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Gorbachev says U.S. was short-sighted on Soviet breakup

Kate de Pury

Moscow — As the Soviet Union was breaking up 25 years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev expected the United States and its allies to provide vital aid. The former Soviet president thinks their failure to offer significant help wasted a chance to build a safer world and resulted from short-sighted gloating at a Cold War rival’s demise.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, the 85-year-old Gorbachev voiced hope that Russia and the United States would do better during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“The relations between us are so important and concern everyone else, so we must take the interests of others into account,” said the leader credited with helping to end the Cold War.

Gorbachev said he was surprised by Trump’s victory, but declined to offer an assessment of the president-elect. He said it remains to be seen what policies the new U.S. administration will pursue.

“He has little political experience, but, maybe, it’s good,” he said.

Gorbachev walked slowly with a cane, but his smile was as captivating as always, his wits as sharp as usual and his reactions quick during the rare, hour-long interview in his foundation’s office in Moscow.

Gorbachev, who helped end the Cold War by launching liberal reforms, cutting nuclear stockpiles and allowing Soviet bloc nations in Europe to break free from Moscow’s diktat, spoke bitterly about the West’s failure to embrace the new era of cooperation he says his policy of “perestroika” offered.

“They were rubbing their hands, saying, ‘How nice! We had been trying to do something about the Soviet Union for decades, and it ate itself up!’” Gorbachev said.

He blasted what he described as Western “triumphalism,” saying it remains a key factor in tensions between Russia and the West.

Russia-West ties are at their worst since the Cold War era following Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and its support for a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. and the European Union responded with several rounds of economic sanctions, which along with low oil prices have driven Russia’s economy into recession.

Gorbachev said Russian and U.S. leaders must sit down for talks and “stay at the table until they reach agreement.”

“The world needs Russia and the United States to cooperate,” Gorbachev said. “Together, they could lead the world … to a new path.”

Gorbachev also praised outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama. But he deplored what he described as a misguided policy toward Russia pursued by the U.S. and its allies both during his presidency and now.

“They have been badgering Russia with accusations and blaming it for everything,” Gorbachev said. “And now, there is a backlash to that in Russia. Russia wants to have friendly ties with America, but it’s difficult to do that when Russia sees that it’s being cheated.”

Asked his opinion about Putin’s leadership, Gorbachev said he sees him as a “worthy president,” even though he has assailed the Kremlin for a crackdown on freedom of speech and rigid political controls.

“I almost fully supported him first, and then I began to voice criticism,” Gorbachev said of Putin. “I can’t renounce my views.”

Gorbachev has received global accolades for his “perestroika,” which eased government economic controls, and his role in ending the Cold War. At home, many held him responsible — and still do— for economic hardships, political turmoil and the loss of superpower status resulting from the Soviet Union’s collapse.

His voice trembled with emotion as he recalled the waning days of the Soviet Union, when his arch-foe, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and leaders of other Soviet republics were plotting his ouster while pretending to support a treaty that would give the republics broader powers.

“Yeltsin took part in that and supported it, but he was conspiring behind my back how to get rid of Gorbachev,” he said, saying that the Russian leader was driven by a hunger for power. “Russia was spearheading the Soviet breakup.”

Meeting secretly in a Belarus forest, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on Dec. 8, 1991 signed an agreement pronouncing the Soviet Union dead and setting up the Commonwealth of Independent States. The move caught both Gorbachev and the West by surprise. Two weeks later, other ex-Soviet nations joined the CIS.

Driven into a corner, Gorbachev stepped down on Christmas Day 1991. Hours later, Yeltsin and his lieutenants took over his office in the Kremlin.

Amid the meltdown, the loyalties of the 4 million-strong Soviet army and the massive KGB apparatus were split. Asked if he considered using force to keep the Soviet Union intact, Gorbachev said launching a violent domestic conflict in a nuclear superpower was never an option for him.

“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons,” he said. “And it would immediately have pushed the country into a civil war.”