Soviet breakup, 20 years later: U.S. was among last to concede U.S.S.R.’s demise

November 24, 2011

As most of Washington was getting ready to bolt for the long Thanksgiving weekend, a confidential top-level meeting was convening in the White House. President George H.W. Bush’s advisers were divided: Three months after the 1991 coup attempt in Moscow, should the United States still be trying to prop up the Soviet Union?

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser, and James Baker, the secretary of state, said yes. Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense, said no.

It was a remarkable question. In Russia and the other remaining Soviet republics, there was almost no sentiment to keep the U.S.S.R. together; there was certainly no political will to do so. Yet the Bush administration had clung stubbornly to the idea that an intact Soviet Union was less dangerous than one that was breaking up. Americans liked Mikhail Gorbachev, the feckless Soviet leader, and were wary of Boris Yeltsin, the populist anti-Communist.

Yeltsin and millions of others were envisioning a total overthrow of a system that had been America’s chief adversary since the end of World War II. In Washington, the president was not so sure.

All fall, American loans and food aid poured into the Soviet Union. But people weren’t listening to Gorbachev anymore. He made one last try at cobbling together a new treaty binding the Soviet republics, but when the signing day came around Nov. 25, seven republics declined to join and the other five didn’t even bother to show up.

On Nov. 26, 1991, at that White House meeting, Cheney prevailed. U.S. policy was changed to accept the reality. The Soviet Union couldn’t be saved. The next day the administration announced that it would recognize Ukraine’s independence.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” an anonymous U.S. official said, “and we want to be able to help them manage the transition.”

The United States, which had embarrassingly been among the last major countries to recognize the independence of the Baltic republics earlier in the year, was playing catch-up to the end. But the shift did finally mollify one increasingly unhappy and generally reliable bloc of Republican voters: Ukrainian Americans.

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