An Urgent History Lesson in Diplomacy with Russia


As prospects for peace appear dim in places like the Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan and now with a renewed bombing of Libya, the President of the United States (and  his heiress apparent) continue to display an alarming lack of understanding of the responsibilities  as the nation’s highest elected officer.  As has been unsuccessfully litigated, Article II of the Constitution does not give the President right to start war; only Congress is granted that authority (See Article I, Section 8).

So for the nation’s Chief Executive Officer to willy-nilly arbitrarily decide to bomb here and bomb there and bomb everywhere in violation of the Constitution might be sufficient standard  for that CEO  to be regarded as a war criminal. Surely, consistently upping the stakes with a strong US/NATO military presence in the Baltics with the US Navy regularly cruising the Black and Baltic Seas, accompanied by a steady stream of confrontational language and picking a fight with a nuclear-armed Russia may not be the best way to achieve peace.

In 1980, there was strong opinion among liberals that Ronald Reagan was close to, if not a direct descendant of the Neanderthals and that he stood for everything that Democrats opposed – and his eight years in office confirmed much of that sentiment.  In those days, many lefties believed that the Democrats were still the party of FDR and JFK but today, the undeniable illusion is that the Dems are now the party of war and big money and not the political party some of us signed up for as new voters.

Ronald Reagan (R) was elected President as an ardent anti-communist who routinely referred to Russia as the ‘evil empire’, a fierce free market proponent of balanced budgets who in two terms in office never balanced a budget, a President who dramatically slashed domestic social programs even though his family benefited from FDR’s New Deal and whose foreign policy strategy was to ‘build-up to build-down’  (a $44 billion.20% increase in one year, 1982-1983) so as to force the Russians to the table.  Reagan, who was ready to engage in extensive personal diplomacy, was an unlikely peacemaker yet he achieved an historic accomplishment in the nuclear arms race that is especially relevant today as NATO/US are reintroducing nuclear weapons into eastern Europe.

After having ascended to the USSR’s top leadership position in March, 1985, an intelligent and assertive Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was eager to improve relations with the United States but thought Reagan a “political dinosaur” who was regarded by much of the American public as a ‘trigger-happy cowboy”.

Even before the American President and Russian leader met, NATO ministers in 1979 had unanimously adopted a strategy that included arms control negotiations and a modernization of its current missile system as Russia deployed its updated, most lethal generation of the SS 20 Saber missiles.  With an improved maximum range, an increased area covered by multiple warheads and a more improved accuracy than earlier versions, it was a missile that could easily reach western Europe with terrifying results.

As formal talks began between the US, Russia and NATO in 1981, massive anti nuclear weapon demonstrations were taking place in the US and Europe adding a political urgency for both countries to initiate discussions.

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At that time, Reagan announced a proposal to abandon the Pershing I missiles in exchange for elimination of the SS 20 which Gorbachev rejected.

By 1983, the Soviets walked out and there were no talks in 1984 until a resumption in March, 1985.   US Secretary of State George Shultz had continued to meet with Russian Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin since 1983.   Shultz suggested that the President meet with Dobrynin who had expressed his frustration to Shultz that they were not dealing with the ‘big issues” and was rumored to be leaving his diplomatic post due to the Americans unwillingness to negotiate.   Two weeks earlier Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko had publicly suggested a summit between the two nuclear power countries.

According to published reports at the time, while most of the White House staff opposed the Dobrynin meeting, Reagan gave Shultz the green light.

By the time Reagan first met Gorbachev in 1985 in Geneva, the President was already driven by a deep instinctive fear that modern civilization was on the brink of a biblical nuclear Armageddon that could end the human race.

According to Jack Matlock  who served as Reagan’s senior policy coordinator for Russia and later US Ambassador to Russia in his book, “Reagan and Gorbachev:  How the Cold War Ended,” one of Reagan’s pre-meeting notes to himself read “avoid any demand for regime change.”  From the beginning, one of Reagan’s goals was to establish a relationship that would be able to overcome whatever obstacles or conflicts may arise with the goal of preventing a thermonuclear war.   

The meeting began with a traditional oval table diplomatic dialogue with Reagan, who had no foreign policy experience, lecturing on the failings of the “despised” Russian system and support for the SDI (Star Wars) program.  Gorbachev, who arrived looking like a spy complete with KGB-issue hat and overcoat, responded by standing up to Reagan (“you are not a prosecutor and I am not the accused”) and was visibly irritated “why do you repeat the same thing (on the SDI);  stop this rubbish.”

After a lengthy personal, private conversation, it became obvious that the two men had struck a cord of mutual respect with Reagan recognizing that the youthful articulate Gorbachev was not  the out- moded Politburo politician of his predecessors. At the conclusion of Geneva, a shared trust necessary to begin sober negotiations to ban nuclear weapons had been established. Both were well aware that the consequences of nuclear war would be a devastation to mankind, the world’s greatest environmental disaster.  At the end of their Geneva meeting, Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that “nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

During their October, 1986 Reykjavik meeting, the real possibility of a permanent, forever ban on all nuclear weapons appeared possible until Gorbachev insisted on the elimination of SDI’s (Star Wars) from the final agreement and Reagan walked away.  Gorbachev relented; saving the potential long range treaty from failure and ultimately, the SDI sunk under the weight of its own impossibility.  While the summit ended with measured progress, Reagan’s stubbornness on SDI represented a significant lost opportunity that would never come again.

In April, 1987 with Secretary Shultz in Moscow, Gorbachev proposed the elimination of U.S. and Soviet shorter-range missiles and by June, NATO foreign ministers announced support for the global elimination of all U.S. and Soviet intermediate-range and shorter-range missile systems. In June, all the participating parties were in agreement as Reagan agreed to eliminate all U.S. and Soviet shorter-range missile systems.

As high level negotiations continued, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl added icing to the cake, in August, 1987 by announcing that Germany, on its own, would dismantle all of its 72 Pershing I missiles that  Reagan-Gorbachev had earlier been unable to eliminate.

In December of 1987, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Washington DC to sign the bilateral Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (including Short Range Missiles) known as the INF Treaty.  The Treaty eliminated 2,611 ground launched ballistic and cruise missile systems with a range of between 500 and 5500 kilometers (310 -3,400 miles).  Paris is 2,837 (1,762 miles) kilometers from Moscow.

In  May 1988, the INF Treaty was ratified by the US Senate in a surprising vote of 93 – 5 (four Republicans and one Democrat opposed) and by May, 1991, all Pershing I missiles in Europe  had been dismantled. Verification of Compliance of the INF Treaty, delayed because of the USSR breakup, was completed in December, 2001.

At an outdoor press briefing during their last meeting together and after the INF was implemented, Reagan put his arm around Gorbachev.  A reporter asked if he still believed in the ‘evil empire’ and Reagan answered ‘no.”   When asked why, he replied “I was talking about another time, another era.”

After the INF Treaty was implemented, right wing opponents and columnists like George Will attacked Reagan as a pawn for “Soviet propaganda” and being an “apologist for Gorbachev.”

Some things never change.

Whether the Treaty could have been more far-reaching is questionable given what we now know of Reagan’s mental deterioration and yet despite their differences, there is no indication that during the six year effort the two men treated each other with anything other than esteem and courtesy.

In 1990, Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize while President Reagan, largely credited with ending the Cold War and bringing nuclear stability to the world and back from a nuclear confrontation, was not nominated.

As the current US President and Nobel Peace Prize winner prepares to leave office with a record of a Tuesday morning kill list, unconscionable drone attacks on civilians, initiating bombing campaigns where there were none prior to his election and, of course, taunting Russian President Vladimir Putin with unsubstantiated allegations, the US-backed NATO has scheduled AEGIS anti ballistic missile shields to be constructed in Romania and Poland, challenging the integrity of INF Treaty for the first time in almost thirty years.

In what may shed new light on NATO/US build-up in eastern Europe, Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov denied US charges in June, 2015 that Russia had violated the Treaty and that the US had “failed to provide evidence of Russian breaches.”  Commenting on US plans to deploy land-based missiles in Europe as a possible response to the alleged “Russian aggression” in the Ukraine, Lavrov warned that ‘‘building up militarist rhetoric is absolutely counterproductive and harmful.’  Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov suggested the United States was leveling accusations against Russia in order to justify its own military plans.

In early August, the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration authorized the final development phase (prior to actual production in 2020) of the B61-21 nuclear bomb at a cost of $350 – $450 billion.  A thermonuclear weapon  with the capability of reaching Europe and Moscow, the B61-21 is part of President Obama’s $1 trillion request for modernizing the US aging and outdated nuclear weapon arsenal.

Isn’t it about time for the President to do something to earn that Peace Prize?

Renee Parsons has been a member of the ACLU’s Florida State Board of Directors and president of the ACLU Treasure Coast Chapter. She has been an elected public official in Colorado, an environmental lobbyist and staff member of the US House of Representatives in Washington DC. She can be found on Twitter @reneedove31