With tensions between Moscow and the West at an all-time high because of the Ukraine conflict, the death of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is a timely, if unfortunate, reminder of an era when global rivals could set aside their differences and work together in the quest for peace.
While Gorbachev will be remembered primarily for presiding over the collapse of the Soviet Union, he also played a significant role in ending the Cold War, a conflict that had begun with the division of Europe following the Second World War and which, on occasion, had brought the planet to the brink of nuclear catastrophe, especially during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
After then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously identified Gorbachev as someone “she could do business with”, the Soviet leader found himself involved in lengthy negotiations with the US and its allies aimed at reducing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Thatcher used her close relationship with then US president Ronald Reagan to persuade him that Washington should set aside its long-standing hostility towards the Kremlin and engage with Gorbachev.
This led to a series of summits between the two leaders who were committed to ending the modern menace of nuclear weapons, beginning with a meeting in Geneva in November 1985, where they discussed the Cold War-era arms race and the possibility of reducing their countries’ stockpiles. This initiated a dialogue that led to the ground-breaking Reykjavik Summit the following year, where both Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that nuclear weapons must be eliminated. They even came close to an agreement to eliminate their stockpiles by 2000.
In the event, the military establishments in both countries shied away from undertaking such a deal. Instead, further negotiations led to the signing, in late 1987, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with both sides agreeing to eliminate an entire class of nuclear weapons, while restricting the deployment of both intermediate and short-range land-based missiles worldwide.
The signing of the INF Treaty effectively brought the Cold War to an end, as it laid the foundations for a major de-escalation in tensions between the two superpowers. The agreement was to last for more than three decades until the Trump administration, claiming that the Russians had breached the terms of the deal by developing a new generation of ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missiles, withdrew from the agreement – a situation that continues to this day.
Looking back at those momentous events, it is hard to imagine today’s generation of leaders having the courage and imagination to take similar measures to de-escalate tensions between East and West. On the contrary, today, the US and Russia are engaged in a new arms race with the threat of mutual nuclear destruction once again becoming a major concern. The Cold War level of nuclear stockpiles may have been significantly reduced as a result of the INF agreement, but both countries still possess significant quantities of these weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated that Moscow would resort to them “to defend its sovereignty".
The re-emergence of nuclear weapons as a threat to world peace is a regressive step. Unfortunately, a process to address this problem seems unlikely as long as relations between Washington and Moscow remain at their current low ebb.
The current level of hostility only serves to underline the extraordinary accomplishment of the Reagan-Gorbachev collaboration. In order to reach a deal with the US, Gorbachev had to overcome enormous resistance from within his own communist party leadership.
The so-called Nomenklatura, a category of officials who occupied key posts in the state and the economy in the Soviet system, were strongly opposed to Gorbachev’s novel concepts of more political transparency, or "glasnost", as well as his desire to introduce his "perestroika" reform programme to the union’s governmental and economic institutions. The Soviet leader also met with stiff resistance from Moscow’s military establishment, which was perturbed by his disarmament initiatives, seen as weakening the security of the Soviet Union.
To this day, there are many in Russia who still regret the changes undertaken during the Gorbachev era, which would explain the Kremlin’s reluctance to grant a man universally acknowledged as one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century a state funeral. Speaking shortly after Gorbachev’s death had been announced, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that no decision had yet been made.
He also said that it wasn’t clear whether Mr Putin would attend Gorbachev’s funeral. They were never said to be close, with Mr Putin holding Gorbachev responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union, which took place soon after the signing of the nuclear deal.
Even so, Gorbachev will be held in high regard in the West, where his willingness to engage with his opponents demonstrated his statesmanlike qualities.
The deep bond, for example, he developed with Thatcher, who was no friend of communism, highlighted his ability to place pragmatism over ideology. On one occasion in the Kremlin, the two leaders are said to have argued for nine hours about the merits of their respective political systems, leaving Thatcher no time to change into an evening dress for the Kremlin banquet.
In the current geopolitical climate, it is hard to imagine today’s generation of leaders engaging in such a relaxed dialogue.