For Mikhail Gorbachev, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was a teaching moment. Coming one year after he became the Soviet Union’s top leader, the disaster was used by Gorbachev to force through his “glasnost” or “openness” policy: freedoms of the press, reports on the Gulag, campaigns against corruption and multi-party elections.
In contrast, Vladimir Putin uses the threat of a meltdown at Europe’s largest nuclear power plant as a blackmail moment. With his military offensive stalled and reports of helicopter gun battles around Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear complex, Russia’s leader telegraphs to the West to give him what he wants or else an “accident” could radiate Europe.
Twisting European arms further, Putin has halted through Saturday all gas flows to Germany through its main Baltic pipeline, Nord Stream 1.
In contrast, Gorbachev sought to build a reputation as a reliable gas supplier to Europe’s largest economy, a key to building business-like ties with the West.
Gorbachev presided over an arms agreement with the US that eliminated for the first time an entire class of nuclear weapons and began the withdrawal of most Soviet tactical nuclear weapons from Eastern Europe.
In contrast, Putin has ratcheted up tensions with the West to levels not seen since the pre-Gorbachev Cold War years. Kremlin-controlled media shows talk about using nuclear weapons — against Ukraine and against the US
Gorbachev, who died Tuesday in Moscow at the age of 91, will be remembered for his reluctance to use military force. Aside from a few skirmishes, he let the Soviet empire collapse with barely a shot fired. His legacy is that he freed 100 million Central Europeans from communist rule.
In contrast, Putin has installed an absolute dictatorship at home and has embarked on a war of choice with Russia’s western neighbor Ukraine.
As a child, Gorbachev listened to Ukrainian lullabies sung by his Ukrainian mother. Before Putin’s attack on Ukraine, Gorbachev told a reporter that war between Russia and Ukraine would be “absurd.”
When I lived in Moscow, from 2006 to 2014, many Russians reviled Gorbachev as the man who gave away their empire for nothing. When Gorbachev came to power, Russian rule was at a historic high water mark, stretching from Berlin to the Bering Strait. Today’s Russia is a rump state with a population of 144 million, half the 289 million of the Soviet Union in 1991.
This week, Deutsche Welle headlined that Gorbachev was “Germany’s most beloved Russian.” Similarly, on the two times I met Gorbachev in Moscow, I tagged along with a visiting group of American fans of “Gorby,” as he was known. A nice contribution to The Gorbachev Foundation opened the doors for meetings.
Americans and Germans never had to deal with the Soviet Union’s economic collapse, an established order that crashed down like a rickety tenement building leaving millions in penury. Denied a state funeral today, Gorbachev might have a different image inside Russia if he had accomplished the impossible: shifting from 70 years of communism to a free-market economy.
In 1991, Boris Yeltsin said of his predecessor Gorbachev, “He thought to unite the impossible: Communism with the market, public property with private property, political pluralism with the Communist Party. These are incompatible couples, but he insisted on them, and therein lay his fundamental strategic mistake.”
After the shambolic 1990s, Putin took office and rode high oil and gas prices to provide stability and relative economic affluence for many Russians.
Back to the 1980s
Now, Putin is playing the imperial card to justify a total crackdown, shrinking freedoms to the Lilliputian levels of Yuri Andropov, the former KGB chief who ruled the Soviet Union from 1982 to 1984.
One freedom bellwether is the Voice of America bureau in Moscow. The bureau opened in 1989 as part of Gorbachev’s opening to the West. I ran it from 2010 to 2014. Two years later, Putin’s Foreign Ministry refused to renew my successor’s work visa, and the VOA bureau quietly closed. Inside Russia today, “the enemy voices” — the Russian language services of BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe and VOA — are only accessible by using virtual private networks, which provide proxy servers to disguise physical locations or IP addresses.
Today’s ruthless censorship helps hide the cost of Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry estimates that 47,550 Russian soldiers have been killed in six months of combat. Official US estimates range up to 100,000 Russians killed or wounded. By contrast, 14,453 Soviet soldiers were killed during the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. And remember, the USSR had twice the population of Russia today.
It was Gorbachev who threw in the towel on Afghanistan, pulling out the last Soviet troops in February 1989. In “Gorbachev: His Life and Times,” William Taubman, an emeritus political scientist at Amherst College, writes, it was “the first time the Soviet Union had pulled back from territories it had ‘liberated’ for Communism.”
More was to come. After the 15 Soviet republics of the USSR starting falling like dominoes to independence movements, Ukrainians voted 92 percent for independence in a Dec. 1, 1991, referendum. By the end of the month, Gorbachev had resigned and the Soviet Union was over.
Fifteen years later, Putin later called this collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Since then, he has plotted and maneuvered to put the Russian empire back together again. On February, I launched a frontal attack on Ukraine.
Seeking to have a war without having a war, Putin walks a tightrope. He has not declared a national mobilization, a move that would spark popular protest. He fights the war with ethnic minorities from geographically distant areas. In the politically key cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the war sparked the emigration of 500,000 of Russia’s most westernized citizens.
But nostalgia for lost empire runs deep in Russia’s psyche. A few years ago, at a televised meeting of the Russian Geographic Society, Putin joked to geography students: “The borders of Russia do not end.”
Dating back to the Mongol invasions of the 1200s, Russia’s size has expanded and contracted like an amoeba, largely due to the weakness — or strength — of its neighbors.
Europe’s other major imperial nations — Britain, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain had overseas empires. These nations have gotten over the trauma of losing faraway colonies. But Russia’s land empire that endured. Alexander Dugin, a political theorist sometimes called “Putin’s Rasputin,” has argued that Moscow should be the center of a Eurasian empire stretching from Vladivostok to Dublin. Two weeks ago, Dugin was the target of a car bomb in Moscow that killed his daughter, Darya.
Now Putin seems to be in a cul-de-sac. He is embroiled in a war that seems unwinnable. Next month, he turns 70. He could stay in power for another decade, but there is no transition plan in sight. If the center once again loses hold, Moscow could see another round of territorial losses. Russia is a federation of 85 entities, many of them ethnic republics. More than a century ago, Vladimir Lenin called Czarist Russia “a prison of peoples.”