MOSCOW (AP) — When the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union stepped back, letting East Germany’s communist government collapse and then quickly accepting German unification. Russian President Vladimir Putin now blames the Soviet leadership for naivety that paved the way for NATO’s expansion eastward.
Many in Russia share that view, seeing the collapse of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany as a moment when Moscow reached out to the West hoping to forge a new era of partnership but was cheated by Western powers. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged the Communist leaders in Central and Eastern Europe to follow his lead in launching liberal reforms and took no action to shore up their regimes when they started to crumble under the pressure of pro-democracy forces. During 1989, reformers took power across Soviet bloc countries, ending more than four decades of Communist rule.
The swiftness of the change took Gorbachev himself by surprise. The ex-Soviet leader said in a recent interview, ahead of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, that he welcomed democratic changes in East Germany and other Soviet bloc countries but didn’t foresee the Berlin Wall to come down that quickly. “Not only us, but our Western partners didn’t expect that the pace of history would be so fast,” Gorbachev told newspaper Izvestia.
The morning after the Berlin Wall’s collapse, Gorbachev called a session of the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo to discuss a Soviet response. “The Politburo unanimously decided that the use of force must be absolutely ruled out. Some were certainly eager to ‘restore order’ with tanks, but they kept mum then,” he said in the interview. Pavel Palazhchenko, who worked as Gorbachev’s interpreter at the time, said that “any other decision could have had extremely serious, grave consequences, could have been the beginning of a disaster.”
The Soviet Union had more than 300,000 troops and more than 12,000 tanks and other armored vehicles in East Germany. “Practically they could have closed the entire border with their tanks, but they stayed in their barracks,” said Vladislav Zubok, an expert on Soviet history with the London School of Economics. “It was clear to the Soviet leadership that it was impossible to put the paste back into the tube. A new era started.” Nikolai Andreyev, who was a Soviet army colonel in East Germany, said he was relieved to see that the Soviet leadership didn’t try to reclaim control by forceful means. “I was happy that it all happened peacefully, without a military conflict, without any shooting and bloodshed,” he said.
The Soviet Union itself was going through a tumultuous period of change. Liberal reformers in the newly elected Soviet parliament pushed for ending the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and pro-independence movements quickly gained leverage in Soviet republics. The Soviet media, transformed by Gorbachev’s policy of openness, freely reported on the Berlin Wall’s collapse. “I was sure that our military units wouldn’t take any radical action. Gorbachev’s policy warranted that,” said Vyacheslav Mostovoi, who covered the wall’s fall for Soviet state television.
Following the wall’s collapse, Gorbachev agreed to fast-track the talks on the unification of Germany and, to much Western surprise, easily accepted its membership in NATO. He told Izvestia that it “removed a source of tension in the center of Europe” and helped radically improve relations with Germany. But many in Russia continue to hold Gorbachev responsible for betraying Soviet ally East Germany and foregoing Moscow’s vital interests in talks with Western powers. They include Putin, who charged that the Soviet leader naively trusted Western promises that NATO wouldn’t seek to incorporate Soviet bloc countries instead of getting a written pledge.
“Gorbachev made a mistake,” Putin said. “It’s necessary to document things in politics. And he just talked about it and thought that it was done.” Gorbachev countered that it would have been absurd to ask the West for written guarantees that the Warsaw Pact members wouldn’t join NATO because it would have amounted to declaring the Soviet-led military alliance dead even before it formally ceased to exist in July 1991.
For Putin, however, Gorbachev’s German policy was a show of unforgivable weakness that left a deep personal mark. A month after the wall’s collapse, Putin, a KGB lieutenant colonel posted to Dresden, East Germany, was left to face demonstrators who tried to break into the KGB’s headquarters there after the Soviet military ignored his desperate plea to protect the building. He eventually managed to turn the crowd back without violence.
As the Kremlin was negotiating German reunification, the Soviet Union began to unravel amid a massive economic crisis and political turmoil. The country’s hard currency reserves depleted and the Kremlin was struggling to pay its bills, leaving Gorbachev and his government in a weak negotiating position. “The Soviet Union was in crisis and couldn’t negotiate from the position of equality with the West,” Zubok said.
The country’s economic woes continued after the 1991 Soviet breakup, leaving Russia heavily dependent on Western financial aid throughout the 1990s. Some of the elite Soviet troops hastily pulled back from Germany often were lacking basic infrastructure and had to stay in tents. Germany helped finance the pullout, but many in Russia saw the aid as insufficient. In the years that followed, the Kremlin could do little to oppose the enlargement of NATO that embraced Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999 and incorporated other former Soviet bloc nations and the three ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics in the following years.
NATO’s expansion eastward was widely seen in Russia as a proof of its hostile intentions, helping foment anti-Western sentiments. “The mistrust toward the West, toward the potential partners on the other side, is still there,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian parliament’s upper house. He argued that the West, eager to claim victory in the Cold War, squandered a chance to build a safer world.
“In a certain sense, this damage is somehow irreversible,” Kosachev said. “The Soviet Union and then Russia did make its own choice to stop confrontation with the West and start cooperation. It could have been a win-win situation, but for that the Western countries should have been much wiser, much more generous.”