In early 1989 Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was experiencing growing resistance from the old guard and bureaucracy to his policy of political and economic reforms, and of rapprochement with the West. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was making public gestures of support for the embattled politician. In April 1989 she hosted Gorbachev in the UK on what was seen as yet another sign of steadily warming Anglo-Soviet ties.
Yet, less than a month later she agreed to the UK Secret Service's suggestion to expel 14 Soviet diplomats and three journalists for "activities incompatible with their status", a diplomatic euphemism for espionage. After some deliberation about how to handle the task, the Soviets were expelled on May 19th; within a day Moscow responded in kind. The relationship went a bit sour.
Gorbachev was slightly bewildered. Why would Thatcher, who was the first Western leader to endorse him as someone "she could do business with", undermine the improved relationship with Moscow in such a way?
The UK Ambassador to Moscow Sir Rodric Braithwaite cabled back home that he heard from his high level Soviet contacts that "Gorbachev simply could not understand why the prime minister had acted in this way, why she had chosen this time to launch a 'campaign'; why she had not raised the matter with him personally in London. What did this mean to the 'personal relationship'? Were the British no longer interested in good bilateral relations?"
British MPs were equally baffled. During a House of Commons debate on the expulsions, when they became public knowledge, they asked why Thatcher hadn't sorted out the issue directly with Gorbachev during his visit to Britain only a month prior to her decision. Or was it not an issue then, but suddenly became one?
Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, when answering a barrage of questions from MPs on the rationale for such an irrational decision offered a strange logic. The "unwillingness of the Soviet Union to respond to our action in the way that I had hoped", Sir Geoffrey said, was proof that Moscow was guilty as charged. This British foreign policy know-how is still in use as recent events show. If Moscow's behavior is not what the West wants it to be then Moscow must be guilty.
The foreign secretary assured the MPs that the government was not looking for any kind of propaganda advantage, but the declassified discussion about the best timing for the move speaks to the contrary.
A Message to NATO Allies
Having agreed to the expulsions, Thatcher was given a choice of dates to carry them out with maximum impact.
"The Security Services are keen to act on a Friday [to have a full weekend to celebrate? NG], which leaves three possible dates: 12, 19 or 26 May. 12 May is the last day of the London Information Forum and better avoided [another Cabinet memo admitted that expelling journalists while they were discussing how to improve information flows between East and West would be seen as 'a deliberately cynical choice of timing' — NG]. 26 May is right on the eve of the NATO Summit and might look as though we were acting to distract attention from NATO's own problems at the summit. This points to 19 May. If the Russians retaliate — as they will — it will be an opportunity to underline at the summit how little they have changed."
"This could assist our [NATO] summit purposes if Soviet retaliation…portrayed the Russians in a hostile and thoroughly old fashioned light."
But why would Thatcher's advisers want to present the USSR in a bad light when the PM was praising Gorbachev's efforts at rapprochement with the West?
Was it because NATO was beset by serious disagreements over the support for the US-UK stance on the Strategic Nuclear Forces reduction deal with Moscow?
A Cabinet memo noted: "The question arises as to what effect the expulsions might have on German thinking [which was less than enthusiastic — NG]over SNF… there will no doubt be accusations from some quarters…that we have deliberately timed the expulsions to influence the debate on SNF. The German public wants to believe that the Soviet threat is disappearing… Nevertheless, the expulsions might be helpful with some of the other Allies at the NATO Summit."
Winning the German public over to the US-UK stance on SNF was probably the reason behind the expulsions. London would not stop at interfering in the Moscow-Bonn bilateral relationship by timing the expulsions to Gorbachev's visit to the FRG: "action by us on the eve of this visit might convey a useful message."
The message sent to the Germans was: the Russian threat is not dissipating; stop cozying up to them and fall back into line. In those days the name of the game was SNF, now it's Nordstream 2.
Brief and Deny
While the Security Service was building up the case for the expulsions Thatcher personally assured the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Petrovsky that "a regular dialogue was for the benefit of both governments." She hoped that "the friendly and constructive relationship which had developed between them [Thatcher and Gorbachev] would help Mr. Gorbachev through difficult times while he was trying to achieve great things in the Soviet Union."
Thatcher's advisers suggested she should write a personal letter to Gorbachev, promising to avoid publicity over the expulsions and continue to work towards a better relationship.
However, the BBC reported on its flagship 9 o'clock news program that "senior British sources were briefing to the effect that one main reason for the expulsion of Soviet diplomats from Britain was that Labour Members of Parliament were under threat of blackmail."
This information infuriated the then Labour Leader Neil Kinnock who demanded from Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe to know why he had "received no information of any kind about this matter from your Department, from the Security Service or from any other source." As the leader of the party in question, said Kinnock, he had the right to know what the basis for such allegations was.
The Foreign Office assured Kinnock that the media had got it wrong and there was no suggestion of any association of Labour MPs with the activities for which the Soviet diplomats were being expelled.
The expulsions row did not immediately damage relations between London and Moscow. Thatcher and Gorbachev got over the matter fairly quickly, and continued a fairly close dialogue for another year. But in mid-1990 the British started to hedge their bets. "With popularity, and potentially power, apparently ebbing from Mr. Gorbachev", a Foreign Office memo said, "we have started to consider whether our support in future might be directed more to the particular areas of Soviet reform favored by the West, and less to Mr. Gorbachev personally."
The memo was fairly blunt: "We would need to strike a balance between appearing to take advantage of Gorbachev and/or Soviet weakness to fish in troubled waters, and very proper Western interests. But we have been greatly inhibited up to now by concern not to rock Gorbachev."
That was written in June 1990 when Thatcher's visit to Kiev and a massive British trade and cultural exhibition there gave a boost to Ukrainian nationalism.
The views and opinions expressed by the contributor do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.