Death of Soviet Union’s foreign policy guru

Georgi Arbatov, who died this month, was the Soviet Union’s supreme two timer. On one side was the Soviet Union. On the other was the US. He spoke to them both, attempting to bring them together. He advised four Soviet leaders. When Mikhail Gorbachev took the top job he became his closest foreign affairs advisor. Gorbachev told his secretary that whenever Arbatov phoned she was to put him right through.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Thu 21 Oct 2010, 9:31 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:30 AM

He wasn’t exactly a chameleon but he was a fixture in US foreign policy circles where at the height of the Cold War he argued the case for détente, suggesting it was in America’s interest as well as the Soviet Union’s. The USSR, he maintained, was not hostile to the West and wanted to get out of the straightjacket of the Cold War. At times he could sound like an American liberal Democrat. Indeed Senator Edward Kennedy was a friend and admirer.

He was a fixture on both Soviet and US television. He had a way in public of going right up to the edge of the red lines, but never quite crossing them. He had an unerring ability to watch his back. He knew that the other centre of power was the Soviet military-industrial complex. On one occasion he had an almighty row with Dmitri Ustinov, the head of the Soviet armed forces, about a new nuclear arms deal. He wondered afterwards if he had cooked his goose. But a week later Ustinov appeared on the doorstep of his modest flat to give him a bunch of flowers to celebrate his birthday. (Like his friend Yuri Andropov, Gorbachev’s predecessor and boss of the KGB, he lived fairly simply, unlike most of the leadership.)

He records in his autobiography how when an agreement on a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty had all but been completed Brezhnev phoned Ustinov and hollered down the line for a good half hour. His voice was so loud that the US delegation said they could hear it right down the corridor where they waited. Ustinov buckled. By the time of Gorbachev, Arbatov had honed his skills to a sharp point. He formulated for Gorbachev the ideas that led to the end of the Cold War. He gave Gorbachev confidence in his diplomacy and negotiations with the US president, Ronald Reagan. (Gorbachev had not touched foreign affairs until he became General Secretary.) This led to a serious effort at total nuclear disarmament, made easier by Gorbachev’s unilateral decision to ban medium range nuclear missiles in Europe—another of the Arbatov causes. He was as influential on Afghani policy. He was one of a small group who persuaded Gorbachev to withdraw the Soviet army of occupation. He had an abiding interest in Chinese affairs. In an interview with me in 1978, which I did for the International Herald Tribune, he told me if the West “pursued a closer relationship with China, turning China into some sort of military ally of the West”…… then there would be “no place for détente”. By issuing this threat Arbatov in effect demonstrated the long leash that Brezhnev gave him. At that time the Chinese-Soviet relationship was in the pits. Two and a half years ago – in his last full length interview with a Western journalist- I asked him if he feared the present Chinese military build-up. He replied: “I don’t see a clear and present danger…..For so long China was deprived of a place in the international community. It made an imprint on their psychology. Now they are involved in a real attempt to build their country. At the same time we have no guarantees that military people won’t come to power. This will be bad for China and its neighbours.”

In his book he is very critical of Gorbachev for not using his immense power to turn the Soviet Union into something like a social democratic state. “Having inherited awesome power that thrived on the fear ingrained in most of us since the horrors of Stalinism, he did not use that power for the public good.” After a couple of years in power during which he was a force for liberation he steadily moved to the right surrounding himself with men who were later to try and overthrow him. In Arbatov’s recent conversation with me he made many of the same points but then concluded that “Gorbachev was the best leader we ever had, even better than Andropov.”

We concluded by talking about Europe. “If the EU could say that that in a decade or two Russia could enter the EU, it would help stabilise Russian politics,” he said. Next Monday the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will be talking about just this with Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev. The first step will be to discuss the Russian request for regular participation in the EU committee that is responsible for foreign policy. Arbatov must be smiling.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London

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