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Russia's Gorbachev: Hero or failure?

Roman Goncharenko
August 31, 2022

In Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev was celebrated above all for paving the way for reunification. But at home, critics say he could have handled the process better. Is that criticism justified?

Helmut Kohl (left) and Mikhail Gorbachev holding a bunch of flowers together
Hailed in Germany for paving the way for German reunification, Gorbachev (right) was given a hard time at home for itImage: dpa/picture-alliance

The political legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet head of state, who died on Tuesday, is still fiercely discussed in present-day Russia. While he was appreciated in the West, he remains unpopular at home. There is a debate especially about his role in the process that led to German reunification.

The central charges lodged against Gorbachev are that he got too little money from Germany in return for his acceptance of the agreement, and that he failed to block NATO's eastward expansion.

Vertragsunterzeichnung zur Deutschen Einheit in Moskau 1990
Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl were among the signatories of the Two Plus Four Agreement in MoscowImage: Imago/S. Simon

While politicians and experts close to the Kremlin are not critical of German reunification per se, they fault his handling of the process, maintaining that Gorbachev could have set tougher conditions for a unified Germany's NATO membership.

Gorbachev gives Kohl the go-ahead

The Two Plus Four Treaty was signed in Moscow on September 12, 1990 by the foreign ministers of West and East Germany, as well as the four victorious powers in World War Two — the Soviet Union, the United States, Great Britain, and France.

The seven-page document on "the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany" brought an end to the division of the two German states that had lasted four decades.

Borders were agreed on, full sovereignty was returned to the German state, and security issues were clarified, including Germany's NATO membership, the reduction of Germany's armed forces from around half a million in West Germany (FRG) alone to 370,000 in united Germany, and the withdrawal of the Soviet army from then East Germany (GDR). Negotiations took place between May and September 1990, although there had been preliminary talks shortly after the fall of the Wall in November 1989.

It is not known whether there was ever what might be called a "checklist" for Gorbachev's negotiations over Germany's future. As a result, it is not easy to gauge whether or not he met his own goals.  

However, sources show that Gorbachev did not initially believe that there would be rapid progress toward reunification. He criticized the then West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's 10-point plan, which Kohl had already come up with at the end of November 1989 to point the way forward.

Read more: "We need better cooperation with Russia"

But by the end of January, there was a shift in Moscow's approach. A meeting of the inner circle concluded that a united Germany was "unavoidable," as Gorbachev wrote in his memoirs. The decision was made to push for talks between the four victorious powers and the two Germanies and to probe the possibility of a Soviet troop withdrawal.  

The breakthrough moment came in talks with Kohl in Moscow on February 10, 1990: "We had Gorbachev's go-ahead for the Two Plus Four process and, above all, his green light for resolving the domestic German aspects of reunification," Kohl put it in his diary.  

The German leaders managed to convince Gorbachev that the two German states themselves, and not the victorious powers, should decide on their own future, which led to the Two Plus Four formula.

A short history of German reunification

Troop withdrawal only for the Soviets

One of the most divisive issues on the agenda was the future united Germany's proposed NATO membership. Here, Gorbachev ought to have "at least set terms" for Germany's NATO membership, wrote Aleksey Pushkov, leading Russian foreign policy expert and senator, in the messaging service Telegram in July 2020.

For many in Moscow, reunification was not the problem, so much as the way Gorbachev had handled it. In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred in an interview to what he termed Gorbachev's "mistake" — namely failing to use the talks with Germany to lever binding guarantees from NATO. For his part, Gorbachev rejected the criticism.  

Moscow had initially called for a united but neutral Germany — a proposal that was rejected by West Germany, by the US, and by Eastern European countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia.

It was Gorbachev who had blinked. In the Two Plus Four Agreement it was accepted that no NATO troops and no nuclear weapons should be stationed on the territory of former East Germany. NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe was touched on in the discussions, with Western diplomats appearing to signal that it would not happen. But: no binding agreement.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl with champagne glasses
Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl toasted their common declarations at the German chancelloryImage: Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images)

Gorbachev's critics in Russia believe he should also have demanded the withdrawal of British and American troops from united Germany.

"Of course the Soviet Union could have asked big questions about foreign forces stationed in Germany," Vladislav Belov, head of the Center for Germany Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told DW. "But the opportunity was wasted."  

Moscow could also have called for the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons, said Belov, adding that German Social Democrats on the center-left had also been pushing Gorbachev to concede to this demand.

But historian Martin Aust, a specialist in Eastern Europe at Bonn University, is skeptical: "My guess is that this wouldn't have been accepted," he said. "It would have been the old model, as proposed by Stalin, who wanted to establish a united Germany as a neutral state, which Adenauer [the first West German chancellor — the ed.] rejected. The Kohl government would probably also have rejected it."  

Did Gorbachev demand too little money?

The second fundamental allegation raised against Gorbachev concerns money. His critics say that Moscow quite simply got too little in turn for playing along with reunification.

In 1990, the Soviet economy was in serious trouble. West Germany offered to help, initially by stepping up food shipments. In the summer of the same year, Moscow got a loan worth 5 billion West German Marks (equivalent of €2.5 billion; $2.5 billion today).

Shortly before the signing of the Two Plus Four Agreement, Kohl and Gorbachev wrestled over further payments. The chancellor proposed 10 billion German Marks. Gorbachev went higher, demanding 15 billion, or more. On September 12, 1990, the two sides agreed on 12 billion to pay for the withdrawal of Soviet troops plus an additional loan of 3 billion.

Voices close to the negotiations have confirmed that the German government would have been willing at this stage to put a larger sum on the table.

"If Gorbachev had at that time said: 'Herr chancellor, I will go along with it, but it will cost Germany 50 or 80 billion' — would we have been able to say no?" said Horst Teltschik, a former foreign policy advisor to Chancellor Kohl, in a DW interview in July 2010. Germany expert and Gorbachev advisor Valentin Falin believed Moscow could have asked for anything up to 100 billion. 

Mikhail Gorvachev, Helmut Kohl and George Bush
A happy reunion — 19 years after reunification Mikhail Gorvachev met up with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former US President George Bush Image: Daniel Biskup/The Gorbachev Foundation

In the eyes of critics like Belov, Gorbachev was a weak negotiator. And worse still: Belov says that in 1990, the former Russian leader gave less thought to the future of his country and more to his own place in the history books.  

"Germany owes huge thanks to Gorbachev and the Soviet Union," Aust said. "Gorbachev was driven by the belief that he could create a new Soviet Union that would be bound into a new world order free of the  US-Soviet antagonism of the Cold War period."

Germany: Advocate of Russian interests?

While critics in Russia complain that Gorbachev ought to have insisted on a longer transition period prior to German unification, historian Aust says that Kohl had every reason to be in a hurry.

Indeed, German reunification was quickly followed by the attempted coup against Gorbachev, the wars in the Soviet republics, and the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Certainly, from today's German perspective, it is not difficult to be grateful to Mikhail Gorbachev that unity was achieved so speedily.

This gratitude is reflected in a strand of Germany politics that is still remarkably strong: a yearning on Berlin's part to be an advocate for Moscow in the West. It was, in this vein, that Germany pushed for rapprochement between the Soviet Union, and later Russia, with the G7. It also helped Russia to become a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and join the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Such positive aspects of relations between Germany and Russia are often forgotten in the emotive debates over Gorbachev's legacy.

This piece, originally published in German on Oct 2, 2020, was updated on Aug 31, 2022 to reflect the news of Gorbachev's death and criticism of his handling of the German reunification process.

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