MOSCOW — President George H.W. Bush flew to Moscow at the end of July 1991 for a somewhat hastily arranged summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. They signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, talked about U.S. support for Soviet economic reform and agreed that Washington and Moscow were going to be happy partners in world affairs.
Twenty years later, hindsight shows that the idea of a constructive relationship with the Soviet Union was missing the point. (Actually, that was already pretty clear only 20 weeks later.) But American optimism is a force to be reckoned with, and this was the beginning of two decades of hopeful expectation that Moscow was on the verge of becoming a reliable and capable partner — an expectation that has waxed and waned but is still out there today, in the form of President Obama’s reset.
In 1991, it seemed to the people around Bush that there was good reason to expect great things from a reformed Soviet Union. The recently completed war to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait had been pursued by the United States with Soviet backing. Now the two leaders were talking about forging a genuine Middle East peace agreement. They were also casting a wary eye on events in Yugoslavia, where trouble seemed to be brewing. Competitors for so long, the two great powers could seemingly forge a new order in the world by working together.
But not everyone in the Soviet Union was so keen on getting along with the Americans. To some, it looked humiliating. Hard-liners were especially annoyed at U.S. support for the three Baltic republics, which were intent on regaining the independence they had lost in 1939. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had erupted in national feeling as soon as Gorbachev began to lift his country’s strict controls, much to his own surprise. Police and military crackdowns only strengthened the tiny republics’ resolve.
The official Communist line was that the Baltics should be grateful to Moscow for liberating them from the Nazis, but instead they were trying to get out of the Soviet Union as fast as they could. And the United States (and most of Europe) was altogether too sympathetic.
Lithuania had gone so far as to set up a “customs post” on its border with Soviet Byelorussia. On July 31, Bush’s last day in Moscow, a group of raiders descended on the post, made its six officers lie on the floor and shot them all dead.
It was a provocation, a message and a warning. There could be little doubt that the raiders were from one of the Soviet security apparatus’s shadowy agencies. Suspicion immediately fell on a special police detachment based in Latvia, known as the Riga OMON.
Bush and Gorbachev wrapped up their summit without letting the incident interfere. The next day, Bush flew to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. There he gave an impassioned speech urging Ukrainians to rally behind Gorbachev, to give his new treaty of union a chance, to stick with the U.S.S.R. Bush calculated that Gorbachev offered the best chance of a healthy relationship between Washington and Moscow, and it was better to have a Soviet Union led by Gorbachev than a bunch of independent new nations that might act in unpredictable ways.
He was about a year too late. His audience listened politely, but Ukrainians were heading directly for separation. Who would want to stick with a country where the authorities tried to keep order with events like the deadly raid on the Lithuanian customs post?
Bush’s address was memorably dissed by William Safire, the conservative New York Times columnist. He called it the “Chicken Kiev” speech. Here, in the last hours of the Soviet Union, as one nation after another was readying to come out from under 70 years of tyranny, one of the most insistent voices for keeping the country together belonged to the president of the United States.
Lithuania, of course, did break free, and today is a member of NATO. Resentment of Moscow — of Russia — is still strong. Ukraine, also independent, is on better terms with Russia at the moment, but there’s no chance of the two rejoining in the foreseeable future. Like the Baltics, it has a large Russian-speaking population, and mixed success, at best, in achieving amity across ethnic lines.
The Riga OMON was airlifted to the Siberian city of Tyumen days after the Aug. 19 coup attempt against Gorbachev had failed, when it was apparent that Latvia really was going to be separate and independent. But its gun-slinging troopers got bored there, and many of them eventually drifted west to St. Petersburg, where they fell in with various extortion rackets. For a while, they helped to make St. Petersburg the murder capital of the world.
As for Washington, it eventually came to the realization that the Soviet Union wasn’t worth saving. But it hardly mattered; throughout 1991, America had been rushing to catch up with developments here, and had had no influence on the course of events.