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25 Years Ago: Failed August Coup Changed U.S. Diplomatic Approach Toward Soviet Union

  • RFE/RL

A member of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush's administration says that until the attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, nobody in the U.S. government imagined the Soviet Union would collapse by the end of 1991.

Nicholas Burns -- who was the White House's director for Soviet affairs at the time and attended all seven U.S.-Soviet summits between Bush and Gorbachev from 1989 through 1991 -- had an insider's view of how the U.S. administration formed policies in reaction to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which culminated in late December 1991.

"The coup against Gorbachev on the 18th and 19th of August 1991 -- when [Gorbachev] was caught in Crimea and the coup plotters in Moscow took over -- was a shock to the rest of the world," Burns, who also was a member of Bush's National Security Council before later becoming the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told RFE/RL in an interview marking the 25th anniversary of the August coup.

Burns said Washington was caught by surprise by the attempted coup because of "the history of the psychology of the Cold War."

He said the coup plot by hard-line members of the Soviet Communist Party revealed what no Western powers had understood just a month earlier: The Soviet Union was on its last legs.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) stands on top of an armored vehicle parked in front of the Russian Federation building in Moscow on August 19, 1991.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) stands on top of an armored vehicle parked in front of the Russian Federation building in Moscow on August 19, 1991.

"It was only after the coup, the attempted coup, that it became apparent that it was a possibility," Burns said. "In August and September of 1991, we began to realize it was possible that the Soviet Union might break up -- might cease to exist. It was unimaginable before that."

"It was only after the coup against Gorbachev when we saw how weak [Gorbachev] was politically, when we saw that [Boris] Yeltsin was rising [in power as] the Russian republic president; that [future Ukrainian President Leonid] Kravchuk was rising; that [future Belarusian leader Stanislau] Shushkevich in Belarus was rising. [It was] when they became power centers unto themselves."

Burns said that before the August coup, the big emphasis of White House policy from 1989 had been how to deal with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe -- in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and East Germany.

"We knew, obviously, because we had embassies in all of these countries, we knew about the democracy movements in these countries," Burns explained.

"We supported the democracy movements. We wanted them to succeed. We wanted to see an end of communism," he said. "But because of the psychology of what happens when you are in a Cold War dynamic, it was really barely believable for a long time to think that the Warsaw Pact could die, cease to exist; that communism could end in a series of countries in Eastern Europe and then ultimately in the Soviet Union. It took time to believe that this was possible."

Fears Of 'Loose Nukes'

However, Burns said once it became apparent that Soviet power was weakening significantly, the policy of the Bush administration was driven by concerns of a violent breakup of the Soviet Union and the "fear of loose nukes" -- that "nuclear weapons might end up in the hands of violent people."

"The Soviet Union, of course, was a great nuclear-weapons power," Burns said. "It had nuclear weapons on the territory of the Ukrainian republic inside the Soviet Union, the Belarusian republic, the Kazakh republic."

"That was a danger to all of us around the world if the nuclear weapons were not held securely by responsible authorities," he continued. "We worried about who might have custody over nuclear weapons. We worried about whether warlords would emerge. Would there be a long-running civil war?"

U.S. President George Bush (left) shares a joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989.

U.S. President George Bush (left) shares a joke with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Malta in December 1989.

Burns said that is why the August coup brought about a new diplomatic approach from Washington of dealing with both "a rising Yeltsin and a sinking Gorbachev."

"You could see Gorbachev was losing power and authority," he said. "Yeltsin was gaining it. So when President Bush was dealing with the leadership in Moscow between mid-August 1991 and December 1991, when he called Gorbachev he would normally call Yeltsin the same day just to inform Yeltsin what was happening."

"If he called Yeltsin, he would call Gorbachev to say, 'I've had this conversation.'"

"We didn't want to divide them," Burns said. "We didn't want to choose. We weren't trying to interfere. We had to deal with both of them -- and the staffs of both of them. It was a balancing act."

Burns also said President Bush worked hard "behind the scenes" in the weeks after the failed coup to try to "pressure" Gorbachev to allow and recognize the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

That recognition by the Soviet Union came on September 6, 1991.

"As I look back at 1990s and 1991, I think President George H.W. Bush achieved a balance between the Soviet leadership and the Russian leadership that was just about right," Burns said.

"Now we know how the story ended, 25 years later. We can look back. We understand. We can see how the entire story ended. [But at the time], we didn't know how that story was going to end," he added.

"We were hoping that communism would collapse. But we were also hoping and praying that it would not collapse in a violent way when thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people, might be killed."

Written by Ron Synovitz and Nicholas Burns interviewed by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yury Zhigalkin
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