Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

Robert Service’s The End of the Cold War 1985-1991 is foremost a retelling of the nuclear arms control negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era.  Other issues are found in the chapters that form the last two fifths of his 500 page book. They include the 24 nation CFE talks (Conventional Forces in Europe) which took place in Vienna nearly simultaneously and impinged upon and interacted with the nuclear arms negotiations in Geneva because, well, neither the Soviet Union nor the US could – or should have dealt with one without the other when considering their overall national security options.      

Service, a long time British scholar at Oxford, is most comfortable and at his best in recounting the details of the rarefied nuclear arms reduction negotiations and does so in admirable English – without a non-specialist forced to consult a glossary of arms control terms.

But from my perspective, the major problem in addressing this complex topic is that these talks were hardly the primary reason or reasons the Soviet Union collapsed.  In retrospect, I think they represented a flashing red light that signaled far larger domestic problems faced by a secretive Kremlin during the 1980s and before.

As it turned out, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze engaged in the negotiations in the hope of averting the end of the country’s grand, but failing, 70 year old idealistic socioeconomic experiment.   By substantially reducing the Soviet military budget, the reformers’ goal was to use those funds to improve the life of the average Soviet citizen – as Service points out – but that task proved far too massive for the time frame allowed.

Service hedges a bit on the question of the importance of the Reagan Administration’s military build-up – including his fixation on Star Wars (SDI) well before the US had the requisite technology.  Reagan proponents continue to claim the buildup to be the major if not sole reason for the Soviet Union’s downfall. In fact, this US military build- up had begun under Jimmie Carter in 1979 in response to the Soviet Union’s introduction of SS-20 intermediate range missiles into Europe – although Service, interestingly, fails to credit the Carter Administration’s policies at all.

I, however, think that the Soviet Union fell apart as a result of its crumbling economic system brought to a head by the plummeting price of petroleum on the world market upon which the country was far too dependent. This combined with unsustainable military overreach based on decisions by a geriatric leadership that had been dying like flies in the proverbial pot full of honey prior to Gorbachev’s selection as Secretary General in 1985.

“We pretend to pay you and you pretend to work” only goes so far. 

On another note:  I found Service’s book to be an almost too glowing tribute to Ronald Reagan and his Secretary of State George Schultz, a far less than flattering – but likely accurate – appraisal of Dick Cheney and Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and a ho-hum, slow out of the starting gate description of George H. W. Bush and James Baker, Bush’s Secretary of State.  The good news reported here is that Reagan overrode the bellicose warnings from Secretary Weinberger and his Assistant Secretary Richard Perle both of whom resigned in 1987 – to rely far more on the even keeled, political realist Schultz and a much smaller but then wiser State Department – in dealings with the Soviet leaders.

Nevertheless I wonder, whether the Bush administration was really all that slow – or did those early few months represent a time needed for the new administration to get its feet on the ground, carefully survey the situation and save itself from making decisions it and we would live to regret later?

Service also highlights British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s unusual role in all of this – sometimes reported through the eyes and memoirs of the British Ambassador to Moscow Brian Cartledge to which and whom Service had access. Strangely, however, despite his influence on the information included, Cartledge, although mentioned and quoted various times in the text, is not even included in the index.

In several parts of the book, Service describes conversations between British and US leaders during which they refused Gobachev’s plea for a loan to bail out his highly indebted government that could have helped keep him in power.  Maybe the Western response was simply not well thought through and based on questionable economic advice since the Bush administration simultaneously publicly declared its support for the continuation of the Soviet Union with Gorbachev in power.  This public declaration of fealty was exemplified by Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech August 1, 1991 less than a month before the failed August coup.

Why then was the West so insistent on refusing to bail Gorbachev out when the indications were that a coup by hard line Politburo leaders would most likely displace and then follow him and be highly problematic for the US?   Service does not explain the reasoning but I wish he had because it is important for better understanding future implications of this historical period.  There may also be parallels here because similar economic weaknesses coupled with its military overreach that helped usher the Soviet Union into its grave are also in evidence today with respect to Putin’s Kremlin.      

This book is not factually error free.  One mistake that struck me was Service’s observation that Baker “tried to win Gorbachev over by signaling (at the September 9, 1990 Helsinki Summit) a readiness to bring American business leaders to Moscow.” In reality, Howard Baker, then Secretary of Commerce, had escorted a group of about 25- 30 US business leaders to Moscow at about the same time as the Summit and the group at the last moment flew to Helsinki to meet with the Soviet and US leaders on the fringes of a Summit which had been called to discuss Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. I remember the group’s appearance vividly because I was US Embassy Helsinki’s Information Officer at the time.  I can only assume that Service got the timing and location of the business group’s visit wrong as well as mixing up Secretaries Howard and James Baker.    (Same last name, no relationship).  

What I think Service misses most, however, is any real feeling for what was being experienced and expressed on the ground by the people who lived and worked in the Soviet Union as they felt the increasing tremors of earth moving beneath their feet. 

On the one hand he points out the importance of Baltic independence as a thorn in the larger bilateral scheme of things making compromise and agreements more difficult.  Whereas at the time, the Baltic independence leaders themselves felt they were being sold out by the US. A reading in Baker’s archives suggests otherwise but neither Reagan nor Bush made the US position clear on this issue either public or privately to the Baltic leaders and certainly not the populations, the US Baltic diasphora or much of anyone else.

Had the Soviet leaders agreed to let Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania go early on in Gorbachev’s tenure – based on the recognition of the existence and acceptance of the illegality of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – perhaps they could have kept the rest –or most of the rest – of the country intact.  But they didn’t and national independence movements modeled on those first developed in the Baltics sprang up throughout much of the USSR like the weeds in my yard after a rain.

In reality, the situation on the ground in the Baltic Republics was tense that final summer.  Soviet OMON (special armed security forces) patrolled city streets, Soviet troops burned Customs posts which the Republics had erected on their borders with Russia, and Soviet troops stationed in the Republics were kept on alert.  Columns of tanks had been sitting outside the outskirts of Tallinn prior to the coup just waiting to be given orders to move into the capital and take control.  In Vilnius, Soviet troops still occupied the country’s main television station and transmission tower but the Lithuanian-government, the only Republic to have declared itself independent prior to the breakup (another factual mistake in the book – it was only the Lithuanians daring enough to declare independence prior to the coup), operated as a state of its own within the confines of its borders and the republic’s second channel that broadcast from Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, was never attacked. 

Meanwhile, the living standards of Soviet citizens living in then Leningrad, Moscow and elsewhere throughout the country continued to plummet.  The rest is history.  I do not think history need repeat itself; I do think a country’s history impinges on its future in ways unimaginable at the time.  That in itself is reason enough to learn, understand, and put the end of the Cold War in perspective.  Service’s book adds to that understanding of this crucial period.   

Robert Service, The End of the Cold War 1985-1991, MacMillan, United Kingdom, 2015, PanMacMillan, New York, July 7, 2016.