U.S. Policy to Gorbachev: “We Support the Center and You Personally”
By Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton, National Security Archive, 21/12/21
Dec 23, 2021 - 10:38:12 AM

On Christmas Day 30 years ago, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, stepped down and the hammer-and-sickle flags over the Kremlin were replaced with the red-white-and-blue of the Russian Federation. Triumphalists and conspiracy theorists ever since have attributed this epochal event to the machinations of U.S. policy makers.

But close review of the primary sources shows that keeping the Union together, and backing Gorbachev personally, remained at the core of U.S. policy all the way through 1991, for fear of a bloody disintegration that would dwarf the slaughter taking place at that time in Yugoslavia. “Yugoslavia with nuclear weapons,” as one American official put it.

Today the National Security Archive is posting a concise selection of the key documents about this epochal event that have reached the public domain in recent years. They include the transcripts of the highest-level conversations between U.S. and Soviet leaders during the summer and fall of 1991, and never-before-translated transcripts of the USSR’s State Council meetings in the fall of 1991, as Gorbachev struggled to preserve the Union against the independent-minded leaders of Soviet republics, primarily Boris Yeltsin of Russia, but also Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine.

Russian-language documents published today that were obtained by the Archive from official repositories in Moscow and have never appeared in English before include:

Senator Sam Nunn’s discussion with Gorbachev in Moscow on September 2, 1991, after the August coup had raised alarms about command-and-control of Soviet nuclear weapons while Gorbachev was detained at Foros for three days (Nunn was not reassured).
German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s conversation with top Gorbachev aide Alexander Yakovlev in which the German pleads for specific short-, medium-, and long-term projects that foreign aid and investments could focus on, and assures the Soviet official that Germany’s goal was integrating the USSR with Europe.
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s meeting with Yakovlev on September 13, 1991, in which the American accurately predicts the dissolution of the Soviet Union in “three or four months.”
Excerpts of the October 11, 1991, State Council meeting where Gorbachev seems to have agreement on a new federated Union treaty to be signed October 15 (even Yeltsin and Kravchuk say they will sign) and a common economic space, yet the specific sub-agreements aren’t ready, the Uzbek and Azerbaijani leaders protest the proposed liberalizing of prices, and by the end Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev calls the process “embarrassing” since “Everything is in free fall…”
Excerpts of the dramatic November 4, 1991, State Council meeting where Yeltsin arrives late and clearly intends for Russia to go it alone, Gorbachev’s expert Grigory Yavlinsky asks for another month of preparing and discussing documents on the economic agreements, and Minister of Defense Evgeny Shaposhnikov describes the refusal of various republics to participate in the annual draft and pleads for keeping a central military establishment.

The National Security Archive previously published all the transcripts of Gorbachev’s talks with U.S. President George H.W. Bush, in The Last Superpower Summits (CEU Press, 2016) and the revised paperback edition Gorbachev and Bush (CEU Press 2021). These included the very last phone call from Gorbachev to Bush on Christmas Day, 1991, in which they speak nostalgically about their work together to end the Cold War. Some of the materials below also appeared in the Archive's 25th anniversary posting in 2016.

Today’s publication joins several notable documentary and scholarly publications marking the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union. Most importantly, the British Foreign Office has published the remarkably knowledgeable and prescient cables sent by the U.K. Embassy in Moscow in 1991. Among other gems in that collection, Sir Rodric Braithwaite provides an extraordinary homage to Gorbachev the reformer in his end-of-the-year cables back to London.[1]

Also noteworthy in the new scholarship is the book, Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok (Yale University Press, 2021). Professor Zubok focuses especially on the economic factors at the end of the Soviet Union, and provides new detail on the ways that Russians in particular destroyed the USSR.

* * * *

The August 1991 attempted coup by hardliners, which humiliated Gorbachev, discredited the state security organs, and made Boris Yeltsin a hero for his defiance (standing famously on top of a tank in Moscow), unleashed the centrifugal forces that brought down the Soviet Union. Gorbachev had been attempting to work out a new Union Treaty for a more decentralized system giving the various Soviet republics more autonomy – the scheduled signing date of August 20 was a key precipitator for the coup.

But when the coup failed, the republic leaders had tasted sovereignty and were concerned about an assertive Russia, whether run by Boris Yeltsin now or hardliners in the future. At the same time, each of the republic leaders was attempting to hold on to their own centers of power and not let the opposition form new governments. Eventually, almost all the Communist Party first secretaries would become leaders of new independent states. To achieve that, they had to take the banner of nationalism away from the authentic nationalist and dissident movements--a process that was especially important in Ukraine, where the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, professional Soviet apparatchik Leonid Kravchuk, maneuvered to coopt both the nationalist Rukh and the dissident opposition.[2]

President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, believed that keeping the Soviet Union going, even with a weak center, was the best alternative to violent disintegration. (The Americans did not know at the time that tactical nuclear weapons were spread about in 14 of the 15 republics, but it was bad enough that over 3,000 strategic nuclear weapons were stationed outside Russia in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.) At a key National Security Council meeting on September 5, 1991, senior members of the administration presented their views. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was the strongest proponent of encouraging the rapid disintegration of the USSR because he saw the fracturing of the former enemy as a diminution of threat. When he argued that “the voluntary breakup of the Soviet Union is in our interest,” Baker reminded him of bloody Yugoslavia.[3] Shockingly, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft confessed he “thought there was positive benefit in the breakup of command and control over strategic nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union to several republics. Anything which would serve to dilute the size of an attack we might have to face was, in my view, a benefit well worth the deterioration of unified control over the weapons.”[4] By comparison, President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis worried about a single bomb landing on an American city.

President Bush saw both the opportunity and the danger. Gorbachev was not going to be around much longer to make the arms-race-in-reverse happen. So Bush insisted on pushing the envelope, and given the reality in the Soviet Union, with so many ideological blinders about Soviet behavior in tatters on the floor of the Situation Room, the NSC agreed with the president’s push to offer significant and unilateral disarmament initiatives.

Bush’s understanding that the sand was running out in the hourglass jump-started U.S. thinking, propelling it past a fistful of hard-and-fast previous positions on matters like tactical nuclear weapons on U.S. Navy ships. Never in the U.S national security interest (with far more coastline to protect than the USSR), the Navy’s sticking point came apart quickly when the president ordered immediate moves toward denuclearization--ironically, based on a proposal Gorbachev had first tabled at the Malta summit in 1989. Bush’s urgent post-coup search for deep disarmament initiatives led to a dramatic package of proposals and unilateral moves, which he presented to Gorbachev on September 27 in hopes that Moscow would reciprocate. The Soviets responded with their own counterproposals on October 5. Both sets of initiatives were truly groundbreaking but they came too late in the game, after Gorbachev was already unable to push them through to full implementation. Yet, without this back-and-forth, hundreds if not thousands of nuclear warheads would have been in place in more than a dozen Soviet republics at the point of the Soviet Union’s demise. In the history of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, spanning virtually the entire atomic age, this set of agreements in the fall of 1991 produced the biggest shift away from midnight.

These proposals gave Gorbachev an opening to invigorate his “autumn offensive,”[5] on which he had embarked in early September, both in domestic politics and internationally. Yeltsin might have had the popular imagination, the podium in the Russian Supreme Soviet, the ability to undermine Gorbachev in the republics, and the initiative for political change; but Gorbachev retained a special camaraderie with international leaders, and the status of official representative of whatever Soviet federation survived--something Yeltsin could only envy. That was Gorbachev’s survival strategy.

On September 10, the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) opened in Moscow. The achievement was bittersweet. It was Gorbachev’s dream to have a CSCE meeting in the Soviet capital as a way to recognize how the country had changed--in fact, Shevardnadze had proposed it in November 1986, in his speech to the opening session of the CSCE Vienna review conference. At the time it was met with a skeptical and even negative reaction from Western delegates, given the history of Soviet human rights violations. After a lot of work by the Foreign Ministry together with its U.S. counterparts and an unprecedented domestic opening, the West was finally persuaded. Gorbachev was enthusiastic; he addressed a hall filled with foreign ministers and ambassadors who had come to Moscow mainly to pay respects to the man responsible for the tremendous change that made the gathering possible.

Gorbachev probably was the only person at the meeting who still believed in the possibility of integrating the Soviet Union into Europe. In the perceptive words of his spokesman, Andrei Grachev, “he was inspired by an almost religious faith in the feasibility of finally joining these two separate worlds and a burning desire to bring this about.”[6] The humanitarian conference was in some ways the crowning symbol and the final note of Gorbachev’s domestic reform. Several dissident groups took part in the sessions and international NGOs were welcome participants with unobstructed access to anybody they wished to contact.

Visiting Secretary of State Baker found Gorbachev revitalized by the experience: “the shaken Gorbachev of late August was gone, replaced by his former self--the Soviet reformer with little if any self-doubt.”[7] Baker also wrote to Bush about the newfound closeness and cooperation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev--although it was not to last.

With Yeltsin on vacation later in September, Gorbachev was able to play the role of global statesman and gracious host. He resumed his flurry of international meetings. He met with Giulio Andreotti and Hosni Mubarak to discuss the Middle East and the upcoming Madrid conference. On October 1, he met with Henning Christopherson, the vice president of the European Commission, and soon after that with Michael Camdessus, director of the International Monetary Fund, to discuss the economic structures of the new Union Treaty and international assistance. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Edward Madigan came to discuss the agricultural credits Bush had promised at the Moscow summit. Negotiations with British prime minister John Major about a program of emergency aid were especially active, resulting in a preliminary pledge of 10 billion dollars on November 14. Gorbachev understood that ensuring external aid was the strongest means of keeping his new Union project on track.[8]

But the August coup had resulted in significant changes in the political landscape. The Congress of People’s Deputies disbanded itself in early September 1991, leaving in place a quite dysfunctional Supreme Soviet at the Union level. Legislative initiative had shifted to the Russian parliament, still named the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, and presided over by Yeltsin. The KGB was eliminated, broken into three agencies, thus also weakening ties that bound the republics together. A new structure was created--the State Council consisting of leaders of the republics—designed to negotiate a new union treaty and oversee the process of transition. It held its first meeting on October 11. Grachev described it as an “awkward imitation of the U.N. Security Council composed of former members of the Politburo.”[9] However, Gorbachev put his faith and hopes in this Council. Very soon it produced a vague Economic Community Agreement, signed on October 18 (Ukraine signed on November 6). The accord included a commitment to a single currency and the preservation of economic ties. Yeltsin supported it and acted cooperatively. Meanwhile, negotiations for a political agreement were proceeding. For a fleeting moment in mid-October, it seemed that Gorbachev’s project was on the right track, providing a promising setting for the Madrid conference on the Middle East.

Bush and Gorbachev arrived in Madrid on October 28, 1991, ready to preside together over the opening of this very ambitious conference, which grew directly out of their understandings reached during the Helsinki summit in September 1990. During Helsinki, Gorbachev had asked to link his support for U.S. decisions on Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait with a comprehensive international conference on the Middle East. Bush refused the explicit linkage but promised that after the Persian Gulf conflict the superpowers would co-sponsor a meeting on the region. After months of diplomatic efforts, most importantly by Secretary Baker, but also by Soviet diplomats, the main Middle East actors were about to meet in Madrid. Moscow granted diplomatic recognition to Israel just days beforehand. The mere fact that U.S. and Soviet leaders would open the event together was an important symbol of the end of the Cold War.

Gorbachev wanted Madrid to serve as a forum where the two presidents would discuss the fate of the world on the eve of the conference and cement their cooperation as the key global security dynamic. He was also hoping to get to talk to Bush privately about his need for urgent financial assistance for his reform program--to keep the USSR from disintegrating and to show Yeltsin who still had the ear of global leaders. For his part, however, Bush was expecting to see a president without a country, almost anticipating losing Gorbachev as a partner in his diary: “Reports recently that he might not be around long. The briefing book indicates this may be my last meeting with him of this nature. Time marches on.”[10] The scene-setter memo for the summit declared succinctly, “Prospects for a political union, and therefore a long-term role for Gorbachev as union president, seem nil.”[11] The briefing book’s prediction turned out to be on target.

As Gorbachev rode to the airport on the way to Madrid, Yeltsin addressed the Russian parliament with an explosive speech. (Gorbachev spoke with Yeltsin about it ahead of time but the latter did not reveal the full content.) The address asked the Russian Supreme Soviet for emergency powers to implement radical economic reform, including speedy price liberalization. This unilateral program, not discussed or coordinated with other republican leaders, essentially undermined previous economic agreements, and decisively chose the “go it alone” path for Russia, including dramatic cuts in funding for most central structures. (The Foreign Ministry would be cut by 90 percent.) From the Soviet transcript of the Bush and Gorbachev one-on-one meeting in Madrid, we know that the U.S. side had information about the content of the upcoming speech and contacted the Russian leadership with requests to tone it down, but the attempt was in vain.[12]

Gorbachev believed at the time that Yeltsin was under the influence of his close advisers, and that this explained his frequent turnabouts. Gorbachev’s memoir dates the turning point in Yeltsin’s evolution to a particular moment in September 1991, when Yeltsin’s secretary of state, “the evil genius” Gennady Burbulis, brought to his boss in Sochi a secret memorandum entitled “Strategy for Russia in the Transition Period.”[13] Drafted by Burbulis, it called for the speedy formation of a Russian state that would be the sole legal heir to the Soviet Union and would embark on a radical economic reform alone, leaving behind the center and the rest of the republics. This was the strategy--to get rid of Gorbachev by dismantling the Union.

Gorbachev’s interlocutors in Madrid, including King Juan Carlos, expressed their sincere outrage at Yeltsin’s speech and their support for Gorbachev. Bush spoke very frankly: “I hope you know the position of our government: we support the center. Without giving up contacts with the republics, we support the center and you personally.” He even mentioned that his speech in Kiev had cost him politically--on the eve of an election year he was seen as clinging to Gorbachev rather than throwing his support behind the “democratic forces” led by Yeltsin.[14] All conversations involved detailed discussions of the new Union Treaty. Gorbachev insisted on a single country with unified armed forces and a popularly elected president, a unified power grid, a transportation network, communications, space exploration, and a single economic space. At different times Gorbachev agreed with Bush that Yeltsin was trying to substitute Russia for the center in the new structure but then also said that Yeltsin understood the need for the center and realized that Russian economic reform was impossible without it.

The high point of the summit was the state dinner hosted by King Juan Carlos along with Prime Minister Gonzalez, the foreign leader Gorbachev felt was closest to him in his thinking and ideas. The four-hour conversation ranged from Soviet domestic to international subjects and allowed Gorbachev to play the role of global statesman once again. Yeltsin’s speech was one of the first subjects. Bush was concerned by Yeltsin’s statements about the borders and Russian minorities in the republics, especially in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Gorbachev noted the volatility of the Ukrainian situation: “Ukraine in its present form emerged only because the Bolsheviks did not have a majority in the Rada, and they added Kharkov and Donbass to the Ukraine. And Khrushchev passed Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine in a brotherly gesture.” Crimea, he said, decided to stay with Ukraine only on the assumption that Ukraine would be inseparable from Russia, which might change if Ukraine decided not to join the Union.[15] Gorbachev made a passionate statement about his determination to see his country hold together, and although all the principals were outspoken in their sympathy for his predicament, they also understood that his chances were slim. Madrid turned out to be the last superpower summit.

Upon arriving home, Gorbachev found his new Union project disintegrating even further. He was able to stanch the process by applying pressure on Yeltsin and threatening resignation, but that would not work for long. On December 1, Ukraine held a referendum in which 70 percent of the population voted for independence. Kravchuk was elected president and soon made it clear to Yeltsin that he was not going to be part of the new Union Treaty negotiations in any form, no more “big brother” Russia. On December 8, during a protracted negotiation at a hunting lodge in Belarus (and at the suggestion of Burbulis), the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belovezhie agreement to dissolve the USSR and create a Commonwealth of Independent States. Yeltsin rushed to phone Bush to inform him, emphasizing that Gorbachev did not know yet about it.[16] Gorbachev actually heard the news after Bush did, from Belarus’s leader, Stanislav Shushkevich. The most prominent non-Slav republic leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had declined to join the Belovezhie crew, demanding instead a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan, to work out the details of a successor federation.

On December 25, 1991, just before delivering his farewell speech as president of the USSR, Gorbachev phoned Bush, who was at Camp David for Christmas with his grandchildren. Gorbachev expressed appreciation for all they had done together and his hope for a future partnership in some new form.[17] The U.S. president felt that he was “caught up in history” at some “enormous turning point.”[18] This turning point was also the end point of the superpower summits. Gorbachev said a simple “good bye” and shook Bush’s hands virtually; Bush responded, “good bye.” These were the parting words in the conversations that ended the Cold War and transformed the world.



Document 1


[The Gorbachev Foundation Archive, Fond 1, Opis 1]

Soon after the failed coup, U.S. Senator Sam Nunn flies to Moscow from a conference in Budapest. He meets with Gorbachev just as the Extraordinary Congress of People’s Deputies that opened the day before has given its support for the idea of the Union of Sovereign States and the Economic Agreement. For the moment, it seems that the centrifugal trends are being reversed. In this conversation, Nunn expresses his support for Gorbachev’s reforms and his concern about military reform, conversion of military enterprises, and especially control over nuclear weapons.

Stressing his desire to be personally involved in helping the transition, Nunn asks the Soviet president a direct question: “what should the United States and the West do, and what they should not do, if we want to ensure a peaceful transition in your country in the process of implementing democratic reforms […]?” Gorbachev asks that the West not encourage any talk about dissolution of the USSR. He also raises the need for economic cooperation and specifically mentions space launches. They discuss the need to support Soviet servicemen who were hurt by the troop pullout from Eastern Europe and the conversion.

But the question that worries Nunn most is command and control of nuclear weapons. He asks Gorbachev if he was sure he had control over them during the three days of the coup. Gorbachev answers: “Absolutely. There could be no question about them being out of [central] control;” but he promises “additional measures” to improve the system. Nunn is not reassured.

Impressed by his experiences in Moscow, Nunn starts working on an unprecedented program of support for the former U.S. adversary. Three months later, the Senate approves and President Bush signs the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar Program—a congressional initiative that will help remove nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, help Russia carry out its obligations under START I, and create opportunities for unprecedented cooperation between the U.S. and Russian military and scientists.

Document 2


George H.W. Bush Library, obtained through FOIA 2000-1202-F/2 by the National Security Archive. Original in NSC Burns, R. Nicholas Files and Hewett, Ed, Files, USSR Chron file: September 1991.

Shortly after the August coup, Scowcroft gives the president a survey of the rapidly changing USSR. The main focus of this memo, prepared for a key NSC meeting on future strategy toward the Soviet Union, is the relationship between the weakened center and the republics, and more urgently, between Yeltsin and Gorbachev. Scowcroft notes Yeltsin's forceful move to gain control over the center and to place ethnic Russians in all significant posts in the provisional government. This "second coup" by Yeltsin is combined with his "warning on borders to Kazakhstan and Ukraine that they could not depart the union without leaving behind the Russianized portions of their republics." The national security advisor emphasizes the U.S. interest in having Yeltsin and Gorbachev collaborate to keep the union together. He is aware of the dangers of disintegration and worries that "despite the rhetoric supporting markets and democracy, it is not at all clear that all republic leaders, or any one leader at all times, will stick to a market-based, democratic, development strategy."

Document 3


State Archive of the Russian Federation, Fond 10063

Hans-Dietrich Genscher comes to Moscow soon after the coup to express his support for the victory of democratic forces and to find ways the West can help Gorbachev carry out his economic reforms. Yakovlev’s notes contain very specific advice from Genscher to the reformers, outlining the short-, medium-, and long-term tasks both the Soviets and the West should focus on to ensure a successful transition. Among the most urgent tasks, he lists the need for "a major effort by the West aimed at helping the Soviet Union avoid food shortages in the coming winter." His longer-term goals include “a truly pan-European cooperation,” for which new structures will have to be created. The German Foreign Minister makes quite a stunning commitment: that “after achieving the unification of the country, creating the infrastructure of a united Europe, which would include the USSR, will become the next goal of Germany.”

Document 4


State Archive of the Russian Federation, Fond 10063

James Baker, who is in Moscow to attend the CSCE Conference on the humanitarian dimension, meets with Yakovlev to show his support for the preservation of the Union and also gives specific advice on the urgent steps the Soviet leadership should take. While in Moscow, he meets with most republican leaders and tells Yakovlev that, according to those conversations, “all the republics understand the need to preserve the integrity of the union and a single economic space.” Baker believes that even Ukraine is willing to sign the agreement, but that concrete steps in reforming markets and relations within the Union must come very soon, because, the Secretary warns his Russian interlocutor, in his opinion, “the Soviet Union has no more than two or three months left before the start of its irreversible disintegration.” He was right almost to the day—the Belovezhie agreement dissolving the USSR was signed on December 8, 1991.

Document 5


[Russian State Archive of Contemporary History]

This is a key State Council session, where for a moment it feels like the renewed Union of Sovereign State is becoming a reality. Gorbachev has just had several meetings with Yeltsin and believes they have a joint program to preserve the Union. The top two issues on the agenda are finalizing the Union treaty and concluding the Economic Agreement. Gorbachev reminds participants of the decisions made at the Congress of People’s Deputies in September and warns them that they are quickly losing that momentum.

Yavlisnky gives a long presentation on market reform, but is challenged by Islam Karimov, first secretary of Uzbekistan, who says that freeing up markets and prices under the conditions of economic inequality, scarcity, and monopolistic economy that currently exist in the republics would lead to “catastrophe.” This is followed by a long and inconclusive back-and-forth between Karimov and Yavlinsky.

Leader of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, probably the most consistent and loyal supporter of the new Union, repeatedly states his firm support for signing the Union treaty and calls for urgent decisions and signing no later than October 15. Boris Yeltsin pledges his support—“Russia states that it will sign the Treaty,”—and even says, “We would like to sign the Treaty sooner.” Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, when asked directly by Gorbachev, also agrees to sign.

Nazarbayev calls for immediate signing, even if only by some republics, because “[i]t is already embarrassing to leave this building and to come home,” without producing any results, while “everything is in free fall” in the country. But Yavlinsky says he would need two to three months to draft all the specific agreements, without which the Treaty and the Economic Agreement cannot be ratified. Finally, Gorbachev agrees that the two main documents should be signed by October 15 and after that the specific agreements could be drafted for ratification.

In the end, the Treaty was never signed—Yeltsin and Kravchuk backed out of the agreement. On October 28, Yeltsin asked his parliament for emergency powers, appointed Yegor Gaidar to implement radical market reform, and took over the Union ministries.

Document 6


The Gorbachev Foundation Archive, Fond 1, Opis 1

This dinner conversation hosted by King Juan Carlos the evening before the Madrid summit becomes a virtual love fest as the king, Prime Minister Gonzalez and President Bush take turns expressing their wholehearted support and appreciation for Gorbachev and his efforts to preserve the Union in a new democratic and decentralized form. It evolves into a fascinating discussion of the internal dynamics of the Soviet Union as it slides toward collapse. After the Soviet leader presents his detailed vision for the new Union and describes the scale of the challenges facing him, Bush sums up Gorbachev's predicament as a "stunning, breathtaking drama." Gonzalez calls for preserving the Soviet Union as a "second circle," without which "there will be no important pillar of stability in Europe and in the world."

Document 7


[Russian State Archive of Contemporary History]

The last Defense Minister of the Soviet Union makes an impassioned presentation about the state of the Soviet Armed Forces and the progress of military reform. He describes the threat of “a dangerous crisis in the military sphere,” “erosion of the system of defense,” undermining of unity of command, and creating a situation that would “draw the Armed Forces into a political confrontation with all the fatal consequences that this would entail.” The military draft system has been failing for some time already; several of the republics are not supplying conscripts.

Shaposhnikov calls for urgent decisions to help the armed forces endure the transition, to regulate command and control issues with the republics where troops are stationed. He tells the State Council members: “the Armed Forces cannot be a subject of division, nationalization or privatization,” even though he understands the desire of sovereign states to have their own forces. The military budget for 1992 will have to be cut, but the international arms control commitment will be upheld. At the time, most republican leaders believe that the future post-USSR structure will retain the unified armed forces.

Document 8


Gorbachev Foundation Archive

These notes from the State Council were made most likely by Anatoly Chernyaev. He notes that, as usual, Yeltsin is late to the meeting, demonstrating disrespect with his tardiness. Gorbachev tries to recreate some momentum, even if just for the Economic Agreement after Yeltsin launched his reform on October 28. The center clearly does not hold any longer, all of Gorbachev’s efforts notwithstanding. Gorbachev says that republican leaders have started “pulling the blanket” over themselves, openly blaming Yeltsin’s grab of power for leading to the current situation. Gorbachev gives his formal support to Yeltsin’s economic program but believes that it must be done collaboratively because “Russia alone cannot cope with the situation, while others cannot escape the catastrophe on their own.”

After Yeltsin joins the meeting, Gorbachev continues speaking about the dangers of price deregulation and the emerging panic on the markets. Gorbachev claims that “Boris Nikolayevich and many members of the State Council are also in favor of a rapid advancement of the Union Treaty,” but it very questionable at this point. The Soviet president tells the gathering how shocked the “Western partners” were that the joint Foreign Ministry was disbanded by Yeltsin’s degree. He keeps referring to “Western partners” and expresses his hope for aid and credits. All his appeals to accelerate work on the Union Treaty and to state publicly each State Council member’s position on it fall on deaf ears. Yeltsin briskly tells him to stick to the agenda.

As tensions rise, Nazarbayev plays the role of peacemaker again, calling on his colleagues to work within the Economic Agreement and to move toward free market together. Prime Minister of Ukraine Vitold Fokin suggests that Russia’s actions are partially to blame for the situation in Ukraine where mines are at a standstill because Russia has stopped supplying timber. Nobody suggests specific steps or follows Gorbachev’s invitation to confirm their positions on the Union Treaty. The meeting becomes disorganized and ends inconclusively with many mutual recriminations but no positive program.

Document 9


George H.W. Bush Library, obtained through Mandatory Review request 2004-1975-MR by the National Security Archive.

This extraordinary conversation takes place less than 10 minutes after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have signed a declaration dissolving the Soviet Union and announcing the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Yeltsin emphasizes that he could not wait to call the U.S. president, repeating twice during the call, "Mr. President, I must tell you confidentially, President Gorbachev does not know these results." The agreement between the three leaders was not planned in advance but was drafted throughout the previous night, and the signers were concerned about the center's reaction. In the call, Yeltsin makes it sound like he already has Nazarbayev's support and that the Kazakh leader is on his way to join the group in Minsk. In fact, Nazarbayev was in Moscow at the time and did not intend to go to Minsk. Bush is quite astonished but also very careful in how he responds. He notes later that he felt "a little bit uncomfortable" and wrote in his diary that he was "worrying about military action." He was also anxious about the fate of his partner, Gorbachev, but limited himself to expressing the hope that all issues would be resolved peacefully by the participants themselves and not by outside parties.

Document 10


George H.W. Bush Library, obtained through Mandatory Review request 2004-1975-MR by the National Security Archive.

Less than two hours before announcing his resignation as president of the USSR, Gorbachev places a call to Bush. This is their last conversation as the leaders of the two superpowers--now close partners rather than Cold War rivals. The warmth and appreciation they have for each other is evident, as is their pride in having accomplished so much together. Gorbachev sounds high-minded and statesmanlike as he discusses the future, asking Bush to support Yeltsin and Russia's reforms, and to help the republics achieve separation without disintegrating even further. He expresses his own determination to support Yeltsin and to remain active in political life: "I do not intend to hide in the taiga, in the woods." He also tells Bush how much he values "our cooperation together, our partnership and friendship." Bush responds with praise and affection, reminding Gorbachev of their meetings at Camp David, quipping that "the horseshoe pit where you threw that ringer is still in good shape," and inviting Gorbachev to visit again. The U.S. president would come to miss this unprecedented partnership, which helped transform the world.


[1] "The Last Days of the Soviet Union:  Reporting from the British Embassy, Moscow." History Note No. 24.  Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, December 3, 2021, see especially pp. 103-105 for Braithwaite Cable “Gorbachev Goes: the End of an era,” Tel. no 2842, 25 December 1991.

[2] The best analysis of politics of Ukrainian independence is in Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (New York: Basic Books, 2014), pp. 158-161.

[3] Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, p. 541

[4] Ibid, p. 544.

[5] Plokhy, Final Days, p. 29.

[6] Ibid., p. 25.

[7] Baker, Politics of Diplomacy, p. 527.

[8] Gorbachev, Zhizn’ I reformy, vol. 2, pp. 609-612.

[9] Grachev, The Final Days, p. 93.

[10] Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, p. 548.

[11] Document No. 147.

[12] Document No. 151; Gorbachev Foundation transcript donated by Andrei Grachev.

[13] Gorbachev, Zhizn’ I reformy, p. 589.

[14] Document No. 151.

[15] Document No. 150.

[16] Document No. 154.

[17] Document No. 157

[18] A World Transformed, p. 561

Source: Ocnus.net 2020