Gorbachev’s moral authority did little to deter Putin

“He has led our country through a time of complex, dramatic change, large-scale foreign policy, and economic and social challenges,” the statement read. “He fully understood that reforms were necessary, he strived to offer his own solutions to urgent problems.”

A sense of protocol may have prevented the Kremlin leader from telling us what he really thinks about the man who presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union, something Putin once called “the greatest geopolitical disaster” of the twentieth century. For a more unvarnished opinion, we can count on Margarita Simonyan, the bellicose editor-in-chief of the state propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today).

“Gorbachev is dead,” Simonyan wrote on Twitter. “It is time to gather the scattered.”

Simonyan seems to share his President, who has embarked on a campaign of imperial restoration to invade Ukraine. And it’s tempting to view the two leaders through a simple narrative arc: Gorbachev allowed the 15 republics of the Soviet Union to break away, and Putin is trying, through brute force, to unify that empire.

On February 26, two days after the Russian invasion, Gorbachev’s foundation called for an “early cessation of hostilities and the immediate start of peace negotiations.”

But it is a stretch to say that Gorbachev has been a consistent and vocal critic of Putin. For starters, Gorbachev has emerged as a supporter of Russia’s move in 2014 to annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine, a prelude to Putin’s full-scale invasion of the country.

And in retrospect, Gorbachev himself fought the breakup of the Soviet Union. In a wide-ranging 2012 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the late Soviet President insisted that his efforts to stabilize the USSR were undermined by a treacherous Boris Yeltsin — who became President of an independent Russia after the fall of 1991 – – and of the Soviet leadership.

“You will not find in any of my speeches until the very end anything that supported the destruction of the union,” Gorbachev said. “The destruction of the union was the result of the betrayal of the Soviet nomenklatura (party elite), of the bureaucracy, and also the betrayal of Yeltsin.”

Gorbachev’s main complaint was that Yeltsin supported a so-called union agreement to preserve the USSR as a looser federation, but worked in parallel behind his back to establish his own power base and organize the exit of Russia from the union.

In fact, the national independence movements in Ukraine, the Baltics and other republics have already gained great momentum in the last period of perestroika (restructuring). And after the failed August 1991 putsch by hardliners, Gorbachev’s union deal was effectively dead in the water.

In fairness, Gorbachev was not the only one who misread the situation. Just weeks before the August 1991 coup attempt, US President George HW Bush visited Kyiv — then the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic — and gave a speech advising Ukrainians to avoid what he called “suicidal nationalism. ”

Bush’s speech — now remembered as the “Chicken Kyiv” speech — went like a lead balloon. Bush and his advisers may be worried about the nightmare scenario of a brutal breakup that then begins in Yugoslavia, leaving a massive nuclear arsenal in uncertain hands. But within months, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Gorbachev, who began his rise through the ranks of the Communist Party in Russia’s southern Stavropol region, may not have understood the national aspirations of Ukrainians — or the aspirations of other nations trapped within the USSR for independence. His willingness to violently put down protests in the Soviet republics — something rarely mentioned in discussions of his career — is a stain on his legacy.

Why Gorbachev's legacy haunts China's ruling Communist Party

That doesn’t necessarily put Gorbachev in the same league as Putin, who refuses to accept Ukraine as a legitimate country, and laments what he calls the “artificial division of Russians and Ukrainians.”

It is often noted that Gorbachev — who signed key arms control agreements that lowered the temperature of the Cold War and steered the world away from the dangers of nuclear war — enjoys global stature while being often reviled in Russia. Gorbachev’s admirers like to point out that he has a deep humanistic streak.

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta — a newspaper that Gorbachev helped fund — praised the late leader for his gentle nature, a quality that rarely noticed in Putin.

“He loved a woman [his wife Raisa] more than his work,” he wrote in a tribute. “I don’t think he could have hugged her if his hands were covered in blood.”

Could Gorbachev have used what was left of his moral authority in Russia to call Putin out more forcefully for his actions? And an indifferent Russian public listened? That we will never know. But his reticence meant that his criticism of Russia’s slide toward dictatorship was often muted.