Pro Putin ‘Gorbi,’ at Berlin Wall, to Turn on West

In the 1980s Mikhail Gorbachev achieved star status in the West for his role in the peaceful end of communism. Yet, his support of Vladimir Putin's military action in the Ukraine reveals someone far more complex.
Gorbachev and Putin agree on Ukraine.

A darling of the West, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, may disappoint many this weekend when he speaks at the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Mr. Gorbachev has said he will use his appearance in the German capital to publicly defend the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over the Ukraine crisis.

In a statement released ahead of his arrival by a Russian news agency, the former Soviet leader said he plans to speak out on behalf of Mr. Putin’s Ukraine policy when he meets with the German chancellor Angela Merkel and German President Joachim Gauck.

Ms. Merkel and Germany support E.U. economic sanctions against Russia for its siezure of the Crimea and support of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The weekend reunification celebrations in Berlin are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of revelers, mostly from Germany itself.

"I am absolutely convinced that Putin protects Russia’s interests better than anyone else,” Mr Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency on Thursday.

Mr. Gorbachev, now 83, has criticized Mr. Putin in the past, and is part owner of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the few media organizations in the country that openly questions Kremlin policy.

Gorbachev has always been a part of the Russian elite, even if he has been critical of parts of Putin’s policies. Stefan Meister, German Council on Foreign Relations

Yet, like many in Russia, he is broadly supportive of the Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

“Gorbachev has always been a part of the Russian elite, even if he has been critical of parts of Putin’s policies,” said Stefan Meister, an analyst at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “And when it comes to the annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine conflict, he is not a critical voice in Russia.”

In fact Mr. Gorbachev said this week that the United States was using the conflict over Ukraine as an opportunity to “pick on” Russia.

The 83-year-old claimed Washington had failed to create new cooperation structures with Moscow. “They have different plans, they need a different situation: one that would allow them to intervene everywhere.”

Last month Mr. Gorbachev had already complained that NATO’s eastward expansion was a “mistake and breach” of the spirit of agreements his administration had made with the West toward the end of the Cold War.

Many former Soviet officials claim that the United States pledged at the time not to enlarge NATO within the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. In their view the West reneged on that deal by seeking to expand its influence in places like Georgia.

In addition the increased influence of the European Union in the former Eastern Europe is regarded as threat by many in Russia.

Quelle: dpa
Helmut Kohl visits Gorbachev at his dacha in Russia in 1990.
(Source: dpa)


The support for Mr. Putin’s foreign policy and anti-Western stance is now mainstream, even among those sections of the intellectual elite and opposition that have been critical of the Kremlin’s increasing authoritarianism and lack of reforms.

The fact that Mr. Gorbachev is so vociferous in his support of Mr. Putin will disappoint many in the West.

Many there have long regarded the last president of the Soviet Union with admiration and even affection.

Mr. Gorbachev had the status of a pop star in the late 1980s in the West. The man who embarked on a series of reforms in the Soviet Union after coming to power in 1985 was also seen as doing much to improve relations between the Cold War foes.

Mr. Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union, which was dissolved in December 1991.

That had never been his intention. He had hoped to reform the Soviet Union from above, but events spiraled out his control.

In the West, something of a “Gorbi” cult grew up around the man whose reforms such as glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) became household terms.

Gorbachev, from the Western point of view, was the man who ensured that the end of communism and the break-up of the old Eastern Bloc did not turn violent. That role lead him to winning the Noble Peace Prize in 1990.

In particular when it comes to Germany, the fact that Mr. Gorbachev made it clear that he would not support a crackdown in then East Germany has been viewed as crucial in leading to the collapse of communist system and paving the way for reunification.

Yet, the view in the West of Gorbachev is not the full picture, warned Mr. Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The fact that in 1990 and 1991 Gorbachev allowed troops to shoot at demonstrators in the Baltic States or that he moved troops into Soviet Republics, such as Azerbaijan, to try to quash national movements is not widely acknowledged in the West.

“We have a very one-sided view here of Gorbachev, as someone who is good and positive, who helped ensure the peaceful end of the Soviet Union. That is a very Western view of someone who was in fact a victim of the forces of history, who sought to hold the Soviet Union together, with force if necessary.”

In Russia Mr. Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent loss of power and influence is regarded negatively. He has always been more popular in the West.

“This perception has a lot to do with the whole perception of what is happening in Russia at the moment,” Mr. Meister said. “We have not realized how things really are there. The mentality of the large majority of the population is anti-Americanism, anti-West and anti-liberal.”

Mr. Meister said that the way the West has long regarded Gorbachev as an exemplary figure is indicative of this lack of understanding. “It is a sign of how we have misinterpreted Russia, it is our own projection.”


Siobhán Dowling is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin and covers German and European politics. To contact the author: [email protected].