November 8, 2014

Margolis Interview with Shevardnadze

Margolis Interview with Shevardnadze

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was collapsing. The Berlin Wall had been breached. The Communist East German government was literally swept away by the storm tide of history.

It was also the most dangerous moment the world had faced since the 1963 Cuban missile crisis. What would the Soviet leadership do? Just graciously give way or use its huge Red Army and KGB to crush the uprisings?

Interestingly, in a raw exposure of shameful historical enmity, Britain’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher and France’s president Francois Mitterand both called Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to urge him not to allow German reunification.

The Soviet Union’s reformist leader could have stopped the uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The mighty Group of Soviet Forces Germany (GSFG) based in East Germany had 338,000 crack troops in 24 divisions, with 4,200 tanks, 8,000 armored vehicles, 3,800 guns and rocket launchers and 690 combat aircraft.

NATO planners had long believed that GFSG could punch through western defenses on the North German plain and storm Antwerp and Rotterdam by D+8. Other Soviet corps in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary would strike west. Switzerland’s defense planners foresaw a massive Soviet thrust through their nation and into the Rhone Valley, outflanking NATO defenses to the north.

General Secretary Gorbachev could have quickly used the iron fist. But true to his humanistic philosophy and his innate decency, the Soviet leader ordered the GFSG to stand down, pack up, and return to the Soviet Union even though there were no barracks or apartments for the returning Soviet legions.

The opening of the East German wall and subsequent fall of its Communist government mixed Karl Marx with Groucho and Harpo Marx. In a comedy of errors, the bumbling East German government became paralyzed as mobs tried to storm the wall and get to West Germany. No high official wanted to give the order to shoot. The gates of the wall were opened by mistake.

In the USSR, resistance among hardline Communists, the military brass and the KGB was intense. Gorbachev would have been unable to sound the retreat without the support of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

He was a remarkable man: the tough former KGB boss of Georgia and Communist Party chief, Shevardnadze seemed an improbable reformer. But he co-authored the liberating policy of glasnost and perestroika and forced its adoption by the unwilling Soviet hierarchy.

I twice interviewed Shevardnadze in Moscow: he was determined to sweep away the communist system and end the Cold War. We used to call him “Chevvy Eddy.” His quick wit and sardonic humor made him very likeable. I asked him if he might consider becoming president of an independent Georgia – which he later did until overthrown by the US-backed 2003 “rose revolution.”

Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I walked through the just abandoned GFSG headquarters in Wünsdorf, near Berlin. It was a scene of utter desolation: broken windows, phones and plumbing ripped out of the walls, secret files blowing in the wind. The mighty Red Army had gone. As a veteran cold war warrior, I found it incredible that an empire could disappear so quickly. Just a few regiment of Soviet soldiers and tanks, I mused, could have stopped the East German uprising.

In secret, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze agreed to a deal with US President George H.W. Bush and his senior strategy officials: the Soviet Union would pull out of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. In exchange, the US vowed not to advance NATO into Eastern Europe or anywhere near Russia’s borders.

Equally important, Gorbachev refused to use force to keep the USSR together.

The Soviet leaders believed they had an ironclad deal. They did not.

The next three US administrations – Clinton, Bush II, and Obama – violated the original sphere of influence accord and began advancing US power east towards Russia’s borders. The most recent NATO foray was the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government, a ham-handed act that nearly sparked World War III.

For imperial-minded Washington, the temptation to kick Russia while it was down and gobble up its former dominion was irresistible. Gorbachev was mocked in western power circles – and by many angry Russians – as a foolish idealist: “the Soviet Jimmy Carter.”

Today, 25 years after the fall of the Soviet imperium, US promises have been revoked. Washington appears determined to undermine the Russian Federation and further dismantle it. Washington sees Russia as a has-been, a minor power unworthy of respect or amity.

The Russians have actually be told to stop complaining because the Gorbachev-Bush deal was not put in writing, only oral. A naïve oversight by the Russians?

From retirement, Gorbachev bitterly watches all he strove for turns to ashes as his countrymen blame him for destroying the Soviet Union. Shevardnadze died in Georgia last July. The Cold Ware is back, to the joy of the triumphant Republicans in Washington.

Soon after the wall fell, I recall writing that unless the western allies and the Soviets came to a firm agreement of spheres of influence and a neutral zone in Middle Europe and the Baltic that a dangerous series of clashes was inevitable. We are now there.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2014

This post is in: Balkans, Crimea, European Union, France, Germany, Great Britain, History, Russia, Soviet Union


  1. Great article. On a minor point, the Cuban missile crisis took place in October 1962, not in 1963.

    Russia has found, although it should not have been surprised, that American political leaders cannot be taken at their word and that the US is not a true friend to any country.

  2. From the BBC, “The world is on the brink of a new Cold War, and trust should be restored by dialogue with Russia, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said.”

    It’s not going to happen… Gorby deserved the peace prize… the current ‘buffoon’ didn’t.

  3. Eric… couple of minor corrections:

    Cold War in second last paragraph…

    Carriage return after Baltic should be removed…

    Great article…


  4. solum temptare possumus says:

    Is it any wonder, why Mr Putin distrusts all American presidents?
    The USA has kept these secret dealings out of the spotlight for decades.
    When President Kennedy said his famous and oft quoted:
    ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, to the people of West Berlin, June 26th 1963, the Cold War was on; ratcheted down a notch from the Cuban Missile Crisis.
    A lesser known speech of President Kennedy was given on April 27th 1961.
    From Wikipedia:
    President Kennedy delivered the speech: The President and the Press: Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association.[68] Kennedy told the assembled press that the Cold War required the media to avoid disclosing information that might threaten American interests, saying, “Every newspaper now asks itself with respect to every story: ‘Is it news?’. All I ask is that you add the question: ‘Is it in the interest of national security?'”

    Herbert N. Foerstel, Banned in the Media: A Reference Guide to Censorship in the Press, Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, and the Internet (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998) p8
    The Left wing media have been doing this, as well as the opposition Right wing media since 1961.
    Et sic etiam pergit (And so it goes)
    ad iudicium

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