As the Soviet Union careened toward collapse in 1991, no country was watching the unfolding events more closely than the United States. President George H.W. Bush was in the White House, and at his side was his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft.
The retired Air Force lieutenant general had already served two other presidents -- Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. But nothing in his long public career could match the magnitude of the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Washington had no control over events and didn't know whether the outcome would help or hurt U.S. national interests. As Scowcroft recalls to RFE/RL, it was "history unfolding before us and we weren't sure how it was going to work out." He spoke to RFE/RL Washington correspondent Heather Maher.
RFE/RL: As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the United States seemed to be facing a dilemma. On one hand, Washington had a great deal invested in Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms and the breakup of the U.S.S.R. would have unpredictable consequences that could run counter to U.S. interests. On the other hand, it was hard to ignore the aspirations for independence in places like the Baltics, Ukraine, and elsewhere. How did the Bush administration's thinking evolve as these events unfolded?
Brent Scowcroft: One of our chief concerns after President Bush came into office was to handle the evolving liberal spirit, or unrest, in Eastern Europe in a way that was different from before, because in Berlin in '53, in Hungary in '56, Czechoslovakia in '68, there had been these upwellings of resistance, or whatever you want to call it, and they had been crushed by the Soviet Union. And we didn't want that to happen again.
So what we wanted was to encourage the liberalization but at a pace which was below that which the Soviet Union would have to feel it had to crush. Now, we didn't know what that was. So that was the first sort of thing.
Gorbachev was, in a way, doing what we thought was our work for us because while we didn’t really think Gorbachev was a democrat. He was trying to make the Soviet Union more efficient, by going after corruption, absenteeism, drunkenness, and also the repressive aspects of the system which stifled productivity. So he was trying to make the system more efficient. And we thought that was good because in the process of doing it, he was undermining what kept it together.
So the issue of the independence of the constituent members of the Soviet Union came up very late. In '91, Gorbachev had this revised notion of the U.S.S.R. in which he was going to make it a more confederal, than a federal, system, which ended up pulling the system apart. But there was also, that entered in at that time, the rivalry between [Boris] Yeltsin and Gorbachev. And that developed gradually, because they had started out as close friends in the Central Committee. And they gradually became alienated until – and this is my personal notion – Yeltsin saw the way to get rid of Gorbachev was to dissolve the Soviet Union. Because then he [Gorbachev] didn't have a job.
RFE/RL: Early on, the Bush administration appeared not to take new Russian leader Boris Yeltsin very seriously, preferring to deal with Gorbachev. Was there a point when you felt that you could do business with Yeltsin. And if so, what was it?
Scowcroft: It wasn't a decision of who we wanted to do business with. It was the fact that Gorbachev was the president of the U.S.S.R. Yeltsin was either mayor of Moscow or president of the [Russian] Soviet Republic. They're very different people, and we, as a matter of course, dealt with the president of the Soviet Union rather than with one of the constituent elements of it.
It was an issue in domestic American politics when Yeltsin appeared to the American public as much more open and democratic than Gorbachev did. But we tried to deal with the facts on the ground, and after the attempted coup in July of '91, and Gorbachev came back severely diminished in his stature, then, of course, Yeltsin became more important.
RFE/RL: From the perspective of advancing U.S. national interests, was it easier to deal with one sovereign state, the U.S.S.R., or the 15 countries that emerged in its wake?
Scowcroft: That's an almost impossible question to answer because the circumstances were so different, because the one single country was the U.S.S.R., of which there had been an historic competition rivalry [with the United States]. The multiplicity of entities afterward were new countries. It complicated the details of dealing with each one. But there was no concerted huge power trying to thwart us. It's like apples and oranges. It's hard to deal with.
RFE/RL: The range of leaders that initially emerged from the Soviet breakup is fairly wide, ranging from true democrats like Lennart Meri in Estonia to retrograde nationalists like Zviad Gamsakhurdia in Georgia, to unreconstructed Soviet apparatchiks like Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine. How prepared was the U.S. to deal with such a disparate group of leaders when it was accustomed to dealing with just one? How steep was the learning curve for Washington?
Scowcroft: There was a steep learning curve not only because [of] their own personal predilections on politics, but they represented different interests. Dealing with the interests of the Soviet Union itself is one [thing.] Dealing with the interests of 15 or 20 different entities who represent more specialized interests was a very different kind of a problem.
But I don't remember us ever thinking in those terms. This was history unfolding before us and we weren't sure how it was going to work out. So we just tried to make it peaceful and successful.
RFE/RL: On August 1, 1991, just weeks before the failed coup, President Bush delivered a speech to the Ukrainian parliament in which he warned against "suicidal nationalism." "New York Times" columnist William Safire dubbed it the "Chicken Kyiv" speech and months later, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly to declare independence from the U.S.S.R. How much debate in the administration went into that speech? Were there serious disagreements over whether Bush should come out so strongly against nationalism?
Scowcroft: There was not much debate because in reading the speech, we had something very different in mind than the way the speech was interpreted, the "Chicken Kyiv" aspect of it. Because what we were seeing at the present time was going on in Yugoslavia, where six small entities who had been combined into one small state were breaking into six itty-bitty states.
And so what we were saying to Ukraine was not, "Don't think about whether you want to be part of the Soviet Union," but there's east Ukraine, and west Ukraine, and there was a lot of enmity or discussion between the two. "Don't let that kind of suicidal nationalism get you carried away" -- that was the message. But in retrospect I would not have recommended that the president give the speech because it was too complicated.
RFE/RL: In 1991, Russia appeared to be heading in a democratic direction. There was a kind of flowering of freedoms. But since then, under Vladimir Putin, the country has taken a more authoritarian turn. How do you see this evolution – is it simply Russia's kind of "default" setting? Or do you think there's still hope for a revival of democratic values under a different leader, perhaps?
Scowcroft: Oh, I think there's definitely still hope. I believe the former Soviet Union, Russia, is feeling its way now. Since the time of Peter the Great, there has been a debate between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers in Russia and in the Soviet Union. Was Russia really a European country that had benefited from the enlightenment and the reformation or was it really an Asian, more despotically oriented country with a European veneer? And I think that debate in a way is still going on.
And there's also the difference between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Gorbachev was a very intellectual, distant person. Yeltsin was a very populist, passionate person. So they came at problems in very, very different ways. So I think what's happened in the Soviet Union so far reflects those personalities and reflects a Soviet Union, and now Russia, which is searching for its own way.
I am confident that in the end – and it may take a generation – that the Russians will opt that they're a part of Europe. But I think it will take time.
RFE/RL: Looking back at those days 20 years ago, there seems to have been a sense of unbounded optimism that many people felt that the world was headed to a much better place than it had been in. Today of course, things look quite different. Was this sense of optimism just an illusion?
Scowcroft: Well, the sense of optimism was not an illusion in the sense that the Cold War was over, and that was good for mankind. It was an illusion in the sense that the path was really very smooth. What really happened inside the Soviet Union is that Gorbachev, in trying to improve efficiency, first tried to revise the political structure. Well, after he revised the political structure, he had no political power left to try to deal with the economy.
So the economy was inherited by Yeltsin and was this Soviet economy, so Yeltsin sold shares in all the state firms to get some money to run the country, and then Putin comes along and says to Yeltsin, "You gave away the whole industrial part of the Soviet Union. And you told the provincial governors, 'Take all the power you think you can hold.' That's not the way you run a country." So he starts to recentralize. So this is just an evolution of the Russians seeking to find where is really their center of gravity.
RFE/RL's Brian Whitmore contributed to this interview