Gorbachev’s Role Behind the End of the Cold War

Gorbachev’s Role Behind the End of the Cold War

On August 30th, 2022, Mikhail Gorbachev passed away at the age of 91. He was the last leader of the former Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991. During his office, he put in place a series of reforms that significantly changed the socio-economic structure of the Soviet Union. His measures led to the democratization and liberalization of the State that sped up the collapse of the Communist party and of the Soviet Union, which took place in 1991. Today, he doesn’t  enjoy a good reputation in Russia since he was credited with the fall of the Soviet Union (and the consequent economic crisis) due to his policies. In reverse, he is largely esteemed in the rest of the world for his important foreign policy. Gorbachev’s actions had a key role for the beginning of diplomatic relations between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the US, and the following end of the Cold War. In 1990, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community. Anyway, it is debated among scholars whether his role was fundamental for the end of the Cold War, or whether a peaceful resolution would have been reached even without him. Surely, his actions accelerated and facilitated the end of this bipolar geopolitical period, but they were not the most important factor leading to the end of the Cold War. First, the collapse of the Soviet Union, due to its socio-economic crisis, was inevitable, and this would have surely led to the end of the Cold War. Secondly, it must be underlined the economic impossibility of the USSR to continue the arms race, proven by the fact that a more open attitude towards the US was started even before Gorbachev’s presidency.

When Gorbachev took the presidency of the Communist Party, he recognized the need to adopt economic and social reforms to try to counter the rapid decline that the Soviet Union was facing. One of the most important reforms was perestroika (restructuring). Its main purpose was to shift the Soviet economy from a centralized one to a decentralized market-oriented economy. Moreover, it was aimed at enlarging rights and autonomy for the enterprises. The novelties introduced by the reform did not bring positive effects during the following years, and the goal of renewing and enhancing the Soviet system resulted in a failure. Other important actions worth noticing were the ones summarized by the Russian word glasnost (openness and transparency). It was a public policy adopted in 1985, which intended to encourage public discussions and democratic debates regarding the problems of the society. Even though these decisions faced many oppositions from the more conservative members of the Communist Party, Gorbachev’s domestic policy was undoubtedly important for the end of the Cold War, as it accelerated the process of democratization, significant for the following collapse of the Soviet Union. Anyway, his most important actions concerned foreign politics.

In his book “Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World”, published in 1987, he affirmed: “We are profoundly devoted to the idea of a nuclear-free world. (…) Failure to understand this can only result in war with all its catastrophic consequences”. Behind the moral reasons, it is also true that the USSR could not afford anymore the arms race due to the huge economic efforts it required. Indeed, on December 8, 1987, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, that aimed at removing intermediate-range nuclear forces, was signed by the presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. An additional reduction in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles was reached in 1991, with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) agreement. It must be said that even before Gorbachev, the Soviet leaders understood the impossibility to go on with the arms race. (non ho capito benissimo questa frase) Indeed, previous attempts at arms limitation occurred since the 1970s. In fact, the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) was signed in Moscow by Presidents Nixon and Breznev in 1972. An attempt for a further limitation was tried with the SALT II agreement in 1979, but it was never ratified. Gorbachev’s actions were also fundamental for the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, following eight years of a ruinous war that started in 1979. The decision was based on Gorbachev’s ‘Sinatra Doctrine’, which recognized the right of each population to decide their future without any external influence. The withdrawal, fully realized in 1989, signed the beginning of a new foreign policy and strongly influenced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the conclusion of the Cold War.

Many historians agree that the fall of the Soviet Union was the event which really put an end to the Cold War. Therefore, it is not wrong to assume that the Cold War would have come to an end anyway, with or without the role of Gorbachev, due to the inevitable collapse of the USSR. Indeed, by the 1980s, a profound economic crisis became evident in the Communist Europe. Socialism was struggling to provide increasing living standards. Not only, but the Eastern bloc was far from covering the technological innovation and progress that were spreading in the Western world. As a consequence, discontent and strikes started to spread. Dissident movements (such as the Polish movement “Solidarnocs”) increased throughout Socialist Europe. In this socio-political scenario, in which the Soviet Union struggled to keep its influence over the states of the Eastern Bloc, it was not difficult to foresee an inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union within some years.

On December 7, 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev released these words during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly: “It is a question of cooperation that could be more accurately called “co-creation” and “co-development.” The formula of development “at another’s expense” is becoming outdated. In light of present realities, genuine progress by infringing upon the rights and liberties of man and peoples, or at the expense of nature, is impossible” (CWIHP Archive). This request for cooperation sums up the political thinking and activity of Gorbachev’s presidency. His domestic policy, from the perestroika to glasnost, and his foreign policy, including the arms disarmament, the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’, facilitated in a significant way the process that led to the end of the Cold War.

For his demise, a State ceremony was organized in Moscow’s Hall of Columns. President Putin, who had previously blamed Gorbachev for the fall of the Soviet Union, which he described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, did not attend the funeral due to his work schedule. Despite that, hundreds of people reunited outside the ceremony hall, willing to pay respect for the former leader, who had managed to bring democracy and international openness to Russia.


Federico Mancuso (2021), Gorbachev’s actions were the most important factor leading to the end of the Cold War, Academic Essay, History and Civilization, Prof. Angela Romano

John, F. P. (2022, September 3). Russians say farewell to USSR’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev in funeral snubbed by Putin. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/03/europe/mikhail-gorbachev-funeral-russia-intl/index.html

“Address by Mikhail Gorbachev at the UN General Assembly Session (Excerpts),” December 07, 1988, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, CWIHP Archive. http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/116224


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