Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, whose death was announced today, was the most tragic figure in recent history. A man of high ideals but from a very constrained intellectual background, he had great achievements to his credit — and yet, lived to see almost all of them destroyed.
One of his finest legacies was that compared to the fall of other empires (including the British and French): he presided over the Soviet collapse with extraordinarily little bloodshed. And now, even that achievement is being destroyed by the post-imperial war in Ukraine.
Gorbachev made very serious mistakes — but it may well be that the combination of challenges he faced would have defeated the greatest of statesmen. No other leader in history has been forced fundamentally to reform a semi-developed but irrational and sclerotic economic system while at the same time transforming a vast multinational empire, even as the ideology that held that empire together was disintegrating around him. The nearest historical parallel is with the reformers of the Ottoman Empire in the decades before its final collapse — and they also failed disastrously.
To understand both Gorbachev’s idealism and his naivete about the Soviet system, it is vital to understand the real successes achieved by the USSR. Indeed, Gorbachev himself was one of them. He was born to a poor peasant family of mixed Russian and Ukrainian origin in Stavropol Province of the northern Caucasus. The Soviet system and the Communist Party educated him and gave him enormous opportunities. His father was wounded in the Red Army during the Second World War, and Gorbachev was 14 years old when that army won its great victory over Nazi Germany.
In the years that followed, he witnessed the Soviet technological and engineering achievements of the 1950s and 1960s. Later, as First Secretary of the Stavropol Communist Party, he presided over one of the last of these, the Great Stavropol Canal. He experienced Khrushchev’s “Thaw,” and the idealism of that period seems to have stayed with him, surviving the gray authoritarian “stagnation” of the Brezhnev years. This was also fed by classical Russian literature, much of which (at least in its Soviet selection) had a highly idealistic cast.
Like Khrushchev (though without his peasant coarseness), Gorbachev was therefore an entirely Soviet product, and despite his great intelligence, there were things he was not equipped to see. One was that the crimes of Communism did not begin with Stalin, but with Lenin, and therefore if fully revealed, would compromise the entire ideology on which the Soviet system depended. Another was the power of nationalism. Gorbachev seems genuinely to have believed in the brotherhood of Soviet peoples. Being half-Ukrainian himself, national hatred between Ukrainians and Russians was to him literally unimaginable.
Gorbachev’s failure is often contrasted unfavorably with the tremendous success of Deng Xiaoping in transforming Communist China during the same period, while at the same time holding the state together. This is however not entirely fair. Unlike China, not only was the Soviet Union itself a huge multinational state in which ethnic Russians were the minority, but it also ruled over large, ancient, and restive nations in Eastern and Central Europe.
Given Polish, Czechoslovak, and Hungarian history, and the enforced division of Germany, it was a certainty that as soon as Communist repression was relaxed, these countries would revolt. Given that they bordered on the USSR itself, it was also highly probable that the resulting unrest would spread to Soviet nationalities. Preventing this would have required ferocious repression. Not only did this contradict Gorbachev’s whole program, but he himself seemed to have genuinely shrunk from it.
Could Gorbachev have imitated Deng Xiaoping in reforming the economy while maintaining Communist authoritarian control? The problem here is that the Communist economic system in the Soviet Union was much older and more deeply rooted. In China, total state control of the economy only lasted twenty years, from the Great Leap Forward to the death of Mao.
In the Soviet Union, it lasted almost three times as long. By the time Gorbachev became leader, only a few very old people for example could remember farming for profit. Nor did the Soviet Union have a huge pool of poor, underutilized peasant labor, or the great Chinese commercial diaspora to draw on. The Soviet Union therefore simply did not possess China’s underlying economic dynamism. As a result, as political turmoil spread, the economy, far from flourishing, collapsed, destroying Gorbachev’s own legitimacy in the process.
Moreover, in order to carry out economic reforms at all, Gorbachev had to break the power of a Soviet bureaucracy deeply invested in the existing economic system and its ideological underpinnings. To break their power and initiate Perestroika (reconstruction), Gorbachev felt that he needed to introduce Glasnost (openness, transparency) to reveal the flaws in the system and undermine their power and ability to block change. But this also meant undermining the centralized power of the Communist Party — at which point the Communist leaders of certain Soviet republics began to hedge their bets by appealing to local nationalism.
Gorbachev might still have been able to hold a looser form of Soviet Union together, had it not been for a combination of other factors. Most important was the defection of the Russian Soviet republic itself, when Boris Yeltsin was elected as its leader in opposition to Gorbachev. The vote for him reflected public anger at economic misery, but also the feeling among Russians that Russian energy and raw materials were subsidizing the other republics.
Secondly, by the end of 1990 Soviet economic collapse meant that Gorbachev was deeply dependent on aid from the West. Much of his remaining personal prestige was tied to the end of the Cold War and the establishment of good relations with the West. Both of these things would have been destroyed if he had engaged in the level of repression necessary to hold the union together.
The only force that could have achieved this would have been the Soviet army. The army had, however, been systematically excluded from a domestic political role, ruthlessly under Stalin, more softly under his successors. The generals had no idea how to behave in these circumstances, and were moreover infuriated by the occasions on which Gorbachev used troops for local repression only to disown and criticize them. When a handful of generals did decide to act in August 1991, their coup was a chaotic shambles which dealt the Soviet Union its death blow.
In the almost 30 years since the end of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev became an increasingly sad figure, respected but ignored in the West, reviled at home. The 1990s in Russia saw his hopes of reform collapse in an orgy of looting and cynicism. The West betrayed its promise to him not to expand NATO, and replaced his dream of a “Common European Home” with a U.S. and EU order that excluded Russia and sought to turn it into an impotent satellite.
Putin, though he received Gorbachev’s qualified approval, created a state antithetical to Gorbachev’s ideals. And in the final negation of those ideals, Russia invaded Ukraine in the name of a brutal great power nationalism, evoking in turn a fierce Ukrainian ethnic nationalism and permanently dividing the ethnicities of Gorbachev’s father and mother.
Thinking of Gorbachev in his later years, I am reminded of an elderly former officer of the Russian Imperial Army, who remarked in exile in Paris that if he had died in 1917 he would have had a happier life. Gorbachev too might have been happier if he had died with his country.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Mikhail Gorbachev and his spouse Raisa Gorbachev after a friendship meeting in the Wawel Castle during a visit to Poland in July 1988. (Wikimedia Commons/ Russian International News Agency — RIA Novost)
The revolutionary violence that swept Kyiv’s Maidan Square on the night of February 21, 2014 unleashed the forces of Ukrainian nationalism and, ultimately, Russian revanchism, and resulted in, among other things, the first full-scale land war in Europe since 1945.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the Maidan the “first victory” in Ukraine’s fight for independence from Russia. Yet too often lost in the tributes to Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’ are two simple, though ramifying, questions: What was the Maidan really about? And did things have to turn out this way?
Revisiting the events of that time may help us more fully understand how we arrived at this fateful moment in world affairs.
So, what precipitated the Maidan Revolution?
In November 2013, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych rejected the terms of the European Union Association Agreement in favor of a $15 billion credit agreement offered by the Russian Federation. Many in the western part of Ukraine had supported the EU deal, as it would have, in their view, secured Ukraine’s future within Europe.
But, as the Europeans, Americans, Ukrainians and Russians knew full well, the association agreement with Brussels wasn’t merely a trade deal. Section 2.3 of the EU-Ukraine association agenda would have required the signatories to:
"...take measures to foster military cooperation and cooperation of technical character between the EU and Ukraine [and] encourage and facilitate direct cooperation on concrete activities, jointly identified by both sides, between relevant Ukrainian institutions and CFSP/CSDP agencies and bodies such as the European Defence Agency, the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the European Union Satellite Centre and the European Security and Defence College."
In other words, the trade deal also included the encouragement of military interoperability with forces viewed, rightly or wrongly, by the Russian government as a threat to Russian national security.
In addition, the EU association agenda required Ukraine to put up barriers to trade with Russia. An alternative proposal put forward by Romano Prodi (former Italian Prime Minister and EU Commission president) would have allowed Ukraine to trade with both Russia and the EU but was rejected by Brussels.
Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU agreement brought thousands of protesters to Kyiv’s Independence (Maidan) Square. Yet policy disagreements over issues of trade and national security can and are routinely adjudicated via democratic procedures, as they are in the U.S. and Europe. And such an adjudication was eminently possible, even as late as the morning of February 21, 2014, when a deal brokered by Russia and the EU was struck between Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition that included a revision of Ukraine's constitution, the creation of a unity government, and an early presidential election to be held 10 months later in December 2014.
But on the night of February 21, Yanukovych fled, and a new government was installed by voluntarist rather than democratic means. The immediate post-Maidan government included the far-right Svoboda Party, whose members, according to a contemporaneous Reuters report, held “five senior roles in Ukraine's new government including the post of deputy prime minister.”
Edmund Wilson once wrote that “it is all too easy to idealize a social upheaval which takes place in some other country than one’s own.” And that was a trap into which the Obama administration — along with almost the entirety of the American media, intelligentsia and think tank world — fell in the immediate aftermath of the Maidan.
It would be fair of critics of this view (and there are many) to ask: What were their alternatives to the Obama administration’s support for the Maidan and Kyiv’s post-revolutionary government?
Mr. Obama might have said “A deal was struck. Stick to it.” This would have required a degree of statesmanship unusual to any American president. But, as Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer observed only a month later,
"...there was a deal that was cut with the European foreign ministers. That deal was abrogated and the Americans were very happy to jump on that immediately in ways that would have been completely unacceptable to anyone in the U.S. administration if we had been on the other side.”
And so, the U.S. lent its support to the post-Maidan government (and the Anti-Terrorist Operation, or ATO, launched in April 2014) against the largely, but of course far from entirely, indigenous uprising in the Donbas. Thus began the first phase of the war, which lasted until the evening of February 24, 2022 and cost 14,000 dead and 1.5 million refugees.
In addition to the ATO, Kyiv also pursued a policy of decommunization in the east (later cited by Putin as among his many grievances with post-Maidan Kyiv) and repeatedly refused to implement the Minsk Accords. As a former U.S. Ambassador to the USSR, Jack F. Matlock, noted in Responsible Statecraft, “The war might have been prevented — probably would have been prevented — if Ukraine had been willing to abide by the Minsk agreement, recognize the Donbas as an autonomous entity within Ukraine, avoid NATO military advisors, and pledge not to enter NATO."
The second phase of the war opened on the evening of February 24, 2022, as some 190,000 Russian troops invaded Ukraine. The costs to Ukraine have been staggering.
The World Economic Forum recently estimated that the cost of Ukrainian reconstruction will reach $1 trillion. Still more, “Approximately 20% of the country’s farmland has been wrecked and 30% of land either littered with landmines or unexploded ordnance.” Casualty estimates are known to be among the most closely held state secrets during wartime, but some, like former Ukraine prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko, have estimated Ukraine suffered a combined 500,000 dead and wounded in its war with Russia. Meanwhile, the population of Ukraine has plummeted from 45.5 million in 2013 to an estimated 37 million today.
Looking back, the warnings issued by a small minority in the winter of 2014, including, but not limited to: the present authors; Professor Stephen F. Cohen; The Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven; Ambassador Jack Matlock; Professor John J. Mearsheimer; and others were dismissed by the Obama administration, policymakers, the media and the most influential think tanks in Washington. Yet the effort to wrest Ukraine into the West’s orbit via revolutionary violence, despite the objections of fully a third of that country, has been nothing short of catastrophic.
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The German Bundeswehr ship "Hessen" sets sail on Feb. 8, 2024 from Wilhelmshaven to help protect merchant ships in the Red Sea against attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. (Reuters)
With no ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in sight and Houthi forces in Yemen still firing missiles and drones at commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the EU’s efforts at addressing conflict in Gaza and its broader regional ramifications keep flailing.
After weeks of discussions, the EU officially launched its naval operation in the Red Sea on February 19 to protect international commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. The Houthis claim they wantto force a ceasefire in Gaza. Yet, while the ceasefire remains elusive, the attacks impose real costs on EU members: the EU commissioner for economy Paolo Gentiloni recently estimated that the rerouting of shipping from the Red Sea has increased delivery times for shipments between Asia and the EU by 10 to 15 days and the consequent costs by around 400%.
Around 40% of the EU’s total trade with the Middle East and Asia passes through the Red Sea.
Protecting that shipping route thus is an important collective economic and security interest for the EU. Yet only four countries — France, Germany, Italy and Belgium — out of the 27 member states have agreed to provide warships for the new operation. Spain, which refrained from using its veto power to block the initiative, nonetheless declined to participate, having expressed concerns from the outset that any armed operation would reduce pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza.
A bigger question is how effective this new EU operation will be in countering the Houthi threat given its purely defensive mandate to provide “situational awareness, accompany vessels and protect them against possible attacks at sea.” Accordingly, the participating EU warships will be authorized to fire on Houthi targets only if they themselves or commercial vessels they are to protect are attacked. That rules out pre-emptive action against Houthi missile batteries or related targets.
The defensive nature of the operation, however, may not be enough to convince the Houthis to refrain from attacking the European ships. In fact, Houthi leaders warned Italy, one of the new operation’s chief promoters, that it will become “a target if it participates in attacks on the Houthis.”
If this threat comes to fruition, will the EU authorize offensive action against the Houthis, potentially drawing itself into a wider conflict? Will it rely on U.S. hard power for protection given that Washington is already engaged against the Houthis through “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” in which a few EU nations – Denmark, Netherlands and Greece, as well as non-EU NATO members Britain and Norway -- are also participating?
Would such developments not lead to a de facto merging of the U.S. and EU-led operations under Washington’s lead — an outcome Europeans sought to avoid and which is the very reason why they launched their own mission in the first place?
That these are not abstract questions is underscored by the failure, so far, of scores of U.S.- and UK-led strikes to degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to the point where they would no longer pose a significant threat. Indeed, just as the EU announced its mission, the Houthis hit a British cargo ship which was at risk of sinking in the Gulf of Aden in what the Yemeni rebels claimed was their biggest attack yet. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations confirmed the incident, though it did not name the ship.
Ironically, the safest way for the EU to avoid a direct military engagement with the Houthis, apart from testing their vow to stop attacking shipping if Israel ends its Gaza offensive, would be to reduce the number of targets in the Red Sea by encouraging ships to reroute. But such an outcome would, of course, vindicate the Houthi strategy to impose costs on the Western powers for the failure to stop the war in Gaza.
And that brings us back to the mother of all conflicts in the Middle East: the continuing war in Gaza. The EU’s approach so far has been to delink Gaza from the crisis in the Red Sea and the broader escalation in the region, including clashes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Yet mounting tensions on that front show that its approach is not working.
Some actors in the EU understand the urgent need for a ceasefire in Gaza as a necessary condition for regional de-escalation. The EU high representative on foreign policy Josep Borrell has been particularly vocal in his criticism of Israel. He suggested limiting arms sales to Tel Aviv on the grounds that such transfers violate EU guidelines that ban sales to countries accused of violations of the international humanitarian law.
A Dutch appeals court recently ordered a halt to exports of F-35 jet parts to Israel on the same grounds. However, it is highly unlikely that the EU as a whole would adopt such a position, given that a number of countries – especially Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary – strongly support Israel.
A stronger point of leverage could be to suspend fully or partially the association agreement between the EU and Israel. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. In 2023, that agreement enabled 46.8 billion euros worth of bilateral trade. The prime ministers of Spain and Ireland, Pedro Sanchez and Leo Varadkar, respectively, asked the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to “urgently review” whether Israel is violating the human rights clauses included in that agreement. On February 19, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, insisted that the review should be completed in time for the next EU foreign ministers meeting on March 18.
A full suspension of the agreement seems very unlikely even if the Commission finds Israel to have violated its human rights obligations because that would call for a unanimous decision by all member states. A partial suspension would require a qualified majority: 55% of member states (or 15 out of 27) representing 65% of the EU’s total population.
Notably, the only precedent for taking such an action came in 2011 when the EU suspended an association agreement with Syria in response to mass violations of human rights by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Meanwhile, the EU proved unable last week to issue even an official appeal to Israel not to follow through with its plans to carry out a ground invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, which has become the last refuge of nearly a million refugees from elsewhere in the enclave. In the face of a veto threat by Hungary, the other 26 member states instead issued a joint statement warning of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences should Israel move ahead with such an invasion.
Notably, however, Hungary was isolated in its opposition to the appeal as Germany and other member states that have traditionally been reluctant to criticize Israel’s conduct of war were on board. That is a step forward, but it’s too little and it comes too late. As long as the EU keeps avoiding imposing real consequences on Israel for its conduct, it will keep losing influence in the Middle East.
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Mike Shoemaker VP F35 customer programs, FMS, Domestic and Partners talks during the inauguration ceremony of Sabca's new production hall for the horizontal tailplane of the F-35 fighter aircraft, in Lummen, Thursday 10 March 2022. T BELGA PHOTO JOHN THYS.
Instead of reevaluating its maximalist national security strategy, the Biden administration is doubling down. It is proposing a generation of investment to expand an arms industry that, overall, fails to meet cost, schedule, and performance standards. And if its strategy is any indication, the administration has no vision for how to eventually reduce U.S. military industrial capacity.
When the Cold War ended, the national security budget shrank. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and deputy William Perry convened industry leaders to encourage their consolidation in a meeting that later became known as the “Last Supper.” Arms makers were to join forces or go out of business. So they ended up downsizing from over 50 prime contractors to just five. And while contractors needed to pare down their industrial capacity, unchecked consolidation created the monopolistic defense sector we have now — one that depends heavily on government contracts and enjoys significant freedom to set prices.
In the decades since, contractors have leveraged their growing economic power to pave inroads on Capitol Hill. They have solidified their economic influence to stave off the political potential for future national security cuts, regardless of their performance or the geopolitical environment.
Growing the military industrial base over the course of a generation would only further empower arms makers in our economy, deepening the ditch the United States has dug itself into for decades by continually increasing national security spending — and by doling about half of it out to contractors. The U.S. spends more on national security than the next 10 countries combined, outpacing China alone by over 30%.
Ironically, the administration acknowledges in the strategy that “America’s economic security and national security are mutually reinforcing,” stating that “the nation’s military strength depends in part on our overall economic strength.” The strategy further states that optimizing the nation’s defense needs typically requires tradeoffs between “cost, speed, and scale.” It doesn’t mention quality of industrial output — arguably the biggest tradeoff the U.S. government has made in military procurement.
Consider, for instance, the B-2 bomber, the F-35 fighter jet, the Littoral Combat Ship, the V-22 Osprey, and many other examples of acquisition failures that have spanned decades. More recently, the Government Accountability Office has reported that while the number of major defense acquisition programs has fallen, both costs and average delivery time have risen.
So what is the military really getting from more and more national security spending? Less for more: Fewer weapons than it asked for, usually late and over budget, and, much of the time, dysfunctional. Acquisition failures are a major reason the Congressional Budget Office projects that operations and maintenance spending will significantly exceed the rate of inflation for the next decade — a considerable budgeting issue for a military that seemingly has no plans to reduce either its force structure or its industrial capacity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Biden’s new National Defense Industrial Strategy specifically states there is a need for the U.S. to “move aggressively toward innovative, next-generation capabilities while continuing to upgrade and produce, in significant volumes, conventional weapons systems already in the force.” Ironically, the military has spent over two decades developing the F-35, next-generation technology that the Pentagon still hasn’t greenlit for full-rate production.
Throwing more money at an industrial base comprised of businesses too big to fail won’t increase the quantity or quality of its output. But that’s exactly what the strategy urges. One of the priorities is to “institutionalize supply chain resilience.” It’s an important goal, but one the administration proposes the Pentagon tackle, in part by investing in “spare production capacity,” what the strategy defines as “excess capacity a company or organization maintains beyond its current production needs.”
But building factories to sit empty is not supply chain resilience. It’s wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure, creating a profit motive for arms makers to make more weapons. And for an industry constantly sounding the alarm about the need for consistent “demand signals” from Congress, the Pentagon’s plans to invest a generation of U.S. taxpayer money in “spare production capacity” sounds a lot like throwing the demand-supply principle out the window. In that case, the U.S. might as well consider nationalizing the defense industry, which already lacks competition and relies almost entirely on the government. Why not eliminate the profit motive? It’s not like making money drives contractors to produce quality products on time or within budget.
Besides supply chain resilience, another priority laid out in this strategy is “flexible acquisition.” The stated goal is to reduce costs and development times while increasing scalability. In pursuit of that goal, the administration proposes “a flexible requirements process” for multiyear contracts, and the expansion of multiyear contracting writ large. It reasons that as priorities shift in an “evolving threat environment,” so too should contractors’ deliverables. But pairing flexible requirements with an increasing number of multiyear contracts is a recipe for disaster.
Before Russia attacked Ukraine, multiyear contracts were relatively rare — limited to major aircraft and ships. The Congressional Research Service notes that estimated savings on these programs have historically fallen within the range of 5% — 10%. But those are estimates, and they may not apply to other munitions now produced under multiyear contracts. The report also confirms that actual savings are “difficult to observe,” in part because the Pentagon does not track the cost performance of multiyear contracts.
Just because multiyear contracting is more common doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. And while the Pentagon argues that multiyear contracts give contractors the so-called demand signal they need to ramp up production, contractors don’t usually spend their extra money on identifying efficiencies or making capital investments to increase output at a lower cost — and the Pentagon isn’t checking.
The strategy also proposes “aggressive expansion of production capacity.” It notes that during peacetime, weapons acquisition tends to focus on “greater efficiency, cost effectiveness, transparency, and accountability.” Taking caution not to assert that the United States is in wartime, the strategy contrasts peacetime acquisition policy with “today’s threat environment,” calling for “crisis period acquisition policy” that revitalizes the industrial base and shifts focus from efficiency and effectiveness to ensuring that military contractors are “better resourced.” But contractors don’t have a resource problem, and “crisis acquisition policy” puts the United States on a “permanent war footing.”
Lawmakers must challenge the administration’s maximalist national security strategy by interrogating its push to expand military industrial capacity so drastically. It’s critical that they do, not only because the U.S. is limited in what it can produce and provide to other countries but also because arms industry greed is boundless — and without off-ramps or constraints, the U.S. government may find in 20 or 30 years that it’s in a ditch it can’t get out of.