Lt. General Brent Scowcroft (US Air Force, ret.) served as National Security Advisor under President George H. W. Bush when the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev occurred on August 19, 1991. He was in the White House team when all dramatic changes were happening in Eastern Europe and in the USSR, including the rapid growth of nationalism in the Soviet republics, the movement for independence from the USSR, and, finally, the breakup of the Soviet Union after the coup. Together with President George H. W. Bush, he authored the memoirs of these tumultuous years, A World Transformed (New York, 1998).
Brent Scowcroft shares his memories of the moment the USSR ultimately ceased to exist in an interview with RIA Novosti’s Washington Bureau Chief Svetlana Babaeva.
Brent Scowcroft: “A tremendous transformation was made without a single shot fired.”
RIA Novosti: On August 19, 1991, we [in the Soviet Union] were listening to Swan Lake on TV and trying to figure out what was happening. What were the first words of American politicians besides those that we cannot publish? What were the first plans after the recognition that a coup-d’état was occurring?
Brent Scowcroft: Actually, the President and I were not in Washington when it happened. We were up in his residence in Maine.
RIA Novosti: Having vacation, I presume, as it was August.
Brent Scowcroft: Exactly. It was about 11 o’clock at night. I was lying in bed, reading some papers and listening to the television, when there was something about President Gorbachev being ill, and I thought, that is strange, I haven’t heard he’s sick. Ten minutes later the television said, he was ill and resigning his office. That got my attention; I called Washington, and they didn’t know anything. Then I called the President, woke him up and said, “I do not know what’s going on, but something is. I’ll find out, but I may have to call you early in the morning.” I got a press person up there; we listened to the press all night. Next morning there was a heavy gale, coming through, and then the news was that there had been a coup. I called the press corps together in a damp room, the President talked to them and said, “We don’t know the details but it seems to be a coup.”
RIA Novosti: Did you immediately begin to work out certain scenarios over what to do in this case?
Brent Scowcroft: First, what I tried to do was call Gorbachev. They said he was not available to speak. Then the President said, “Let’s try Yeltsin.” We did get through to him, which surprised me, and they talked. Yeltsin was very dramatic in this discussion. We had heard already about him standing on the tank in Moscow and we learned first hand his version of the latest developments.
RIA Novosti: The administration reiterated that President Bush was content with his partnership with Gorbachev. Did this call a day after the coup signify that you accepted the new reality and were ready to deal with Yeltsin?
Brent Scowcroft: No, we were not. The President wanted to talk to somebody and find out what was going on. It wasn’t a shift in our attitudes, we couldn’t get through Gorbachev and were trying to find someone to get through who would be willing to talk to us. We tried Yeltsin and that succeeded. Then the President said, “We must get back to Washington,” and we returned as soon as the storm had gone.
RIA Novosti: When the coup was over, did you continue to consider Gorbachev a key political figure?
Brent Scowcroft: Absolutely. He was the President of the Soviet Union. Did we think nothing had changed? Of course not. When the coup was over, Gorbachev came back and had with Yeltsin the joint meeting where Yeltsin, if it’s not too strong to say, humiliated Gorbachev. It was apparent there were dramatic changes on the way.
RIA Novosti: What do you think was the no-turning point for the Soviet Union? August 1991 or something before that?
Brent Scowcroft: I don’t think it was before that. It’s hard to say, but I think it is possible that Gorbachev’s notion of a changed Union would have worked had it not been for Yeltsin. By that time, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were bitter enemies. How could Yeltsin get rid of Gorbachev? Dissolve the Soviet Union. I am not sure that Gorbachev’s notion of more confederative, semi-independent states would not have succeeded. At least for a time.
RIA Novosti: When did the American leaders begin to think that the Soviet Union might be doomed?
Brent Scowcroft: I am not sure if I can tell you exactly when it happened. That gradually came into our consciousness as a possibility as the situation developed. After all, the Soviet Union had been around for a long time. It was a permanent fixture, a great power. It was not what one immediately thinks is about to collapse.
Before the coup, we knew that Gorbachev was trying to change the nature of the Union and make it more confederative, than the tight Union was. We were not at all sure how successful that attempt would be.
The President did not want to put Gorbachev under any pressure; he was worried, from 1989 on, about the possibility that the more reactionary people around Gorbachev would promote a coup against him. It didn’t happen until August 1991, but the President was very concerned and didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize Gorbachev.
We were encouraged, especially by what was going on in Eastern Europe, but we did not want it to proceed at a rate which would cause the Soviet Union to react as it had in 1953, in 1956, in 1968. Why were we so concerned about Eastern Europe? Because for us the fundamentals of the Cold War were Eastern Europe.
RIA Novosti: On August 1, President Bush gave his famous speech, later called the Chicken Kiev speech, in which he said, “Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” The grim irony was that these words came less than three weeks before the coup-d’état and less than five months before the USSR had become history…
Brent Scowcroft: That speech has been dramatically misinterpreted.
RIA Novosti: Nonetheless, analysts blame you for not accepting what was already obvious. What were those Kiev appeals – a realistic approach with a clear foresight of what might happen to the region in case of the Soviet collapse or, vice versa, a lack of real understanding of what the mood was in the Soviet state?
Brent Scowcroft: I believe that choice of words obviously was not the best. But there were two primary motivations for the speech. First, what was going on in Yugoslavia, and second, what was going on in Ukraine between the Eastern and Western parts. The core idea of the speech was, “Be careful, do not let this nationalism destroy what you have, and think about of what you are going to do.”
RIA Novosti: Was that a real fear of civil war?
Brent Scowcroft: It was a fear of the irrationality, if you want, that led the Yugoslavs to take a small state and break it into six. It was ignoring the benefits of larger political entities. Ukraine historically had been a very troubled region; those were the kinds of things the President was warning about; namely, don’t let narrow nationalism blind you as you’re developing your own political entity.
Soon after Ukraine did vote for independence. Probably, Gorbachev was underestimating the strength of local nationalism.
RIA Novosti: Were Americans also underestimating the nationalism of the surrounding Soviet republics?
Brent Scowcroft: We always thought it was there. But yes, we likely underestimated its depth too.
RIA Novosti: And President Bush, just three months after the Kiev speech, expressed his full support for the independence of Ukraine. What was the reason for such a quick shift?
Brent Scowcroft: It was not a quick shift. There was a lot of domestic pressure in the US by emigrants from Ukraine, and the Baltic states for the President to be more assertive. Nonetheless, we tried to be very neutral about the outcome. It was really up to the Ukrainians to decide what they wanted to do. If Ukraine had voted instead for Gorbachev’s notion of the new Soviet Union, we would have supported them.
RIA Novosti: But you surely had to have your own scenarios of how to deal with this huge dissipating area full of nuclear warheads.
Brent Scowcroft: Clearly, we thought about the possibility of a number of independent states as opposed to the Soviet Union. We considered what would happen to nuclear weapons and central control over them. Would they be in the hands of people who didn’t understand the consequences? Of course, we worried about all these things.
RIA Novosti: How far from reality was this scenario?
Brent Scowcroft: In reality, it worked out very well. There was no conflict in the breakup of the Soviet Union, nor were there lapses of control over nuclear weapons. The weapons in Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan were returned to Russia.
Generally, I think that the best thing that happened for all of us was a tremendous transformation in world affairs was made without a single shot fired. That’s amazing.
RIA Novosti: George H.W. Bush in 1992 famously declared, "By the grace of God, America won the Cold War." And then he elaborated on the sole and preeminent power of the U.S…
Brent Scowcroft: Again, that was an isolated statement. The President constantly, from the fall of the Berlin wall, was saying that we are both winning the Cold War. Nobody lost. The end of the Cold War was a win for both sides.
RIA Novosti: It is one thing is what he said, and another how he was interpreted by the world. Since then, many politicians claim that was a key misstep of the US. The feeling of triumph was too long and too strong. The subsequent changes in Russian foreign policy under Putin’s Presidency may be seen as a kind of backlash in order to restore the sense of equality, dignity, and importance in world affairs.
Brent Scowcroft: I think Putin was in many respects a result of Yeltsin’s era than Gorbachev’s. History moves in mysterious ways, and it never reveals its alternatives...
RIA Novosti: The sentiment in the Kiev speech seems very much to the point - “When Americans talk of freedom, we refer to people's abilities to live without fear of government intrusion, without fear of harassment by their fellow citizens, without restricting others’ freedoms.” What is the key reason that almost no former Soviet republics have been able to build up a standard Western-style democracy and enjoy the freedom as it was so described?
Brent Scowcroft: Let me answer in a different way. We like to think of ourselves as the world’s first or best democracy. Look what we just went through! Democracy operates only as well as the people try to make it operate. And everyone’s democracy is a little bit different. What we fundamentally believe is that the best way for a system to run is through the will of the people. But the will of the people expresses itself in many different ways, and democracy is a very difficult system to have work...
RIA Novosti: The American democracy, which may be deemed one of the most-balanced, recently showed forth an evident lack of responsibility. Presenting themselves as genuine Democrats or genuine Conservatives, lawmakers acted without awareness of all the consequences for the US and world. Don’t you think that the sense of long-term responsibility has slightly eroded in the US?
Brent Scowcroft: It’s a very complicated question. In the United States democracy developed partly because it was a very unusual country. It wasn’t surrounded by neighbors and enemies. It wasn’t based on a particular ethnic group that wanted to dominate others. Anybody can be an American; you just sign a piece of paper. The United States is clearly an unusual phenomenon in terms of democracy. The extremes never were able to make it. There was a communist party in the 1930s, but it didn’t get anywhere. There was a fascist party, it didn’t either. That’s perhaps because people did not feel so excluded from the process that they felt the need to resort to extremes.
RIA Novosti: That’s why what’s happening now seems new and unusual for the U.S.
Brent Scowcroft: It seems new to me too. The American system works well because of compromise and because the Constitution was not written to have efficient government, but to protect the people from government trying to take away their power. It makes it easy to keep something from happening in our system. The way to make things happen is for different groups to cooperate. When they do not, like recently, the system doesn’t work.
This may have severe consequences for the notion of people’s ability to govern themselves rather than to have some single person with a big army telling them what to do. I think what’s been going on around the world recently, like in the Middle East for example, is not democracy itself. But it’s a cry for dignity. People want to be treated with respect. They want to have certain fundamental rights and not to be just pawns for somebody to manipulate for the benefit of himself and a few other people around him.
RIA Novosti: Americans know very well what it means to be respected.
Brent Scowcroft: But now we are in danger of collapsing through paralysis. In this budget deal there was something put together in the last moment. Not a very good arrangement but if it had not happened, the United States would have been technically bankrupt, which is not good for the world either. Those kinds of pressures and forces are always a problem for democratic systems. We are all struggling for a form of government which combines both efficiency and freedom from arbitrariness against its people.