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Gorbachev's Foreign Policy Helps Bring Soviet Collapse

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December marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this second, of a two-part series, we examine how the foreign policy of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in early 1985 and represented a new, younger generation of leaders.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Pickering said “There was the famous [British Prime Minister] Maggie Thatcher visit that took place fairly quickly in which apparently she reported back to President Reagan: “This is a man we can do business with.'"

Gorbachev's Foreign Policy Helps Bring Soviet Collapse
Gorbachev's Foreign Policy Helps Bring Soviet Collapse

Analysts say Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union could no longer use its military force to increase its influence in the outside world. He realized the military would have to, in some areas, retrench.

One of those areas was Afghanistan, where Soviet troops had been fighting mujahedeen guerilla forces since December 1979.

Ambassador Pickering says Gorbachev’s decision to withdraw Soviet troops sent a message to the world that Moscow had failed.

“I think it also indicated to us, it should have indicated to us, that military solutions to diplomatic problems don’t always work out the way you want," he said.

The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan February 15th, 1989.

Foreign policy analysts say Mr. Gorbachev’s foreign policy also had dramatic effects in Eastern Europe, where people were clamoring for an end to communist party rule. Mr. Gorbachev made clear that he would not intervene militarily to stop demands for national independence.

Ambassador Pickering said “They [Soviet leaders] were loath to chance another large-scale deployment of military force to impose upon Eastern Europe the full-range of communist ideas and communist rule."

Gorbachev's Foreign Policy Helps Bring Soviet Collapse
Gorbachev's Foreign Policy Helps Bring Soviet Collapse

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 in large part due to Mr. Gorbachev’s non-interventionist policy.

And, says Ambassador Pickering, the events in Eastern Europe had other consequences.

“And it was remarkable how it led to the doors and the gates of the Soviet Union itself - and then helped, in effect, to liberate the 15 republics, constituent republics, that were one way or another ready to separate themselves," he said.

In October 1990, Gorbachev was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Fourteen months later he resigned as Soviet president - experts say a victim of forces he unleashed, but could not control.

Former National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft says Gorbachev’s legacy is the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the communist system.

“Because if he had been a different kind of person, let’s say he had been another [Leonid] Brezhnev, the system could have gone on for some time," said Scowcroft. "I think it eventually would have collapsed, but it didn’t have to collapse when it did.”

The irony is that Mr. Gorbachev is often criticized in his country for bringing down communism, but is regarded as a hero in the West.

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