Stab in the Back – Not One Inch but Right to the Heart

Yves here. John Helmer has assigned himself the task of debunking examining new English language books by Serious People, or journalists and “historians” adjacent to them, about Russia. As should come as no surprise by now, the sources are almost entirely Western, sometimes with a smattering of Western-aligned Russians. This book, which ostensively focuses on the US betrayal of its “not one inch” further east for NATO promise to Gorbachev, is based heavily on archival notes from James Baker, the then US secretary of state and apparently no Russian records. Even with this skewed sourcing, Helmer describes how author Mary Sarotte could have inferred but missed. Specifically, Russian military and political leaders understood and objected to the “not one inch further east” promise because that amounted to an agreement for NATO, and US nukes, to be stationed in Western Germany. In other words, Gorbachev not was played but he and Yeltsin betrayed Russia.

As Helmer says late in his post:

By the time in August 1991, when Kryuchkov and Akhromeyev had the opportunity to remove Gorbachev for his betrayal, Yeltsin delivered on the first part of his assignment by rallying support for Gorbachev in Moscow; four months later he delivered the second part – the coup the US backed, not the one Kohl had been afraid of. Not US nor German skills, but the betrayals of Gorbachev and Yeltsin delivered the outcome they were hoping for.

This is how the President of Russia, the Defence and Foreign Ministers, the General Staff, the intelligence agencies – the Stavka – understand the history and judge US assurances to be worth today. Not to understand these things is not to understand why we are at war.

That should help make clearer the Western high praise for Gorbachev at his death versus Russians barely being willing to say anything nice about him.

By John Helmer who has been the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to have directed his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

Not  One Inch” is the title of a new book by American historian Mary Sarotte after the notorious promise which US Secretary of State James Baker (lead image, 2nd from right) gave Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev (left) in 1990, and which now has come to its final test on the battlefields of World War III against Russia.

The work was recently awarded the Pushkin House prize for best book of the year, which is not less promising than Baker was. This is because Pushkin House is a London propaganda agency on the side against Russia.  The publisher of the book is Yale University which has been printing a stream of Russia warfighting tracts for years.

Sarotte acknowledges the principal sources for her version of the story are Baker himself – “[he] generously allowed me to access the collection of his papers that he had donated to Princeton University, including documents from crucial meetings in Moscow in 1990” – together with the Bush and Clinton presidential libraries. Out of what Sarotte counts as “more than a hundred participants in events”, the only Russian source she reports consulting in Moscow was the Gorbachev Fund archive and four Russians she says she spoke to:  they are Yeltsin-government officials in retirement like ex-foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev living in the  US where he “has asked [to] keep his exact location off the record.”

The money to pay Sarotte  she says she received from the Henry Kravis fund created from his tax-deductible KKR investment dividends;  the German Foreign Ministry through the German Marshall Fund;  the US State Department; the US Agency for International Development; and the US Embassy in Moscow.

Following this money trail to Sarotte’s conclusion one inch from the end of her book, she reports having discovered that for the future of Europe, “European security remains centered on Washington. US withdrawal would create a massive security vacuum in Europe… The Atlantic Alliance, as an expression of deep American engagement in Europe, remains the best institution to take on this mission.” To respond to what she calls President Vladimir Putin’s “violent aggression” against Georgia and the Ukraine, she recommends “putting out the fire and keeping the structure stable.”

With NATO war-fighting talk like this, why read on?

Because Sarotte provides fresh proof of the stab in the back for the Kremlin and the Soviet Union in 1990, and consequently for the Russians fighting today; and because Sarotte has revealed whose hand wielded the dagger – Gorbachev’s.

From her uncovering of official German and US records, Sarotte credits Chancellor Helmut Kohl (3rd from right) and his staff, along with Baker and the White House staff of President George Bush (extreme right) with outsmarting the Russians. In fact, her records show the Russians knew what the NATO game was, anticipated their every move, were prepared in advance, played them off against each other, the Germans against the Americans, who – they admitted to themselves – had no comparable idea of what the Russians were thinking.

They didn’t need to. Gorbachev saw to that. As quoted and retold, the records also reveal it was Gorbachev who refused and rejected every position the Politburo, the KGB, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev,  the Foreign Ministry and the Central Committee’s experts on Germany had advised, recommended, decided.

The stab in the back came from Gorbachev:  the Russians knew it then, they knew later; they know it now. But Sarotte doesn’t understand the Russian meaning of what she’s written, or the implications for the way the Stavka  is directing the war today.

Left: President Gorbachev meeting Secretary of State Baker at the Kremlin in Moscow, February 9, 1990.  The Russian behind Gorbachev was his interpreter, Pavel Palazhchenko.  Right: the cover of Sarotte’s bookwith the subtitle indicating “stalemate”.

Out of the Berlin and Washington records and interviews Sarotte has conducted, she judges Kohl, his national security adviser Horst Teltschik, Bush, his national security adviser General Brent Scowcroft, and Baker, to have been the masters of their Russian counterparts. Arithmetically it appears to be so in the book – Scowcroft is mentioned 185 times; Teltschik 97 times. Their Russian counterparts, Marshal Akhromeyev, Gorbachev’s military advisor, 5 times; Valentin Falin, head of the Central Committee’s International Department and principal negotiator on Germany, 90 times.

Falin lived in Hamburg between 1992 and 2000 and died in Moscow in 2018,  but he was ignored during Sarotte’s research interviewing, just as Gorbachev had ignored him during the negotiations over Germany in 1989-91. Sarotte quotes from Falin’s 1997 memoir in German: “On February 10 the unification of Germany was announced as, de facto, an already completed task without any conditions, without clearing up the connection to the foreign aspects.”

“This carelessness” — Sarotte quotes Falin, interpreting him as  speaking literally of Gorbachev, not euphemistically — “will take its revenge on us.” Sarotte missed the subtlety; as a source Sarotte dismisses Falin as “combative”, “disgruntled”, “sarcastic”, and “bitter”. What she claims to know about him came, she has footnoted, from the archive of former Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Sarotte provides enough of a record, however, to reveal that in addition to Falin, Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, Akhromeyev, even Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze were very clear in their understanding of what the Germans and Americans were planning, and what Gorbachev should do in response. They told Gorbachev many times over in case he was hard of hearing. He wasn’t. Sarotte relies on Scowcroft to have realised their opposition to Gorbachev’s line at the negotiations as “an insurrection in real time” and “the most remarkable I have ever seen.”

Compared to Scowcroft, Sarotte is uncomprehending.  Towards Akhromeyev she is discreditably stupid.  “He increasingly began to oppose Gorbachev, offering his support to the leaders of the coup attempt that would take place a little over a year later. When it failed, he took his own life.” Sarotte calls this Akhromeyev’s “downward slide”, adding contemptuously of his suicide note that it  “was addressed to no one”.

“No one” – that’s Sarotte’s guess: no source, no footnote, no comprehension of the note’s Russian language, no interest in the sequence of events preceding when Akhromeyev had participated in the plan to put a stop to Gorbachev’s scheming; no conception that Akhromeyev was addressing his successors on the Stavka today.

The point Sarotte misses completely —  the Russian point —  is how Gorbachev’s betrayal escaped his colleagues when they realised it full well; and why they decided not to eliminate him at the Foros dacha  in Crimea when they could have done in August 1991, and when Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa Gorbacheva, expected them to do.

Quite another point:  the mentality which Sarotte lets slip towards Akhromeyev explains why this war is being fought now by the Russians the way it is, and the way it will be – and also why Sarotte’s side remain as uncomprehending in real time forward as she is towards the past.

How did Gorbachev agree to the US terms over the unanimous advice of his advisers and ministers? Why did he accept the “not one inch” undertaking from the US when no other Russian official did? And why did he agree to withdrawing the Soviet military forces from Germany without reciprocal US troop and nuclear arms withdrawals, thereby preventing the Soviets from having the counterforce to ensure Baker’s promise was kept?

In Sarotte’s retelling of the story, the secret assessment of the German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, dated January 12, 1990 – one month before the fateful Baker promise to Gorbachev – was that “Moscow was undecided as to what to do next”. According to Sarotte, it was also the American view that “Gorbachev himself apparently did not yet know what he wanted and both Washington and Bonn noticed this indecisiveness.”

The alternative Russian reading is that the Americans and Germans were in the dark. She quotes White House intelligence assessments that the Soviet leadership was losing its will, desperate for cash and food loans from the west, and panicking. They had begun to view Gorbachev as susceptible to entrapment, their target to exploit. So that’s what the Americans did – and Gorbachev did as the knowing men on both sides anticipated.

At the end of January 1990, Falin had articulated the consensus position of the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the General Staff,  the KGB, the Politburo,  and the Central Committee that the reunification of Germany would be acceptable on condition the new state was neutral between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the west and the east. That meant the simultaneous withdrawal of both the Soviet and US and British armies from German territory. It meant exclusion of Germany from NATO.

Gorbachev responded by punishing the messenger – he excluded Falin from his meetings with the Americans and the personal circle of his advisers — while concealing from them that he had decided to ignore the message. On January 27, Gorbachev was two weeks away from telling Baker, then Kohl, then Genscher that he would accept their word and allow reunification without conditions. He told Kryuchkov, according to Sarotte’s record, that “the presence of our troops will not allow that”; Gorbachev was implying Soviet forces would remain in the reunified state as a guarantee of neutrality. “No one should count on the united Germany joining NATO”.

The indecisiveness on the Russian side at that point was how far to trust what Gorbachev was telling his chiefs, ministers and staff.  Sarotte relies on the diary record of Anatoly Chernyaev, officially Gorbachev’s foreign policy advisor at the time. He was one of the few Gorbachev trusties then and later. Chernyaev’s diaries he donated himself to George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Unlike the combative Falin,” Sarotte has written, “Chernyaev was resigned to German reunification”. What she means is what she, the Americans and Germans believed they could get out of Gorbachev – reunification inside NATO, Soviet troops to withdraw,  US troops to stay.

This was Gorbachev’s stab in the back; Chernyaev was his loyal accomplice.

On February 7, 1990, as Baker was arriving in Moscow, Scowcroft’s deputy on the National Security Council, Robert Blackwill wrote a note to Scowcroft that it was “the Beginning of the Big Game [his capitalization]…there is a good chance that Gorbachev will give Kohl his bottom line on German unification.” How to stop Kohl and the Germans from agreeing if Gorbachev stuck to the neutrality-troop withdrawal conditions —  Blackwill told Scowcroft. The answer was first to make clear and certain to the Germans that the US would not tolerate such a deal because it “would forfeit the prime assets that have made the United States a postwar European power.”

The second point was in Baker’s guidance which he took into the Kremlin talks with Gorbachev — this was that the Germans could be compelled, so Gorbachev had to be suckered. The record reported by Sarotte shows that Baker tried the tactic on Shevardnadze beforehand, proposing on February 7 with calculated hypothetical in a subjunctive tense whether there “might be an outcome that would guarantee that there would no NATO forces in the eastern part of Germany. In fact, there would be an absolute ban on that.”

Of course, Baker understood, as Shevardnadze could not have missed, that this left US forces with nuclear weapons in western Germany. Sarotte quotes from Baker’s “generously” provided handwritten notes: “End result: Unified Ger. Anchored in a * changed (polit) NATO– * whose juris. would not move * eastward!” The stars and exclamation point were Baker’s marks of his confidence in his ploy.

The fateful meeting between Baker and Gorbachev followed two days later on February 9. Sarotte reports no record of what transpired on the day in between, Thursday February 8.

Instead, she reports what Baker told Bush in a memorandum dated that day, summarizing what had been said in the meeting with Shevardnadze the day before. She also reports what White House officials led by Scowcroft agreed with Bush, in order to make sure Kohl stuck to the US line on keeping Germany inside NATO with US troops and nuclear weapons. Between Scowcroft and Bush that meant “keep[ing] the lid from blowing off in the months ahead.” Scowcroft wanted to send a man to tell Kohl before he was scheduled to arrive in Moscow after Baker departed.  Baker stopped Scowcroft’s move. He thought he had the better measure of Gorbachev; he didn’t trust Scowcroft with Kohl. As Sarotte reports her own judgement: “the two men [Baker and Scowcroft] balanced each other temperamentally, with Baker inclined to push for action and Scowcroft inclined to consider all consequences carefully.”

The truth of the matter — if Sarotte had understood Scowcroft and met him more than once —  was that as a military officer he had a much better grasp of the way the Russians were thinking than Baker. Baker was the lawyer tactician; he was more confident his hypothetical subjective ploy would trick Gorbachev, as it had Shevardnadze, than Scowcroft was confident that even if tactically tricked, Gorbachev would succeed in imposing a strategy of deception on his own people.

Not a single Russian record of February 8, 1990, has been identified in 313 pages of Sarotte’s footnotes and references.  She failed to look for Shevardnadze’s memorandum of the Baker conversation; she asked no other Russian participant; she didn’t find in the Gorbachev archive the briefing papers he was given during the intervening day. She ignored Gorbachev himself, then still loquacious with his trusted American friends Stephen Cohen and William Taubman; Sarotte ignored them too.

Gorbachev with his two American spokesmen, left with Stephen Cohen, 2011;  right, with William Taubman in 2018. For more on Taubman’s version of Gorbachev’s story, read this.

Baker opened with the hypothetical: if the Russians insisted on troop and nuclear weapons withdrawal from Germany and reunification with neutrality, the Germans might resume Adolph Hitler’s old ambition and “create [their] own nuclear potential” after NATO withdrew. “Would you prefer”, he said to Gorbachev, “to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent, and with no US forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?”

This was a patsy punch. There wasn’t a single Russian at the table who believed that Baker’s, or Bush’s, or any US assurance at all could be accepted and trusted unless the Soviet military retained its counterforce in Germany, including nuclear weapons. But Gorbachev decided otherwise. Aloud, for their hearing, he replied — reports Sarotte — “any expansion of the ‘zone of NATO’ was not acceptable. Baker responded:  ‘we agree with that’.”

Of course Baker did. Of course, Gorbachev would say at the time and repeat until his death that he had accepted the US promise of “not one inch”. But every other Russian at the table, especially Akhromeyev, realised that Gorbachev had accepted the reunified Germany would remain inside the “zone of NATO”;  and with that, Gorbachev had begun the process of withdrawing all Soviet forces to the Russian border, leaving US forces and the nuclear arms inside Germany, and allowing their proxies, including the Germans,  to move eastward.

On February 9 Akhromeyev and Kryuchkov knew that “not one inch eastward” was not the only US undertaking which was worthless. Sarotte records finding in a National Security Agency (NSA) file a memorandum of conversation by Robert Gates of his meeting with Kryuchkov during the afternoon of February 9. The KGB chief told Gates he rejected Baker’s hypothetical, dismissed reunification of Germany for some time to come, and warned that  Gorbachev was on his own, having taken “an important and even dangerous turn”. Gates recorded being “amazed” that Kryuchkov was “openly opposing Gorbachev in a meeting with a senior American official.”

Gates and his superiors up the line to Bush then decided not to meet Kryuchkov again. Gorbachev had become their man. Their strategy was to protect him for long enough to fulfil their objectives, and then get rid of him. That, they had already decided, was Boris Yeltsin’s assignment.

Sarotte reports the Americans and Germans were cock-a-hoop. “Bush and Kohl needed,” she concluded, “to persuade Gorbachev to give up his legal [sic] right to keep troops in divided Germany. While doing so, they needed to avoid undermining Gorbachev so much that it might hasten the storm that Kohl feared: a coup that would topple the Soviet leader before he blessed reunification. As Baker put it, ‘ensuring a unified Germany in NATO’ would ‘require every ounce of our skills in the months to come.’ He was more right than he knew.”

That’s another of Sarotte’s faulty ideas.  By the time in August 1991, when Kryuchkov and Akhromeyev had the opportunity to remove Gorbachev for his betrayal,  Yeltsin delivered on the first part of his assignment by rallying support for Gorbachev in Moscow; four months later he delivered the second part – the coup the US backed, not the one Kohl had been afraid of.  Not US nor German skills, but the betrayals of Gorbachev and Yeltsin delivered the outcome they were hoping for.

This is how the President of Russia, the Defence and Foreign Ministers, the General Staff, the intelligence agencies – the Stavka – understand the history and judge US assurances to be worth today. Not to understand these things is not to understand why we are at war.

Why didn’t Akhromeyev and Kryuchkov get rid of Gorbachev when they could have in 1990, or in August 1991 at Foros?  That’s another story. Not to be told here yet.

What can be said is what Akhromeyev’s last words mean. “I cannot live when my fatherland is dying and everything that has been the meaning of my life is crumbling. Age and the life that I have lived give me the right to step out of this life. I struggled until the end.” The end for the marshal came on August 24, 1991.  Almost thirty-one years later, on February 24, 2022, Putin and the Stavka decided they did not have the right to step out of this life, and that faced with the war Germany has been planning since the Third Reich, and the US since 1945, Russia would not commit suicide.

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  1. JohnA

    Re: The work was recently awarded the Pushkin House prize for best book of the year, which is not less promising than Baker was. This is because Pushkin House is a London propaganda agency on the side against Russia.

    I can confirm this statement about Pushkin House. A few years ago I did a short intensive introduction to Russian language course there. The teachers were all Russian. I was amazed how anti-Putin they were and seemed determined to indoctrinate us students in this. Who were mostly men who had married Russians or like me, keen to learn some Russian, rather than there for political reasons. I found it totally offputting and declined to take any other courses they offer. Pity. They frequently host evenings with various anti-russian figures (I am still on their emailing list).

    1. Alan Roxdale

      Can anyone please explain the whole London Russiophobia thing? I know it exists but I can’t figure out why exactly.

      1. JohnA

        Historic russophobia. Crimea War, Charge of the Light Brigade etc. Invaded Russia after WW1 to overthrow revolution, forged Zinoviev Letter, continuous efforts to foment a colour revolution throughout the Soviet period and Cold War. Numerous books and movies about evil Russians spies etc., etc.
        Ultimately there is need for an enemy to justify ‘defence’ spending.

  2. timbers

    Last paragraph is powerful. If only “Hollywood” – not today’s Hollywood but maybe the Hollywood of the 40’s – 70’s – could sink it’s teeth into such drama. Something along the lines of the delivery of 3+ hour long Doctor Zhivago. Different subject of course, but using a similar delivery might work.

  3. KLG

    I stopped reading about half way through the book because there were too many words dancing around and around the entire issue. Now I don’t have to finish. Thank you, Mr. Helmer and Yves.

  4. Lupana

    So, am I understanding correctly that Gorbachev then knew and accepted that NATO would continue to expand?
    Also, any explanation of why he would have done this if it was clearly not in Russia’s interests? Maybe I missed something in the reading…?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, the big issue is that even if you accepted the verbal promise would be honored, that NATO would not move “one inch east,” Gorbachev sold out Russia. That “one inch east” deal allowed NATO to operate in Western Germany, including parking nukes there. The better alternative would have been to insist on a neutral and NATO-free Germany. I infer the Russian staff pushed for that and Gorbachev ignored them. The play for Yeltsin was that once the USSR dissolved, Gorbachev would have no job and Yeltsin would become the biggest remaining fish as president of Russia.

      1. nothing but the truth

        but why?

        what did gorby get in return? belly rubs? or was he really that naive to trust the west more than his own people?

        it is kind of inconceivable. If he had retired to a comfortable life in London or NYC it would make sense.

        1. hunkerdown

          Capitalism is a religion with all that entails, including an eschatology. People who have designs or plans for other people are, in general, quite prepared to commit atrocities on behalf of those ideals, and to reframe them as “tough choices” or “necessary evils”.

        2. OIFVet

          I have written about this here before, ca. 2014. My godmother was a mid-ranked apparatchik in the BG ministry of foreign trade in the 1980s, considered on board with Gorbachev’s Perestroika due to running several deals to bring US companies into Bulgaria. That apparently was the reason why she was tasked to show Raisa Gorbacheva around Sofia when Gorby was visiting and the two hit it off. Raisa basically told her that Gorby was a very vain man and was thus susceptible to manipulation by anyone playing upon that vanity. She spoke out of concern for her huspand, not to dish dirt or make small talk. I think that the historical records show the West pumping up Gorby’s vanity since the summit in Rejkavik and even after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. So I think it’s only logical that Gorbachev did what he did out of vanity, for the possibility to be viewed by history as the man who ended the Cold War and brought East and West together would have been far too tempting to resist. He got played in the end and we are now closer to WW3 than we have been since the Soviets almost fired their rockets when they had faulty early warning data that the US had launched a nuclear attack. The difference between then and now is how stupid and deranged US and Western leadership is this time around.

          As for Gorby, I believe that history will judge him very harshly, assuming it is written by people other than Timothy Snyder or Mary Sarotte. Not that US administration’s since Clinton haven’t had a hand in bringing about today’s troubles, as well as spineless Eurocrats whom I particularly blame for allowing the US to scupper Minsk II. In any case, the seeds for what we are living through today were planted in 1990 and Gorbachev was the one person who could have prevented it then.

          1. Maxwell Johnston

            Thanks for sharing this small but crucial insight. I’m a big believer in the notion that the human factor (Gorby vs Yeltsin in 1991, the Kaiser vs Nikolai II and George V in 1914) is drastically underrated in history books.

            As for Gorby…..if Andropov had had healthier kidneys, today’s world might be very different. But here we are, and optimistic I ain’t.

          2. D R Mehta

            If the Soviet Union was on the verge of “bankruptcy” in early 1980s due to the disastrous excursion in Afghanistan and had bought Reagan’s Star War marketing narrative, is it likely that Gorbachev thought that the SU could collapse any minute? That the only way he could stave it off would be through American financial aid, either directly or indirectly through multilateral organization like the World Bank and the IMF.
            This is by no means inconsistent with his outsized vanity – that only he knew how to deal with Americans and pull the SU/Russia out of the quagmire.
            Apparently, Yeltsin shared the “saviour” American role, and was disillusioned later in raw second half of 1990s. when he reportedly complained that Russia didn’t receive a penny of the US aid of $31 billion.
            Given my less-the-passing acquaintance with the chronology of political events, I am not sure whether my inferences contain modicum of credibility, but if they do, they stand in contrast to the dramatic accusation by far, far more knowledgeable John Helmer.

        3. hemeantwell

          In a 2015 New Left Review essay, “Incommensurate Russia,” Perry Anderson brought this up:.

          … The task of the country was to join the West, not to linger on what could only be retrograde differences from it. That meant doing its will, eagerly if possible, stoically if necessary. Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister Kozyrev dumbfounded a visiting Nixon by telling him that Moscow had no interests that were not those of the West. With interlocutors like these, representing a gov­ ernment dependent for its continuation in power on economic and ideological support from the West, America could treat Russia with lit­tle more ceremony than if it were, after all, an occupied country.

          I was probably as dumbfounded as Nixon when I read that. The Yeltsin faction seems to have truly believed that going capitalist would, by virtue of eliminating the commie vs. capitalist basis for conflict, lead to market-based interest determination, always asymptotically approaching harmonization. This would likely have informed a sense that it was not necessary to tack down guarantees re NATO.

          I’m not sure why Helmer is so, uh, primitive with his “stab in the back” idea. As I understand it, the Yeltsin faction was intent on leveling Communist Party institutions to block any possibility of resurgence. The attack on Parliament in October 1993 reflected how much they feared this possibility. Gorbachev wanted to retain a role for the CP and its (revamped) institutions. He clearly bungled the foreign policy aspect of the transition, but his domestic priorities hardly reflected a wish to decapitate the Soviet state, leaving it helpless.

          1. Tempestteacup

            Not sure I agree with your assessment, or at least not all of it.
            Without getting into the weeds of what to call the post-purge, Stalinist USSR – deformed or degenerated workers’ state (doesn’t help that the essential terms behind these vital differences are nearly identical!) – by the 1980s, the Soviet Union was in crisis. Globalisation, abandonment of Bretton Woods, 70s oil crises, the incipient Reaganite-Thatcherite counterrevolution forced the CP’s nomeklatura to come up with their own strategy for survival. Long since detached from, even antagonistic towards, the people they governed, their primary concern was not the future of the workers’ state but how to preserve (or enhance) their own privileged positions in a changing world.

            Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seems to me that by some point in the 1980s, the prevailing mood among the CP elites was that this is over. Their plans weren’t about preserving the system of workers’ controlling the means of production or anything else – it was about getting rid of that system in a way that guaranteed their ongoing status while making sure they didn’t end up with a bullet in the back of the head. Gorbachev’s stated vision of transitioning to a modern form of market communism while integrating Soviet production into the new global system seems to me so fanciful that I basically don’t believe that even he took it seriously as anything more than window dressing for the real game going on behind the scenes: destroying the legacy of 1917, dismantling its structures and preparing the way for the exploitation of the Russian/ex-Soviet people.

            The conflict was over ways and means, not ends. Gorbachev perhaps thought the CP could continue as a going concern overseeing the transition to capitalism and managing the exploitative class relations to follow. They could exchange their expert knowledge for suitable rewards while finessing the coming catastrophe – a kind of curated privatisation where they became the subcontractors of the global system.

            What I think is that they dramatically underestimated how they were rendering themselves irrelevant by their own actions. The nomenklatura maintained their status through the institutions of the Soviet system. By dismantling that system, they liquidated themselves.

            1. Tempestteacup

              At the same time, the USSR remains, in the 80s, a nuclear superpower. And so, as Helmer describes, the US/NATO had to tread carefully for at least as long as the USSR remained a potential military threat. Speculating now, but perhaps the early Reagan years, with its new threats and brinkmanship after a post-Vietnam lull, was a kind of geopolitical shaping exercise for what came next. Amp up military pressure on the USSR to think about drawing down its military presence abroad, suavely shifting from belicosity to summit-level gladhanding if/when they showed willingness to reduce the nuclear missile threat. So, when the economic ‘reforms’ tipped the system into total disintegration, they had already begun reducing whatever leverage may have subsided in their military potentialities. Knowing, of course, that once the photo-ops were done and the obstacles to pillaging the collapsing system removed, its leaders could be unceremoniously discarded.

              In this context, even the hardliners who led the coup weren’t Marxists defending the workers’ state but a faction (rightly) worried that they’d weakened themselves to the extent that their own positions were at risk. But by then, you had the Yeltsin faction willing to smash whatever remained and privatise the rest. Abandoning, meanwhile, the entire architecture of Cold War geopolitics – Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, Ethiopia, Tanzania were all abandoned – another brutal exposure of the limits of nation-state socialism.

              Sorry for the lengthy post, but I wonder if we are not witnessing the reemergence of the same conflicts today. Western capitalism is in its own degraded state (as this site brilliantly chronicles!). It cannot coexist with competitors. It offsets its own decline with imperialist domination. And so, after seeking accommodation with the West, Putin have realised they will no longer be tolerated. He sees the existential struggle, hears Western leaders admit as much when they salivate over a balkanised Russian Federation.

              Sadly, though, Putin isn’t fighting Western imperialism so much as trying to secure the power/position of his class. It took 30+ years but they finally realised it – the West just isn’t that into them. Unfortunately, going on all the recent history, whoever wins/loses, it won’t be the workers who benefit – in East or West!

        4. Karl

          RE: “What did gorby get in return?”

          Sarotte points out (and as Helmer alludes above) that Russia was in dire straits financially. For one thing, unlike today, the USSR was far from self-sufficient in food; it needed to import huge amounts (partly from the USA), and the hard currency till was empty. As part of the re-unification deal, West Germany offered good hard Deutschmarks in the form of big loans on very generous terms. Sarotte asserts that, for Gorby, this incentive was a very big deal that was instrumental to tipping the balance. Not sure if Helmer would agree with that.

          Why didn’t Akhromeyev and Kryuchkov get rid of Gorbachev when they could have in 1990, or in August 1991 at Foros? That’s another story. Not to be told here yet.

          If Helmer is right about the deliberate Gorbachev betrayal, and that Akhromeyev and Kryuchkov knew the implications, their failure to mount a coup (did they try?) would make them accessories.

          I’ll give Helmer’s interpretation more credence when he shares that story. Given Helmer’s long essay, why couldn’t he have provided a paragraph on this? Until he shares that story, I can only withhold judgement. Sarotte’s scholarship seemed impeccable.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Sorry, exhaustive but one-sided and narrow historical research is not impeccable. Helmer considerable muddies his account (and therefore clear statement of his points of opposition with her) with his very long detour through enormous gaps in Sarotte’s investigation.

    2. GramSci

      As a casual observer, my impression has long been that there was a significant proportion of the Russian people, perhaps even a majority who had grown weary of cold war sacrifices and privations, and who desperately wanted color tvs. Vladimir Putin was even, possibly, among their number. Gorbachev had been, after all, elected.

      What they got instead, as NC readers well know, was life expectancy decreasing dramatically from 63.8 and 74.4 years to 57.7 and 71.2 years.

      It was the great achievement of Radio Free Europe: Gorbachev and his supporters forgot that Hitler was just an errand boy for Prescott Bush, Averell Harriman, Skull and Bones, Winston Churchill, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Vichy France, and the ‘free world’.

      The present war in Ukraine is just another encore tour, this time under Democratic management. Russians are the new Jews.

      1. LAS

        I find it very tricky to tease out the sequence myself and this JAMA paper has an unfortunate time aggregation for accomplishing that, 1990-1994.

        Once the Communist party collapsed, then the Soviet Union immediately collapsed after it, within like a day. That occurred December 1991, I think. So 1990 and 1991 data represent a period before collapse. This paper says to me, life expectancy may have begun to decline in Russia before the collapse of the Communist party and the Soviet Union.

        Life threatening privations began before the collapse and contributed to the collapse. Also, some East European countries were freeing themselves from Moscow before the collapse; the wall was cracking before the collapse. Root cause of the collapse may have less to do with Gorbachev and Yeltsin than the underlying conditions.

        Of course privations got even worse in the years after the collapse.

        Here is a link to a brief Nassim Nicholas Taleb essay, along the lines of be careful what you wish for:

        1. bdy

          That link is a real low for Taleb, whose COVID takes brought me around to masking early. Never expected to see that guy play the blindered warmonger.

          1. Earl Erland

            “What Ukranians want”. Good grief. The Western Press posits the best evidence of “Ukranian”
            desire is its ability to make war.
            In April, Talib placed a bet that looks to be as wilfully blind as his description-his one sentence high five on Smith. Also, what’s with his take on the Christian split (if I’m reading his comment on Cephalii correctly)?

  5. Lupana

    Thanks! Interesting then that someone so seemingly completely corrupt as Yeltsin would have been succeeded by someone so seemingly non corrupt as Putin.

  6. David

    OK, anyone who’s ever written history knows that you are hostage to your sources to some extent. (It’s unclear what Helmer’s sources are.) This book is clearly written from a US perspective and suffers from that, as do a whole host of similar books on Iraq, Afghanistan etc. It best to see it, I think, as “how it looked like from Washington at the time.” Readers make like to compare this review with a review earlier this year by Rodric Braithwaite, former UK Ambassador to the Soviet Union and then Russia. The review is behind the FT paywall, but that is navigable if you know how.
    Braithwaite’s review (which also covers a parallel account by a Russian expert) presents the book rather differently. But more important, Braithwaite (who was there) makes it clear that he regards the whole NATO enlargement issue as badly mismanaged, and likely to ultimately provoke conflict (he was writing just before the war started.) Perhaps his key judgement about Baker’s infamous promise is:

    “Those words were never recorded in a mutually agreed formula. Gorbachev’s negotiating position was far too weak for him to insist on legal language. The Americans would never have agreed so to bind their hands anyway.”

    Effectively, Gorbachev heard what he wanted to hear. He was overwhelmed by the chaos he had unwittingly created, and his position was so weak that he could not insist on anything more. More generally, though, Helmer ignores the complexities of the actual situation at the time, in which the US was only one player, and not necessarily a particularly effective one: Washington was then dominated by Cold Warriors, who were completely out of their depth with the new turn of events. Remember, this was January 1990: the overthrow of Ceausescu had happened only a couple of months before, the fall of the Berlin Wall only weeks before that. The situation was changing daily, and every nation, including the US, was running to catch up. The GDR was still formally in existence, and it had embassies, a foreign ministry, and teams busy negotiating treaties in Vienna. By January 1990 it already seemed likely that German unification would happen, although nobody really expected it to happen as quickly as it did.

    Not everyone was keen on unification: Thatcher was famously against it, and Mitterrand was not enthusiastic. But it was also recognised that the process was unstoppable, and there was a German election looming. At this point, there were no settled ideas of any sort what unification would look like, or what would happen afterwards. This was what the 2+4 talks were about. The US had no long-term plans any more than did anyone else: Baker’s comments (which he had no right to make) were presumably intended to provide Gorbachev with short-term comfort. Everybody, including the Russians, recognised that unification was now inevitable, and could not really have conditions attached to it. But the future status of Germany, and still more the former WP countries, had not even been thought about at that point.

    The Russians were going to withdraw their troops from Germany anyway, whatever happened, and the WP was already starting to fold up. The Russians would no doubt have preferred a Germany that was neutral, and with no foreign troops, but that was never remotely going to happen, and the US was not in any position to bring it about. It would have required Germany to denounce the Washington Treaty, approval by the Bundestag and heaven knows what else, as well as years of disruption as forces with nowhere to go had to be moved out of Germany. Whatever the theoretical attractions of a neutral Germany, the 2+4 talks were difficult enough already, and any serious attempts to raise the idea would probably have destroyed the talks entirely.

    1. Lex

      History books often avoid the messy complexity of full context, sometimes with motive sometimes not. And it’s always important to consider that historical actors are constrained in certain ways. In this event perhaps the simplest way to distill the process, actions and results is that most players attempted to gain the best possible position for themselves in the context of their constraints. Gorbachev appears not to have done that. It could be argued that he had a particularly weak hand to play (he did, mostly of his own creation), but I find it hard to argue that his actions were based on the best interests of his nation.

      Neutrality was almost certainly too much to get and even withdrawal of US forces from Germany was probably too much. But Gorbachev got literally nothing in return. A public promise to not to expand NATO beyond Germany would have been something. Of course the disconnect will always be how westerners and Russian view Gorbachev’s legacy, which is telling in and of itself.

      1. David

        Yes, given the chaos and confusion of the time, it’s an interesting exercise to try to imagine what “the West” (in practice, US, UK, France and Germany) could realistically have offered the Russians at that point. The problem is that the internal complexities were on the NATO side: even a public guarantee not to expand NATO would have been too much in a situation where the idea hadn’t even been considered, let alone decided. It is important to bear in mind that the real issue here was the unification of Germany, and that in January 1990 nobody knew whether, and how, that could be done. NATO expansion was light-years down the road.

    2. Raymond Sim

      It’s unclear what Helmer’s sources are.

      Irrelevant, unless perhaps you meant to insinuate that he could be misrepresenting the current governing consensus in Russia? In fact everything you’ve written here appears to be irrelevant. What ‘really’ happened thirty years ago isn’t the point.

      1. Soredemos

        I’m pretty sure sources kind of mater in regards to whether anything Helmer is saying is true to not.

        You could argue that it doesn’t matter if it’s literally true if enough people in the Russian leadership believe it to be true and are acting accordingly, but I don’t actually know that to be the case either. Clearly they don’t view NATO moving east favorably, but I’m not sure how much I buy the notion that even Germany was viewed as a step too far, over the more traditional narrative that Gorbachev was merely a fool for not getting written assurances that any further east than Germany wouldn’t happen..

        1. Raymond Sim

          You could argue that it doesn’t matter if it’s literally true if enough people in the Russian leadership believe it to be true and are acting accordingly, but I don’t actually know that to be the case either.

          Well, this is scarcely the first time this version of events has been laid out. So far as I can tell it’s pretty much canon among pro-Putin Russians. You’ve perhaps noticed Yves constantly reminding her readers that Putin has been dovish on Ukraine, and that he’s under pressure from his right?

          I suspect the main reason so many western observers who do actually have knowledge of Russia completely discounted the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is that they accepted the ‘NATO expanded too far.’ narrative themselves and didn’t imagine that a much darker view might prevail in Russia. Westerners gotta Westerner I guess.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Wowsers, you go on about Helmer when you missed key points of the post: the focus on the Russian military, and on Akhromeyev, and the fact that the Russian side has no written record of any Feb 8, 1990 discussion or documentation of the prior day meeting.

          1. Soredemos

            But here’s the thing: as presented here, I just have Helmer’s claims about all of that. What are the actual sources?

            Because, frankly, I don’t put any trust in Helmer himself.

    3. nothing but the truth

      so if i’m reading this right, Gorbachov was so stressed at home because of the impending collapse (and that uprising in Lithuania etc that was triggered by MI6 agents engineered shootout a la Maidan) that he was avoiding dealing with his own people (avoidance reflex) and preferred being the obedient yes man to the westerners who were soothing his nerves?

    4. Paul Jurczak

      Exactly. Gorbachev had no strong cards to play. The Warsaw Pact was dead for all practical purposes. Neutral Germany between NATO and WP was not a option. Soviet Empire had shrunk irreversibly and the vacuum had to be filled with something new. Soviet apparatchiks had difficulty imagining and accepting the transition and were overestimating the remaining power of the USSR.

    5. WalterM

      Thanks, David. To me the Helmer post read like a spy thriller where the Soviet military/intelligence experts have cleverly matched the Western thrusts at every turn, only to be betrayed by double agent Gorbachev at the end. That’s just too easy.

      How much choice did Gorbachev, or the Soviet Union as a system, have, at this point?

      Oh well, back to the real world, where my lunch buddies tell me that all Russian soldiers are boundlessly evil grandmother rapers. And… I understand that Satan has prepared a lovely Vladimir Putin costume for Halloween this year.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        That is a cheap shot with no analysis to back it up.

        Helmer was actively at work in Moscow at the time and had sources in Gorbachev’s circle as well as in all the factions of the time, inside the Supreme Soviet. Since the post ran, he’s had current insiders contact him with further confirmation of his reading.

  7. Alice X

    The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know.

    attributed to Harry Truman


    Valuable information in this piece, thank you.

    I’ve found this wiki piece interesting, as my knowledge was sketchy, at best, thereof. But real scholarship requires a lot more than a wiki page. Throughout history, provinces have shifted back and forth between rivaling powers.

    Ukrainian War of Independence 1917-1921

      1. Alice X

        No, but often pages are sourced and that can offer reinforcement, however, that page in particular notes that it lacks sources and that’s a big problem. As I said, I found it interesting and a possible jumping off point for further investigation. I was searching for the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and Ukraine. Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire until 1917, when with the two revolutions, (the second more famous one was actually a coup d’etat), ethnic divisions sought independence. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 3 1918 (new calendar I believe) recognized Ukraine as independent. As I recall, the Versailles Treaty of 1919 reaffirmed this. The piece I cited doesn’t mention these at all, so that’s another big problem.

        I have found Maurice Brinton’s piece on the Russian revolutions informative, he writes of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty but there are large blanks to fill in. I’ll keep looking. Perhaps you have more information yourself.

        In any event the Dnieper river seems to be a crucial divide between historically Russian speakers to the east and Ukrainian speakers to the west.

        The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control-The State and Counter-Revolution

        1. Savita

          Thankyou Alice X for your informative reply and discerning approach to research. I’ve not got anything to offer relevant to your highly specific line of enquiry. But, it will be noted the difficulty of excavating facts when historical events are politicised post facto. Source material in their original Russian language becomes inevitably necessary. Thankyou for your enquiring mind.

          1. Alice X

            I can’t expect to have more than a rudimentary outline of the history. I just hope to have enough for a somewhat informed outlook. It takes work. You are absolutely right about historical facts being politicized afterwards. The same event from two opposing viewpoints can look very different. Yves link below to the Ukrainian Encyclopedia piece shows a distinct bias, which is understandable. Some facts as I had previously understood were still there, but understated. Some others made more prominent and maybe some missing altogether. One link therein was to the short lived Ukrainian National Republic’s separate negotiation in the Brest-Litovsk agreement, something I was unaware of and find very instructive for much later implications. I’ll keep at it. Today, the Ukrainians should have been able to work things out for themselves, but for external forces, they might have.

        2. Paula

          As a “know nothing,” how plausible is it that Ukraine, in 1917 was fearful the Russian Empire could be broken up according to available energy resources, as was the Ottoman Empire, while cultural and religious diversity was totally ignored, leaving the Middle East in the mess it is in to this day, thanks to the League of Nations. What is the over all lesson of taking a huge empire like The Ottoman and ignoring religious and cultural differences when drawing lines and making states, to give to imperialists who have no other interest than extracting their energy resources and looting other treasures? Is it a purposeful ploy to leave regions warring with one another and thereby directing the population’s focus on each other, rather than the imperialist hunger for resources and wealth? Certainly there are more lessons than a single one. Within this “idea” I see a lesson US politicians have certainly taken to heart judging by their rhetoric on the campaign trail. Following the “divide and conquer” so often applied to the masses and using the weakness of their own beliefs, convictions, and religion.

          Not being a senator’s daughter, but rather a tech sgt’s, I come to this site to benefit from the higher education and knowledge of those privileged enough to have obtained such. After all, I think no US president has ever been photographed sitting atop a camel. Only a tech sgt.

          1. Raymond Sim

            … how plausible is it that Ukraine, in 1917 was fearful the Russian Empire could be broken up according to available energy resources, as was the Ottoman Empire, …

            In 1917 Ukraine was about as much a single entity as a typical similarly sized chunk of the Ottoman empire, with similar divisions along the lines of religion, ethnicity and social caste. Its land, which was at that point mostly under military occupation, by various forces, had, prior to the war, been divided among multiple countries, and the pressing issue of who would get what wasn’t resolved till well after World War I was officially over, after considerable fighting. The borders drawn at that time were more a matter of recognizing the military realities than anybody getting what they really wanted.

            Technical Sergeants make the world go round.

          2. Alice X

            I’m a second lieutenant’s daughter so I’m not ahead of you at all. Let me know that you will check back, as these threads generally have a short shelf life. and I will write more when I return.

  8. hk

    The contrast between Russia and the West wrt Gorbachev reminds me of the contrast wrt another controversial figure: Vlasov. For some odd reason, almost every Western Russianist I came across seemed to be at least sympathetic towards him and considered him to be a well meaning figure trapped in tragic circumstances. Most Russians, on the other hand, seemed to think of him as irredeemable monster, scarcely better than if at all than Hitler. Whenever I hear about some Western backed reformer/dissident in a foreign country, I get skeptical because of this, but, obviously, the example(s) spply particularly to Russia.

  9. spud

    when will the u.s.a. and the u.k. have its reckoning with their sellout leaders? if you wonder why we cannot even make a aspirin, and you want to change the future, but ignore the past. it does not work that way. russia is showing the way forward, is to expose the past.

    a leader that sells out a nations wealth, standard of living, its technology, its skills, its factories, its machines, is every bit a traitor as gorbachev was.

    1. Paula

      Couldn’t agree with you more. Every week I stand with a sign, (all I can do at this point), that reads,”THE WEST IS RUN BY FOOLS WHO BETRAY THEIR OWN PEOPLE.” As true in US as is currently in EU. Now the US led West wants more weapons build up for its Third World War against China and Russia.
      US leaders betray us by denying medical care for all after decades of poisoning our air, water and food and profiting from that toxic mix while we only become sicker; US leaders betray us by not investing in infrastructure as much or more than it does wars and weapons, an infrastructure that is crucial to our surviving the ravages of climate change coming at us like a tsunami. One might question how betraying your people is foolish since it seems to work and is done so often and successfully in this country. You live in hope people and their manufactured somnambulism will be jarred, (seems the only way), from their sleep walking and then you will see a tsunami of chaos in throes of change, much like what is happening in the EU now and elsewhere that our MSM is not reporting for fear US citizens might be “jarred” by the occurrences.

      1. spud

        paula, 100%. at least russians are exposing traitors now, their citizens knew they had been sold out. the only way forward is to acknowledge what was done and by whom for whom.

        that way the current political class will gain the trust of the population.

        by pretending to move forward at let the likes off of bill clinton and barack obama, those bad meals keep coming back, reminding people that the new political class cannot be trusted.

        bill clinton gives interviews on how the democrats can keep their majorities, and obama openly stumps for democrats, whilst saying we need universal health care, with a smile on his face.

        whilst millions here go hungry, no meanful jobs anymore, they all went to china, and homelessness explodes.

        i call a person like that, a smiley faced psychopath.

  10. Miltiades

    That is a great story. It’s sad that so few members of the public are aware of this information that puts some context into the history behind the current Ukraine conflict.

  11. David in Santa Cruz

    I think that Helmer ignores the role of the Germans here. My wife was in Berlin on a business trip during the March 1990 DDR election — the only free election ever held in the DDR, just 10 weeks after the Wall was breeched. It resulted in the election of a “Grand Coalition” led by the Christian Democrats who were able to amend the DDR constitution to dissolve the republic and reunify with the BRD.

    Gorbachev had to have realized the inevitability of German reunification and the impossibility of a Prague Spring-style repression in Germany. The Russians had exactly zero leverage. With the DDR Volkskammer controlled by an insurmountable reunification bloc, Germany was effectively reunified and under NATO protection after March of 1990.

    Helmer appears to accurately present the revanchist and revisionist view of the current Russian leadership about a “stab in the back” by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but the alternative to unilateral withdrawal of the Red Army from the DDR was an un-winnable war with NATO. They could have dug-in to their bases in the former-DDR but that was going to be an expensive and ultimately losing proposition.

    Nobody in 1990 could have predicted the fall of George Bush 41 and his replacement by the corrupt shambles of the Clinton cabal, who proceeded to “feel” their way through wrecking the Russian economy and blundering into the eastern expansion of NATO at the behest of local elites hostile to the Russians. We are now experiencing the civil wars made inevitable by FDR, Truman, and Churchill at Yalta and Potsdam allowing Stalin to draw the lines on the map that are being contested in “Ukraine” today.

    There was not much that Gorbachev was going to be able to do in 1990 to prevent this short of a shooting war with NATO in Germany, so he rolled-over and skulked away. The Yeltsin coup was the result but the people of the Soviet Union knew that communism had already collapsed. Things got bad in Russia, for sure. They could have gotten a lot worse. In “Ukraine” they may still…

    1. David

      I think that’s very fair. It was absolutely clear at the time that there was no way of preventing German reunification short of war, and every ambitious politician in the GDR was already on side with it. There was never a chance of the GDR continuing to exist as a separate state.

      So it’s not not surprising, especially after the humiliation of the 90s, that “stab in the back” conspiracy theories started to circulate. Ultimately, “our leader was a traitor” is less unattractive than “our leader was an idiot,” even if neither is ideal. As OIFV says above, Gorbachev did come over at the time as vain, and largely interested in his place in history. He was the classic fall-guy really: his constituency was essentially in the West, but his enemies were back home. Still, you can talk about “stabs in the back” all you like, but I’m not convinced there was actually much different that Gorbachev could have done, given the situation, although no doubt he could have done some things better.

      1. Stephen

        Difficult to know what is the reality here and it is too easy to create counter factual possibilities with the benefit of hindsight. Agree fully that subsequent history was not foreseeable in the context of 1989-91.

        Agree too that Gorbachev does seem to have had a weak hand. But he then played it very weakly too. Or did not even play it at all. Yves commented yesterday on the skill of Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna. Arguably, he had a super weak hand too given that France had been defeated and Russian troops having entered Paris. But he negotiated well and achieved a reasonable outcome for France. Given the circumstances. He could hardly threaten to recommence the war, especially given that Napoleon did that anyway with the outcome we all know.

        Gorbachev did have troops in Germany and Kohl (plus nearly all of Germany) was absolutely desperate to get reunification to happen. As you note above, various western leaders who had grown up in the Second World War were far less keen. Without being too counter factual, one can conceive of a world where Gorbachev might have at least got something in return. There does seem to have been an opportunity for a top class motivated negotiator to have exploited some leverage and these weaknesses on the other side. Without an all out war.

        Maybe German neutrality and the withdrawal of US troops might have been bridges too far but if I have understood all this correctly then it seems that Gorbachev did not even try. If I were a Russian, then at the very least I would view that as a lack of moral courage and in extremis as the treachery that it seems to be described as there.

        A further slightly off topic thought. Would neutrality (with some form of international guarantee) really have been a bad thing for Germany? The “protection” of NATO is a double edged sword and always has potential to become a “protection racket” wielded by the US (and the UK too….) in a way that circumscribes Germany’s sovereignty. The power that benefited from keeping Germany inside NATO and has orchestrated the subsequent NATO expansion has perhaps been the US. Maybe Kohl missed a major opportunity too. Understandably, of course, in the context of the momentous desire to achieve the Wiedervereinigung. But I wonder how future history will view the decisions that Germany made back in 1990 too. Just thoughts prompted by the post and the various insightful comments. The definitive history of the era will clearly not be able to be created for a very long time, when there is full access to all evidence from all the players.

        1. David

          Part of the problem, I think, was the speed with which everything developed. People in power reacted almost instinctively, and it was impossible to have any long-term thinking, or even strategic discussions. Largely for electoral reasons, Kohl’s government decided to go for unification as fast as possible, and there was really nothing much standing in their way. Likewise, continued membership of NATO just meant really rolling over the status quo, and whilst there were potential alternatives, in reality there wasn’t remotely the time to evaluate them, let alone to settle on a viable one. In any case, not everyone thought that a neutral Germany was necessarily a good idea. That would have meant a major economic political and military power in the middle of Europe, with a complicated history and borders that were still contentious, but with its own military command system and effectively no direct foreign influence. This idea made a lot of people nervous, and I’m not even sure the Germans would have wanted it (the Bundeswehr certainly didn’t) because NATO membership had been the way in which German rearmament has been feasible in the first place, and the close control of the Bundeswehr by NATO reassured neighbours.

          Talleyrand (not a nice man by the way) was a highly experienced diplomat, who knew all of his opposite numbers well, and had secret correspondences with a lot of them. Gorbachev was just a Party man with no special negotiating abilities and little international experience. In order to get anywhere he would somehow have had to drive a wedge between the US, UK, France and Germany over some issue that he wanted, but that they wouldn’t give him. I really doubt that was possible, not least because Moscow was not united behind him. The military in particular were playing their own game.

          1. Jams O'Donnell

            Also to be taken into consideration is the fact that in West Germany the US and UK occupation forces allowed many (ex-?) Nazis to regain positions on both the local and national level administrations. In many cases this was perhaps unavoidable, but this was/is not conducive to the establishment of a solidly grounded properly democratic state. The consequences of this are starting to become more obvious now, as Germany shows itself as a being a pronouncedly right wing and knee-jerk anti-Russian country, but this was always pretty much the case.

            (I don’t know what the excuse is for the UK and France, but there was/is also the long history of US support for Nazis – e.g. Henry Ford, Ambassador Kennedy, the US banking system etc.).

        2. David in Santa Cruz

          I really do think that Gorbachev was more limited in his choices to keep the Red Army in Germany.

          The logistics were against this. Russia and Germany don’t have contiguous borders and the Red Army’s supply lines were through hostile territory — the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians were pretty aggrieved against Russia for obvious reasons.

          Meanwhile leaving the Bundeswehr under NATO control was a good way to neutralize the threat of a resurgent Germany.

          I also think that the Tallyrand reference is well-taken — the Russians have always suffered from an inferiority complex that has been taken advantage of by Western diplomats. Gorby was no different than the Russians at the Congress of Vienna in that regard, although unlike them he was the one who had been dealt a bad hand.

          The important take-away is that the current leadership in Russia have no intention of being “played” again at the negotiating table. Their messaging about a “stab in the back” may be as flimsy as that of the Weimar Freikorpers, but they are staking-out their domestic political position and it matters in terms of what a negotiated settlement might look like if German, French, Italian, and Turkish diplomacy can get the parties to the table without the Americans.

          1. Stephen

            Yes, the current leadership clearly see themselves, or at least position themselves, as having learned the lessons of 1990. Whether or not there is objectively a lesson to have been learned, it colours their current approach. I agree: that is probably the most important take out.

          2. Tempestteacup

            I have read with interest the exchanges above, and you’ve been mentioning things I’d forgotten, or didn’t know. But, and forgive me for asking what might be a seemingly naive question, what was the mood among actual people – workers – in the different nations of the collapsing Warsaw Pact?

            The histories of the period focus on the manoeuvres and constraints on the various factions, players, personalities. I know you at going deeper, but it seems to me that the radical reorganisation of the USSR was quintessentially a top-down enterprise, just as the USSR had become over time a quintessentially top-down and sclerotic project.

            And yet…for all that, there were – there must have been – skilled Marxist, materialist historians, economists, thinkers in or around the various CPs, plus a working class population with a significant education in those ideas and perspectives. I know the former DDR very well, and it is a commonplace for people of a certain age to lament the convulsions of the late 80s/early 90s. Much of that is no doubt hindsight, but also noticeable is a sensitivity to and awareness of the politics of working class interests almost totally absent in today’s Western politics.

            And so, when faced with the mounting crises of that period, and then by the intense pressure from the West that you describe, what were the attitudes of workers in the East? Did they simply, as depicted in the Western press, long for the ‘freedom’ to consume? Or were there fears of what privatisation, corporatisation might bring? After years of seeing the West as a threat, were people afraid? And did any public figure seek to mobilise workers on the basis of defending their rights and role in the state based on the reality of what was happening in the capitalist states as they systematically attacked rights, wages and social services?

            I wrote a comment that seems to have disappeared in which I suggested that the Party leaders in the USSR had by the end of the 80s decided to prepare the way for the restoration of private property as a way to maintain their privileged positions in the face of insoluble crises. Maybe you don’t agree, and I accept that events took on a momentum of their own. But the result was a system failure and collapse faster than I suspect even the most sanguine cold warrior could have hoped. But in all that time and ferment, did nobody speak out for the essential principles of a worker’s state – even if the thing that the Soviet Union had become was very very far from that?

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              Polling among citizens of the former Warsaw Pact states showed an average of >70% support for staying in the USSR (IIRC, this factoid is from Jacques Baud). A big reason they were cut loose is they were a significant net economic drain on Russia. Oh, and everyone in the Warsaw Pact countries who had pensions lost them.

        3. Karl

          Would neutrality (with some form of international guarantee) really have been a bad thing for Germany?

          It depends on the form of the international guarantee. Helmer points out that Thatcher and others were opposed to re-unification. A big problem everyone was grappling with was: how to keep Germany from being Germany–i.e. eventually itching for another European war? Sarotte gave this more prominence as a motivating factor for keeping Germany within NATO than Helmer seems to.

          So, any kind of “neutrality” for Germany would require, as you point out, some kind of international guarantee that Germany’s borders would not be violated, and Germany would not violate anyone else’s. But as Hitler demonstrated in 1939 with the invasion of Poland, borders can be violated willy nilly if the other parties to the Guarantee have no stomach to enforce it.

          As many commenters above point out, any kind of negotiation to hammer out an agreement on such guarantees were just not feasible given the chaotic and rapid unfolding of events.

          It’s hard for me to see how keeping a unified Germany in NATO could have been adverse to Russia’s security interests if the alleged promise to not expand eastward “by one inch” had been kept. The U.S. could have been a moderating force in Europe, if we had leaders with those intentions.

          I do not think history will regard Clinton, Albright and Helms (and many others) positively for what transpired later in that decade (with NATO expansion). Most of it received very little commentary at the time in the MSM. But I was always horrified at how destabilizing it would end up being. Then GWB comes along, unilaterally pulls out of major nuclear arms agreements with Russia and invites a bunch of new States–including Ukraine–to join NATO.

          The horror of what we did (and are doing, not just in Ukraine but in Syria and elsewhere) is not well understood by most Americans. I would argue this is by design. I would also argue we have political leaders who are, by their hubris, cowardice and greed, betraying U.S. national interests just as Helmer claims Gorbachev did.

      2. Raymond Sim

        Hey David, and other David, if this revanchist, revisionist theory believed in leading circles of Russian leadership also happens to be an important basis for their support among the Russian people then that’s the story no?

        That other guy got a lot of mileage out of a much vaguer tail of backstabbery. Hell, you yourselves are basically telling us Gorbachev wasn’t a traitor, merely a luckless chump.

        1. David in Santa Cruz

          Reading translations of Russian media, it has been the former Communist Party, holding about 20 percent of the seats in the State Duma, who have been pushing for the reintegration of Novorussia since the civil war in “Ukraine” erupted in 2014.

          It is in the Putin government’s domestic political interest to discredit the Communists and I think that Helmer is reflecting this position. This is why they wish to portray Gorbachev as a dupe who stabbed Russia in the back.

          Putin likes to portray himself as an Orthodox Christian Russian patriot and anti communist, but he was a loyal KGB man in Dresden during the crack-up of the DDR. I leave it to readers smarter than I to speculate how much he actually knows about the reunification of Germany within NATO and the Soviet withdrawal — and how much this is a domestic political survival ploy to discredit the Communists who all along have been pushing for the reintegration of Novorussia that Putin and Lavrov earlier attempted to evade but now embrace.

          1. Raymond Sim

            Is the Communist position based on some tenet of Marxist orthodoxy I’m unaware of? Isn’t their hard line on Ukraine part of their popularity?

            You seem to be determined to read Putin’s mind, but more importantly you’re resolutely talking around the central question: How do Russians view the situation?

    2. Paul Jurczak

      Reading “stab in the back” over a dozen times on this page finally rejiggled my neurons to recall “stab in the back” in the context of Weimar Germany. Revisionists of history claimed at that time that Kaiser was just one more push away from victory and got betrayed by this or other politician. Declining empires always produce myths and wishful thinking about reasons of their decline.

      1. Roland

        Even if defeat were certain, the new revolutionary gov’t in Germany should never have agreed to those ceasefire terms.

        Germany’s biggest problem in 1918 was hunger. Yet the November armistice allowed their enemies to keep blockading them. Even the sailors whose mutiny had kicked off the revolution were incredulous and aghast at the supine internment of the fleet.

        It’s not generally known that the armistice was renewed a couple of times, and each time the Entente raised their demands. Germany paid more reparations, in real terms, in the few months between the armistice and Versailles, than they did under the treaty itself.

        During the winter 1918/19, while underfed kids died in the streets, Germany’s new rulers handed over hundreds of thousands of head of cattle and other livestock under the renewed, harsher, armistice terms. Is it any surprise that those responsible for that decision became widely execrated as traitors in their country, or that resentment of the Entente’s bad faith festered in Germany?

        The stab-in-the-back was a myth, but with a kernel of truth. An unconditional surrender might have served Germany better than what they agreed to at Compiegne. At least the enemy would have had to come and take the stuff, rather than having it given to them. If there was going to be famine and chaos, then let the foreign occupiers take the blame.

        Compare Turkey, which faced even harsher terms than Germany, but repudiated the peace and challenged the Entente to resume the war, thereby obtaining a much better settlement. Defiance was a possibility. But while Turkey had the services of people like Kemal, Ismail, and Nureddin, Germany had Ebert, Erzberger, and Groener.

        Joffe and Trotsky got a better deal for Russia at the Dec. 1917 ceasefire, or even at the Brest treaty, than what Erzberger got for Germany. You can have a hungry homeland, a deserting army, and near-anarchy, and still find ways to negotiate, or if nothing else, prevaricate. The unfortunate Erzberger, however, was way out of his depth, nowhere near fit to face a s.o.b. like Foch.

        1. LifelongLib

          My understanding is that Wilson had a hand in it too, by prioritizing getting the League of Nations going ahead of completing the surrender arrangements with Germany. His own diplomatic staff objected to this, to no avail.

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      Helmer is most assuredly NOT ignoring the Germans. He was negotiating with the Politburo in 1989 and 1990. Germany was front and center of his and their strategizing. He has direct and personal knowledge of Gorbachev repeatedly sabotaging approaches that were very likely to have produced the sort of leverage you deny existed. He’s given me the details and they are specific and credible.

      1. Raymond Sim

        I’m seeing a lot of certitude here about what was or was not historically possible and skepticism of Helmer that seems personal. It’s redolent of oxen being gored.

        I did find myself thinking yesterday that if Helmer’s right I’ll have to adjust my view of Stephen Cohen.

  12. enoughisenough

    anyone else having the DwB website inaccessible? Whenever I’ve tried to click to it in the past month, it gives me a page saying “server is down”.

    It feels ominous, is there anything going on?

    1. Stanley Dundee

      enoughisenough: anyone else having the DwB website inaccessible?

      Yes, same experience for me. I think it’s a block of some sort. Maybe this is the motivation to finally get some kind of VPN running. I anticipate many Zone B sites becoming inaccessible from inside Zone A. Ugh.

      1. Eureka Springs

        Access to dwb has been extremely difficult if not impossible for many years for me.

        Seems to me the Germans were the short-sighted fools, the cowards, for not getting US/NATO out. Should have used Russian, including Gorbachev help to the worlds advantage at the time. The ball was in the Germans court more than Gorbachev alone. And here we sit watching Germans stab themselves in the back again.

    2. bwilli123

      Perhaps, try a different browser.
      Firefox consistently gives me a “web server is down” message.
      Safari on Mac accesses the site with no problem, also Chrome and Brave both work.

  13. slorter

    The west ability at subterfuge is one of their greatest assets but eventually it gets pushback that is more sustainable and effective! Russia and China today are putting in structures to counter and they are proving effective!

  14. Valerie from Australia by way of the US

    Thank you to the two Davids and Stephen. You make some good points. But in the end, the new revisionist history of Gorbachev doesn’t sit well with me and reminds me of the “crucifixion” of Jimmy Carter. I simply don’t buy that Gorbachev sold out his country. Was he naive and too trusting? Did he want to go down in history as bringing a transition of the Soviet Union to a more democratic and capitalistic version of itself? – I find those interpretations reasonable. But not the judgemental interpretation by Helmer abd Sorotte. Like Carter, Gorbachev wanted positive change that came about by peaceful means. And watching how the U.S. government has comported itself over the past thirty years in a variety of foreign policy scenarios – I don’t think treacherous is too strong a world. Perhaps Gorbachev was simply seeing the US and the West in the way he hoped it was – as opposed to the way it actually was. I think he also genuinely longed for Russia to be accepted as part of Europe.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      See the comment by OIFVet above, whose grandmother squired Gorbachev’s wife about for a couple of days. Gorby was so easily played by preying on his vanity that Raisa was worrying out loud about it. You don’t talk about something like that to someone you barely know unless this is pretty open knowledge in your circles.

      1. Valerie from Australia

        I don’t doubt that Gorbachev was full of ego and pride. Very few politicians who make it to the top of their governments escape this foible. If they don’t go into the role with vanity and pride, they certainly succumb to it. I have no doubt that Gorbachev saw himself as going down in history as the great saviour of his country – the man who transitioned his second world economy and dictatorship to a more democratic socialism and modernised economy – the man who would be instrumental in ending the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war. Did this blind him to exploitation? Most probably. Was he, in his desire to make a great and positive change in geopolitics (and be remembered honourably by history) easily misled into believing what he wanted to believe? Very likely. But I find it a real stretch to believe he betrayed his country.

        I have read that because of the West’s exploitation of the Soviet Union, during Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s time, that many Russians blame Gorby and hate him – and see him as betraying his country. This account of events by Sarotte via Helmer seem, in my view, to fall into this camp. I am not arguing with the historical account of events, which in this article seem quite well researched – just the motives attached – and conclusions drawn that make Gorbachev out to be a leader who sold out the citizens of his country.

  15. Robin Kash

    A major clue: any representative of another country who is feted and lionized with US officialdom is prima facie suspect. Consider the series of UK PMs so well received by US aministrations. By making nice with Gorby, the US undercut him at home. Yeltsen was already teed up.

  16. Dave in Austin

    I read the Helmers piece and the comments and what seems to me to missing is the general feeling of hopefulness that “The Cold War seems to be ending”. Changing NATO to make Germany neutral was not really possible and the form that German reunification would take was still up in the air. Expanding NATO to the east of Germany was never mentioned by the NYT, the WP or as far as I can determine any person with influence.

    Based on my conversations with people who were in Eastern Europe and Russia at the time, I believe that Putin was sincere when he said that most people wanted to join the west, not lose the local identity but have a free economy and democracy. At the time I know people hosting Eastern European delegations in the US and they expressed no animosity toward the Russians. In fact they were hoping the Russians were on the way to joining the west.

    My personal feeling is that the failure to support Russian democracy and instead see Russia a vast jackpot was the greatest mistake the US has made in my lifetime. The Russian sense of betrayal and the distrust of US motives will last longer than I will. A great pity. Pushing the Russians into a conflict by expanding the defensive alliance that was NATO and forcing them into the arms of the Chinese is not to the longterm benefit of the US or anyone else.

    1. Jams O'Donnell

      “Pushing the Russians into a conflict by expanding the defensive alliance that was NATO and forcing them into the arms of the Chinese is not to the longterm benefit of the US or anyone else.”

      It appears now that it will in fact be to the benefit of all the countries in the ‘Third world’ (if such a label is still appropriate) and to the BRICS countries themselves. As for the ‘west’, it’s high time they stopped reaping the ‘benefits’ and started contributing.

  17. Paradan

    OK so I am unsure as to the reliability of info from this site I’m gonna link to, but it’s coverage of the Ukraine War has always seemed good. So please don’t yell at me to much if I never got the memo and it’s not a trustworthy site.

    This is a pretty damning article about Gorby. Gorbachev. Instead of an Obituary

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