Will the Gorbachev-Reagan era be repeated by Putin and Trump?

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power

By : Jonathan Power

:: Here I am in Moscow standing in front of a statue of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, to celebrate its unveiling. The statue is the work of master sculptor Alexander Bourganov.

On the visit I have talked to a group of students, and a young member of the Russian media contingent. I also invited a journalism student I met on the street when I stopped to ask the way. We spent an hour talking about her course and the Russian press. At the airport in the Aeroflot lounge I talked to one of the hostesses, who it turned out was a journalism graduate. And on the plane I sat next to a Russian student studying in America.

In three days in Moscow these chance meetings enabled me to get a snapshot of what some 30-year-olds and people even younger think about the government and the media.

Five out of nine were highly critical of President Vladimir Putin for one main reason: His overriding influence on the media. However, it is true that there remains one television network, one radio network, and a couple of newspapers which do not toe the line.

I’m told by one person that many students on the Moscow State University journalism degree course are disillusioned by the media, and wonder about the jobs available that are not in the hands of the government.

Then it is my turn to tell them something. I remind them of what brought an end to the Cold War. Ronald Reagan, a rightist, who cut taxes for the rich and did little for the poor, was persuaded through his meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev to agree to nuclear disarmament. On one occasion both leaders sought to find a way to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. Only misleading advice stopped them doing it. But they managed over the years to make some significant cuts in their nuclear armories. Reagan said of the opponents to his nuclear deals with Gorbachev, “Some of the people who are objecting most, whether they realize it or not, those people basically down in their deepest thoughts have accepted that war is inevitable.”

And once, for the first time since just after communist revolution in 1917, the press and all writers were free to compose and publish what they wanted.

The occasion when goodwill began its collapse was when Bill Clinton decided to expand NATO eastward.

Jonathan Power

My new contacts, like many other Russians, Europeans and Americans, forget what was achieved.

The end of the Cold War was in some ways “the end of history,” the end of the nuclear threat. There was also large-scale military disarmament, the withdrawal of troops from Europe, more business and trade, more students going to each side’s universities, and scientific exchanges of all types.

To my mind, the occasion when goodwill began its collapse was when President Bill Clinton decided to expand NATO eastward. This policy was continued by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who expanded NATO right up to Russia’s borders. Gorbachev had made a deal with Secretary of State James Baker and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that, in return for allowing the two halves of Germany to reunite, there would be no NATO expansion.

Over time, the American and European media became critical of Putin, with issues once treated soberly becoming confrontations. During the time of the Bush administration they began to demonize him, a process that continued under Obama, with him often giving the lead.

It all came to a head with the Ukraine issue, when Russian “volunteer” forces entered its eastern provinces. Later, official Russian troops invaded Crimea. This was triggered by the EU’s negative negotiation tactics over a trade agreement. It led to protests by pro-EU groups. However, they were infiltrated and subverted by fascist movements who turned the demonstrations violent, culminating in the fall of Ukraine’s government.

Putin and Donald Trump are soon going to have their first meeting. As president, Trump has not changed Obama’s policy, except in one quite important respect: He has cut out the critical anti-Russian rhetoric. Before Trump became president he said how much he admired Putin. This, he no longer says. He feels hemmed-in by accusations that his campaign was helped by Russia. This gave the anti-Putin foreign policy movement time to apply pressure to keep his pro-Putin mindset to himself — or at least so far.

Can Trump negotiate with Putin and end the coming of a second Cold War? If Trump has success, the achievements of Reagan and Gorbachev will be remembered anew, Putin would ease up on the Russian media and my young friends would have reason for hope.

:: Jonathan Power is a British journalist, filmmaker and writer. He has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 17 years.

:: Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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