Many Russians praised the late US president George H.W. Bush on Saturday for helping end the Cold War but some argued he helped trigger the collapse of the USSR and misled Moscow on NATO’s expansion plans.
The last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was among those saluting the 41st US president for ending the arms race but Moscow’s simultaneous fall from superpower status remains a source of festering resentment in Russia.
Bush and Gorbachev declared the end of the Cold War at a historic summit in December, 1989, only weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Following decades of post-war rivalry and a costly arms race between Washington and Moscow, Bush expressed his support for Gorbachev’s “perestroika” reforms.
In 1991, the Soviet Union was gone and the new Russia plunged into economic chaos. Two years later Bush confidently declared that “we are the only remaining superpower”, a remark that still rankles in Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin on Saturday called Bush “an outstanding man” and stressed his good personal ties with him.
“George Bush senior has done a lot to strengthen Russian-American cooperation on issues of international security,” he said in a telegram to his son George W. Bush.
But Putin conspicuously avoided any mention of the Cold War or the Soviet Union whose collapse the Russian president once called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
– ‘Cannot forgive him’ –
“Many Russians cannot forgive him for the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group think tank in Moscow, told AFP.
Kalachev said the Bush administration promised the Soviet leadership that NATO would not be allowed to expand eastward.
The fact that those promises would later be broken “have become the main reason of the current crisis in ties between Russia and the West”, said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Senate’s international relations committee.
At the same time Bush’s name was still associated with the “peak of trust” between Moscow and Washington, said Kosachev.
“I believe Bush was very sincere in his desire to establish good relations with the USSR and then with Russia,” Kosachev said on Facebook.
Gorbachev — himself much-criticised for the break-up of the Soviet Union — called Bush a “true partner” in ending the Cold War.
– ‘Dramatic time’ –
“We had the chance to work together during the time of enormous changes,” the 87-year-old said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency.
“And this was a dramatic time which called for huge responsibility from everyone. The result was the end of the Cold War and the arms race,” he said, praising Bush for his contribution “to this historic achievement”.
In 1991, Gorbachev and Bush signed the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty, START I, committing the two superpowers to cut their stockpiles of long-range nuclear weapons.
It was the first agreement to call for deep reductions of US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Further reductions were spelled out in the START II treaty signed by Bush and the first Russian president Boris Yeltsin in 1993.
– ‘Far from Bush era’ –
But the start in 1991 of what would be called Operation Desert Storm to expel occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait is also seen by many in Russia as contributing to the breakdown in trust between Moscow and Washington, Kalachev said.
Nearly three decades later, Russia and the US are in the throes of a new East-West drama, after ties rapidly deteriorated under Yeltsin’s successor Putin amid crises including Ukraine and Syria.
Moscow and the West accuse each other of dismantling a global arms control system and the fate of the New START — a successor to the START I – is unclear.
Tensions have recently reached a new peak, with US President Donald Trump cancelling a summit with Putin in Argentina over Moscow’s seizure of three Ukrainian ships.
Some said Bush’s death served as a fresh reminder that the Russia-US thaw was short-lived and a new arms race was looming.
Today, said Kosachev, we are far “from the Bush era.”