Gorbachev’s Legacy: Not Ending the Cold War but Helping China Start a New One

The Greeks and the Romans advised us not to speak ill of the dead, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est—of the dead nothing but good is to be said. That is a good rule of thumb. But it should be discarded in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing.  

With his death this week, hagiographic obituaries and reflections upon his life center upon his purported role in ending the Cold War peacefully. His charisma, charm, and relative youth at 54 when he came to power in 1985 defined him as atypical for a Soviet leader. His receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, the peaceful end of the Cold War, and his turning out the lights of the Soviet Union itself in 1991 ranked him as a giant of the 20th century. He well deserved his graceful retirement in California. 

The reality is rather different. Gorbachev was a Soviet leader in the mold of his mentor, KGB chief, and later general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Yuri Andropov. It was Andropov, then Soviet ambassador to Hungary, who played a key role in crushing the 1956 rebellion against Communist rule. Estimates are that there were about 20,000 Hungarian casualties in the failed uprising. As Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko stated to his Politburo colleagues in his endorsement of Gorbachev’s elevation to leader, “Comrades this man [Gorbachev] has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth.” 

The reforms that first Andropov and then later Gorbachev tried to implement were not driven by altruism. They were caused by increased U.S. military power the Soviets feared they could match only by reforming their system. The Soviets saw information warfare as the inexorable development of technology. Soviet writers in the 1970s and 80s, particularly former Chief of the General Staff Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, spoke of a “military technical revolution” occurring in the United States and NATO militaries which would make the European battlefield even more lethal. This increased lethality was caused by advances in technology that would principally benefit conventional weapons, facilitating what the Soviets termed a “reconnaissance/strike complex”—the combination of sensors, communications, and long-range, highly accurate strike systems that would sharply compress the detection-to-destruction cycle of warfare. This, they understood, was caused by advances in computer technology and information processing.  

Soviet writers who analyzed the revolutionary potential of new military technologies saw several effects: They would increase the tempo of battle and extend the depths to which sensors and fire systems would operate, permitting the disruption of the enemy’s command and control centers, and hindering its ability to reinforce frontline forces. Moreover, Ogarkov argued that integrating new reconnaissance and guidance technologies into future conventional weapons systems would make conventional weapons almost as effective as nuclear weapons. It would also make the system “global in nature” and increase its destructive potential “at a minimum by an order of magnitude.” Making his assessment in the 1970s, Ogarkov anticipated a profound threat to Soviet power in the 1980s. The Americans and NATO were becoming too powerful, and the problem was the Soviets could not match U.S. technological superiority. They could steal computers and reverse engineer them, but the tyranny of Moore’s Law and the straitjacket of the Soviet economy and society ensured that the Americans would always be ahead.  

Andropov did not live long enough to execute the reforms needed. When Gorbachev came to power, he tried through lower conventional expenditures, and major social and economic reforms of glasnost (openness to permit some criticisms) and perestroika (restructuring the Soviet economy). The central problem was the Soviet Union treated a photocopier as a classified device. Information was stovepiped not shared. The totalitarian state Lenin and Stalin created could not reform, and no one believed in the ideology anymore. Despite world class mathematicians and computer scientists, there was no way the Soviets were going to compete with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in the information age. 

When reforms failed, he tried to destroy the U.S. alliance network. He promised West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl German unification if he withdrew West Germany from NATO. To his great credit, Kohl refused. Gorbachev then tried to end the U.S.-Japanese alliance by promising the return of disputed territories to Japan. Equally to their credit, the Japanese refused and stayed steadfast U.S. allies. He tried to make peace with Deng Xiaoping, but Tiananmen Square and Soviet weakness precluded any return to Sino-Soviet alliance. 

With his inability to match U.S. military power, or destroy its alliance networks, he turned to ending the Soviet empire in Eastern and Central Europe and withdrawing from Afghanistan. Those actions emboldened the captive nations, including Russia, to break free from Soviet control. Gorbachev tried to stop this, and Soviet authorities massacred innocent protesters in Lithuania in January 1991, while the West’s attention was on Iraq.  

In Russia today, he is loathed for destroying the Soviet economy and the Soviet Union’s superpower status. He did not intend to be the last Soviet leader, and he attempted to sustain the evil Soviet system and continue the Cold War. He could not. This was due to the great weaknesses of the Soviet system and of Soviet life, the U.S. determination to defeat the Soviet Union, and loyal U.S. allies. Stalin gave him a weak hand to play. He tried to play it against the United States but ultimately had to fold. Reviled in his homeland, America gave him shelter. 

Thus, perceived through the lens of Soviet history, he was the worst Soviet leader because he presided over its death. At the same time, that made him the best Soviet leader for the interests of the United States. His intent, however, was to be a more effective enemy of the United States, U.S. allies, and of our freedoms. Thank goodness he did not get what he wanted. 

Finally, Gorbachev’s true legacy is not found in the West but in China. Gorbachev taught the Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping what not to do. Deng learned from Gorbachev that the Chinese Communist Party must never enact political reforms, only economic ones, and that the Chinese, unlike the Soviets, must enter the Western economic ecosystem to become strong enough to overthrow the West. Thus, Gorbachev did not end the Cold War, but as China’s tutor, he contributed to the origins of a new one.

About Bradley A. Thayer

Bradley A. Thayer is coauthor of Understanding the China Threat and Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy.

Photo: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reads his resignation statement in Moscow, 25 December 1991. VITALY ARMAND/AFP via Getty Images

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