a time in international politics when action is no longer relevant, and by the time they took action in August, it was no longer relevant. Now it's true that it helped that they were bungling the whole thing, that reportedly some of them were drunk, and they got to Yeltsin's house an hour after he had already left, and so on and so on. But I think the bigger, more fundamental thing is that the instruments of power which Gorbachev had really been weakening since his rise to power, were now so weak and so divided that they were no longer a threat to a peaceful emergence of democracy in Russia.

INT: And the press conference, when Yanayev's hands were shaking - was it a sign that it was really not going to work?

CR: The press conference with Yanayev and the shaking hands - and also there's the faces on this group - really convinced me that they didn't know what they were doing, that they probably didn't have very widespread support, that it wasn't very well planned. I also noticed very early on that you were not hearing support from many elements of the army, and I really believed at that point that it was probably likely that it was going to fail.

INT: But did you think there might be a violent confrontation?

CR: The really important thing that we avoided at the time of the coup was a violent confrontation - if you will, the beginnings of civil war in the Soviet Union. It's still not clear to me why elements of the army that were loyal to the coup plotters, didn't shoot, didn't take up arms in a more violent way than they did. But it probably speaks to the absence of leadership on that side of the army, the inability to really know where they stood with most elements of the army; and I think also some just very serious bungling on the part of the coup plotters.

INT: And the role of Yeltsin, of course, is enormously important, and President Bush has to call Yeltsin and he can't get through to Gorbachev. Why is Yeltsin so important, if you like, and why did Bush call him?

CR: Boris Yeltsin was important at this time because he was the only legitimate figure in Russia who could put a political face on the ending of the coup. Gorbachev was off under house arrest; he wasn't reachable. It's not clear that even if he had been reachable, that he any longer had legitimacy and authority in the country, and it was time for Boris Yeltsin to step up and to show that there was a foundation. Think about the situation in which there was just chaos around the coup instead, in which the army was splitting, the KGB was splitting, that there was no political authority to whom to direct loyalty. What Yeltsin did was to be the political authority to whom the loyalty could be directed. After that, it was rather sad actually to see Gorbachev come back, almost seemingly unaware of what had happened, still trying to play this game in which he was going to transform Russia without blood. By the time of the end of the coup, Boris Yeltsin was the political authority in Russia, and it was only a matter of time until Gorbachev had to step aside.

INT: Did you see on television the sort of dressing-down that Yeltsin gave Gorbachev in parliament the next day, and how did you feel...?

CR: I found the footage of Yeltsin treating Gorbachev like a child, really, telling him "Sign this," to be deeply disturbing, because it said something about Russia and the way that Russia has always done these political transitions, that you cannot have a political transition in which one goes out of office and another comes into office... Yeltsin had the upper hand - it was clear. I felt that at that moment he could have been more generous, that he could have recognized what Gorbachev had done to put him in that position, to recognize that without Gorbachev there might have been no moment at which the Soviet Union was about to collapse. It's all too easy in retrospect to dismiss everything that Gorbachev did as utopian and silly, or he didn't move at the right time, or Boris Yeltsin had the true way; but I see it quite differently. Gorbachev is a historical figure of enormous importance; he's a man who didn't like bloodshed, who generally wouldn't engage in it, and who, when the time came in December of 1991, sat on television, on Christmas night and said, "Seventy years - never mind. Let the hammer and sickle come down from above the Kremlin for the last time, and the tricolor go up," and it happened peacefully. It is true that Gorbachev asked whether the army would support the Soviet Union at that time, and he was told by Shaposhnikov, "No," but he didn't test that proposition, he didn't try to call up loyal troops and launch Russia into civil war. Instead, he let the Soviet Union go quietly into the night. And we have no historical experiences with a great power dying in its bed. Given that this was one, armed with 30,000 nuclear weapons, we owe a great deal to Gorbachev for not testing the proposition that Soviet power could have been brought to bear to save the Soviet Union.

INT: That's wonderful. After the coup, Gorbachev resigned as General Secretary, and the Communist Party dissolved itself. Was that a hugely significant moment, or just simply because it had breathed its last breath, really?

CR: I think of the ending to the coup, the months between August and December, as a kind of coda, if you will. The real music is over and it's just an ending. When Gorbachev came back, it was already over. The Union Treaty was not going to last. Ukraine was ready, Russia was ready, and Gorbachev I think came back hoping to reestablish, but it couldn't happen. So the period in which the Communist Party is disenfranchised, in which they resign and so forth, I see as just cleaning up after the real event.

INT: And the reaction to Yeltsin's rather surprise creation of the CIS, was that a shock? I mean, it wasn't the way events were expected to proceed, if you like.

CR: I think Yeltsin's creation of the CIS was actually a brilliant political stroke, because while one can question whether or not it was needed inside the Soviet Union, I think it's quite plausible that Ukraine and Belarus and others could have gone their own ways, 15independent countries at that point; they were being recognized one by one by the external community. But what the CIS did was to give some confidence to the outside world that this was going to happen in a way that was peaceful and stable, and that the transition was going to be managed. If you think back to that time, everybody was very worried about a nuclear power splitting up suddenly. What was going to become of Ukrainian nuclear weapons? What was this going to mean for economic transactions inside the former Soviet Union? And the CIS, I think, was really a vehicle for co-ordination of a lot of these policies, and probably more important to the outside world than to the internal dynamics of the Soviet Union. Particularly I think that's true because Ukraine had a very different idea of what the CIS was going to be; Russia had a kind of maximalist view of the CIS, the SovietUnion redux; and Ukraine had a view of the CIS as something looser than the British Commonwealth. But you could cover that up at this particular moment and just make the CIS evidence to the outside world that this transition was not going to be messy.

INT: That's very interesting. Two things I wanted to ask you. First of all, it seems that Gorbachev, when he resigned, which you've talked about, resigned with dignity. Did you feel sort of respect for him at that moment, on that Christmas Day '91?

CR: On Christmas Day 1991, I felt tremendous respect and admiration, and gratitude for Gorbachev, when he sat on television and resigned and put behind the entire world 70 years of the most miserable state, the Soviet Union, and allowed Russia to emerge, and allowed the hammer and sickle to come down, the tricolor to go up. He did it without asking anyone to fire a shot. And, yes, I think he did ask the ... Shaposhnikov would the army support the Soviet Union. Shaposhnikov said no, and Gorbachev accepted that verdict. It is very rare to find someone who at that moment wouldn't try to fight back, particularly because there was so much power still at the disposal of the Soviet Union, and we don't have very good ways in international politics of understanding the role of individuals. There is so much; there's power, there are institutions, there are interests, there are states. We have very little way to talk about individuals. But I'm not sure that many individuals would have done what he did on December 25th, 1991, and I think the world owes him tremendous gratitude for that.