Twenty-five years ago this week, the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe was collapsing. The Berlin Wall had been breached. The Communist East German government was literally swept away by the storm tide of history.
It was also the most dangerous moment the world had faced since the 1963 Cuban missile crisis. What would the Soviet leadership do? Just peacefully give way, or use its huge Red Army and KGB to crush the uprisings?
At that same moment, in a raw exposure of shameful historical enmity, Britain's prime minister Margaret Thatcher and France's president Francois Mitterand both called Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to urge him not to allow German reunification.
Gorbachev refused. He could have quickly crushed the uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The mighty Group of Soviet Forces (GSFG) based in East Germany had 338,000 crack troops in 24 divisions, with 4,200 tanks, 8,000 armored vehicles, 3,800 guns and rocket launchers and 690 combat aircraft.
NATO planners had long believed that the elite GFSG could punch through western defenses on the North German plain and storm Antwerp and Rotterdam by D+8. Other Soviet corps in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary would strike west. Switzerland's defense planners foresaw a massive Soviet thrust through their nation and into the Rhone Valley, outflanking NATO defenses to the north.
But General Secretary Gorbachev was morally opposed to the use of force and sought to end the Kremlin's long tradition of ruling through fear. True to his humanistic philosophy, the Soviet leader ordered the GFSG to stand down, pack up, and return to the Soviet Union even though there were no barracks or apartments for the returning Soviet legions.
The opening of the East German wall and subsequent fall of its Communist government mixed Karl Marx with Groucho and Harpo Marx. In a comedy of errors, the bumbling East German government became paralyzed as mobs tried to storm the wall and get to West Germany. No high official wanted to give the order to shoot. The gates of the wall were opened by mistake.
In the USSR, resistance among hardline Communists, the military brass and the KGB was intense. Gorbachev would have been unable to sound the retreat without the support of Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
He was a remarkable man: the tough former KGB boss of Georgia and Communist Party chief, Shevardnadze seemed an improbable reformer. But he co-authored the liberating policy of glasnost and perestroika and forced its adoption by the unwilling Soviet hierarchy.
I twice interviewed Shevardnadze in Moscow: he was determined to sweep away the communist system and end the Cold War. We used to call him "Chevvy Eddy." His quick wit and sardonic humor made him very likeable. I asked him if he might consider becoming president of an independent Georgia -- which he later did, until overthrown by the US-backed 2003 "rose revolution." There is little gratitude in power politics.
Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I walked through the just abandoned GFSG headquarters in Wünsdorf, near Berlin. It was a scene of utter desolation: broken windows, phones and plumbing ripped out of the walls, secret files blowing in the wind. The mighty Red Army had gone. As a veteran cold war warrior, I found it incredible that an empire could disappear so quickly. Just a few regiment of Soviet soldiers and tanks, I mused, could have stopped the East German uprising.
In secret, Gorbachev and Shevardnadze agreed to a deal with US President George H.W. Bush and his senior strategy officials: the Soviet Union would pull out of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. In exchange, the U.S. vowed not to advance NATO into Eastern Europe or anywhere near Russia's borders.
Equally important, Gorbachev refused to use force to keep the USSR together.
The Soviet leaders believed they had an ironclad deal. They did not.
The next three US administrations -- Clinton, Bush II, and Obama -- violated the original sphere of influence accord and began advancing US power east towards Russia's borders. The most recent NATO foray was the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Russian government, a ham-handed act that nearly sparked World War III.
For Washington, the temptation to kick Russia while it was down and gobble up its former dominion was irresistible. Gorbachev was mocked in western power circles -- and by many angry Russians -- as a foolish idealist: "the Soviet Jimmy Carter."
Today, 25 years after the fall of the Soviet imperium, U.S. promises have been revoked. Washington appears determined to undermine the Russian Federation and further diminish it. Washington sees Russia as a has-been, a minor power unworthy of respect or amity. Russia, led by the very tough Vladimir Putin, of course sees things quite differently.
The Russians have actually been told to stop complaining because the Gorbachev-Bush deal was not put in writing, only oral. A naïve oversight by the Russians. Too bad.
From retirement, Gorbachev bitterly watches all he strove for turns to ashes as his countrymen blame him for destroying the Soviet Union. Shevardnadze died in Georgia last July. The Cold War is back, to the joy of many triumphant Republicans in Washington.
Soon after the wall fell, I recall writing that unless the western allies and the Soviets came to a firm agreement of spheres of influence and a neutral zone in Middle Europe and the Baltic
a dangerous series of clashes was inevitable. We are now there.