At celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mikhail Gorbachev pointed out the key factors that have nearly led to the start of a new Cold War. He also outlined important proposals that could lead to a de-escalation of tensions within Europe.


Mikhail Gorbachev at World Forum on Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford, Britain on Jun 27, 2010. Photo: Features / Fotodom

This week, the world marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The historic event signaled the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, and more broadly, the reunification of the European continent.           

25 years later, Europe is more divided than ever. The EU is under incredible economic stress. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the rivalry between Russia and the West over the post-Soviet space, and the anti-Russian sanctions have only heightened these difficulties. The Ukraine crisis also left Europe divided politically and has renewed the rather alarming and dangerous prospect of a new arms race on the continent, possibly involving nuclear weapons.           

So, how did we get here and how do we return to that exhilarating and historic moment of 1989?

The best person to answer the first part of that question might be the very architect of the fall of the wall himself, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Yes, despite the certainty among many Americans that the U.S. unilaterally ended the Cold War and single-handedly "defeated Communism," the real hero behind German reunification was Gorbachev. This fact is acknowledged by many Germans today who still affectionately refer to the former Soviet President by the name "Gorby."

As to Gorbachev's response to the question of "how we got here," his answer can be found in his speech delivered during the Berlin Wall celebrations on Nov. 8. The speech was an overt indictment of the foreign policies pursued by the United States toward Russia and the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.           

Gorbachev told his audience that, "I would characterize what has been happening over the past few months as the collapse of trust – the trust that was created by hard work and mutual effort in the process of ending the Cold War. Trust – without which international relations in the global world are inconceivable."

"Yet," he added, "it would be wrong to link it only to the recent events. I have to be frank with you here: This trust was not undermined yesterday; it happened long before."

The former Soviet President traced the origins of the conflict back to the 1990s.  By the end of 1991, he was ousted from political office. Contrary to some observers who claim that Gorbachev sought to simply "emulate the West" with his reforms of glasnost and perestroika, in reality Gorbachev favored a gradual path toward reform that included Russian historical and national traditions.  Many forget that it was Gorbachev who tried to preserve the Soviet Union as a united state.

By contrast, his political rival, Boris Yeltsin, saw more benefit in rapid and radical reform, emulating Western policies. It was Yeltsin who went behind Gorbachev's back, and together with Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk and Belarus' Stanislav Shushkevich, pursued a "soft coup" and de facto dissolved the USSR at Belevezha. The beleaguered reformer, Gorbachev, was left humiliated and powerless.           

After the Soviet breakup, Gorbachev noted that, "Instead of building new mechanisms and institutions of European security and pursuing a major demilitarization of European politics – as promised, incidentally, in NATO's London Declaration – the West, and particularly the United States, declared victory in the Cold War."

He maintained that "euphoria and triumphalism went to the heads of Western leaders. Taking advantage of Russia's weakening and the lack of a counterweight, they claimed monopoly leadership and domination in the world, refusing to heed words of caution from many of those present here."

Consequently, he added, "The events of the past few months are consequences of short-sighted policies, of seeking to impose one's will and faits accomplis while ignoring the interests of one's partners. A 'shortlist' will suffice: the enlargement of NATO, Yugoslavia, particularly Kosovo, missile defense plans, Iraq, Libya, Syria."

Referring to violence and atrocities against civilians in Eastern Ukraine, Gorbachev noted the inaction of the UN Security Council.

"What has it done to stop the fire and the killing of people? It should have acted with determination to evaluate the situation and develop a program of joint action.  But this was not done, and it's not being done.  Why?"

He referred to the events in Ukraine as a "blister" that has "now turned into a bloody, festering wound" and said that the Europeans are the ones who are suffering most from it.

"Instead of becoming a leader of change in a global world," he maintained, "Europe has turned into an arena of political upheaval, of competition for spheres of influence and, finally, of military conflict. The consequence, inevitably, is Europe's weakening at a time when other centers of power and influence are gaining momentum. If this continues, Europe will lose a strong voice in world affairs and gradually become irrelevant."

Gorbachev also offered a solution to the problem.

He reminded his audience that "without Russian-German partnership there can be no security in Europe" and urged the continuation of crucially needed dialogue to end the crisis. To this end, he called on Western policymakers to seriously analyze and consider Vladimir Putin's Valdai speech. He further acknowledged that achieving successful dialogue and a renewal of relations will be challenging goals, but that he was an optimist by nature, even though he said, "It's very difficult to be optimistic in the current situation."

Gorbachev remarked on the ineptitude of the OSCE in the resolution of the crisis. On a positive note, he suggested the idea of forging a common European Security Council, which as he recognized, was proposed by Western policymakers like Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Brent Scowcroft – and additionally favored by both he and Russia's Dmitri Medvedev. 

Unfortunately, he told his audience, such ideas have been "filed away in archives" and that the blame for this was not only on Europe's politicians, but also on its civil society institutions and the media as well. He concluded by emphasizing that the only solution to the crisis was to "think, propose and act together."

For Russia watchers and future historians, Gorbachev's speech will stand alongside Vladimir Putin's Crimea and Valdai speeches as being one of the most important addresses on Russia-West relations delivered in 2014. It is encouraging to see that the 83-year-old statesman has retained his charm and sense of humor, even after witnessing so much tragedy: the breakup of his country, the death of his beloved wife, the gradual breakdown of his legacy of peace, and a civil war in a country which he could justifiably claim as his second homeland.

His words are of great importance. If Western policymakers are serious about finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, they will read his speech closely and heed his advice.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.