With War in Ukraine, Putin Tries to Unravel Gorbachev’s Legacy

The day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Feb. 24, the legacy of Mikhail S. Gorbachev loomed over President Vladimir V. Putin’s predawn speech.

“The paralysis of power and will is the first step toward complete degradation and oblivion,” Mr. Putin intoned, referring to the Soviet Union’s collapse. “We lost confidence for only one moment, but it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world.”

For Mr. Putin, the end of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” a “genuine tragedy” for millions of Russians because it left them scattered across newly formed national borders. The disaster was caused, in Mr. Putin’s telling, by the weak nerves of a leader too willing to bend to the demands of a treacherous and duplicitous West — a mistake, the Kremlin’s televised propaganda now often reminds viewers, that Mr. Putin is determined not to repeat.

Mr. Gorbachev at his farewell party in Moscow in December 1991. According to Mr. Putin, the Soviet Union’s collapse was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

In Ukraine, Mr. Putin is fighting in the shadows of the empire whose end Mr. Gorbachev presided over, having started a war that has killed thousands in the name of restoring Moscow’s dominance over what it claims to be Russian lands. But Mr. Putin’s battle to reverse Mr. Gorbachev’s legacy extends beyond territorial control to the personal and political freedoms that the last Soviet president ushered in — and that the Kremlin is now fast unraveling.

“All of Gorbachev’s reforms are now zero, in ashes, in smoke,” a friend of Mr. Gorbachev’s, the radio journalist Aleksei A. Venediktov, said in a July interview. “This was his life’s work.”

Mr. Gorbachev, who has died at age 91, was still in power when Mr. Venediktov’s freewheeling liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow, first went on the air in 1990 and came to symbolize Russia’s newfound freedoms. After Mr. Putin ordered troops into Ukraine in February, the Kremlin forced the station to shut down.

And Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper that Mr. Gorbachev used his Nobel Peace Prize money to help found in the early 1990s, was forced to suspend publication in March, threatened by a new wartime censorship law.

A Ukrainian unit firing toward Russian positions in southeastern Ukraine this month. Mr. Putin started the war partly in the name of restoring Moscow’s dominance over what he claims to be Russian lands.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Mr. Gorbachev, in ill health, said nothing himself publicly this year about the war in Ukraine. His Gorbachev Foundation, a research institute that “seeks to promote democratic values,” issued a statement two days after the invasion calling for a “speedy cessation of hostilities” and “the immediate start of peace talks.”

But Mr. Gorbachev, the son of a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father, backed Mr. Putin’s view of Ukraine as a “brotherly nation” that should rightfully be in Russia’s orbit. He supported Mr. Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, describing the move as representing the will of a region heavily populated by people who identified as Russian. And he castigated the West for “trying to draw Ukraine into NATO,” warning that such attempts “will not bring anything but discord between Ukraine and Russia.”

But he also appeared confident that the worst could be avoided. Asked about tensions between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, he told a Siberian news outlet, “A war between Russia and Ukraine — this is absurd.”

“This was a man who was a principled opponent of violence and bloodshed,” Dmitri A. Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta and a winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said in a phone interview.

Dmitri A. Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta and a winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said of Mr. Gorbachev: “This was a man who was a principled opponent of violence and bloodshed.”Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Still, Mr. Gorbachev’s precise views on the invasion that began six months before his death have remained a mystery. Mr. Muratov said that he frequently visited Mr. Gorbachev in the hospital over the past two years and that he believed Mr. Gorbachev “was not in the condition to comment on current political events.”

Mr. Putin issued a statement on Wednesday that sounded a conciliatory note — even as his allies in Parliament and in the state media went so far as to consign Mr. Gorbachev a place in hell.

Mr. Putin, addressing Mr. Gorbachev’s “relatives and friends,” said, “Mikhail Gorbachev was a politician and statesman who had a huge impact on the course of world history.”

“He deeply understood that reforms were necessary, he strove to offer his own solutions to urgent problems,” Mr. Putin added.

Russian troops near a Ukrainian military compound in Crimea in 2014. Mr. Gorbachev supported Mr. Putin’s annexation of the peninsula.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

The brief statement allowed Mr. Putin to appear as a statesman above the political fray, but it quickly became clear that Mr. Gorbachev would not be venerated by the Kremlin. Its spokesman said that the format of Mr. Gorbachev’s funeral — such as whether it would receive state honors — had yet to be determined.

A cornerstone of Mr. Putin’s propaganda message is that he stabilized Russia — rebuilding the economy and the country’s status as a great power — after the chaotic and humiliating 1990s that were ushered in by Mr. Gorbachev.

As a result, in death, Mr. Gorbachev immediately became a symbol for Kremlin allies making the case that trying to liberalize society and make nice with the West can lead to disaster. Mr. Putin let slip his view of Mr. Gorbachev as a weak negotiator last year when he told NBC that the West had tricked the last Soviet leader at the end of the Cold War by suggesting NATO would not expand eastward but not enshrining such a pledge in a treaty. (American officials say they made no such commitment.)

“You fooled the little dummy,” Mr. Putin said in the interview, using a schoolyard rhyme.

That historical grievance underpins Mr. Putin’s contention that the West is not to be trusted, and that Russia needs a stronger, more assertive leader, a view that state media asserted on Wednesday with full-throated criticism of Mr. Gorbachev.

“Mikhail Gorbachev can serve as an illustration that good intentions of a national leader can create hell on earth for a whole country,” said a column published early Wednesday by the state news agency RIA Novosti. It described him as responsible for “a destroyed country, the nightmare of the 1990s, and the millions of lives lost in civil wars, ethnic cleansing, terrorist attacks and gang wars.”

Igor Korotchenko, a military analyst who is a regular on state television talk shows, was even more blunt. On Twitter, he wrote of Mr. Gorbachev: “Burn in hell!”

Mr. Gorbachev meeting with President Ronald Reagan in Geneva in 1985. Arms-control talks between the two reduced the chances of nuclear annihilation.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To those Russians who yearn for better ties with the West and greater freedoms at home, Mr. Gorbachev remains a visionary figure. But Mr. Muratov, the Novaya Gazeta editor, said that perhaps the former Soviet leader’s greatest legacy was his arms-control talks with President Ronald Reagan that reduced the chances of nuclear annihilation. Mr. Putin, in contrast, has not shied away from threatening the West with his nuclear arsenal and fearsome new missiles.

“They gave us the gift of at least 30 years of life without the threat of a global nuclear war,” Mr. Muratov said of Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Reagan. “We have wasted this gift. The gift does not exist anymore.”

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