Singaporeans have much to thank the late and last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for setting off a chain of events which ended the instability in South-east Asia following the fall of Saigon in 1975. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Vietnam coming to terms with the new post-Soviet world order. Despite having beaten the non-communist US-backed forces in Southeast-Asia, Hanoi, together with Phnom Penh and Vientiane, chose to join ASEAN to pursue a different, more peaceful destiny. The straightforward and pragmatic reason for a change of Vietnam’s direction was that the Soviet Union, its main military backer in the region, imploded in 1991 following Gorbachev’s reformist policies and rapprochement with the West.
Despite Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s attempts to “correct” what he sees as Gorbachev’s mistakes, Russia today is not what the Soviet Union was. It is, of course, still a nuclear and space power, a formidable country and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But it is a smaller nation, down to 140 million from the original superpower empire of nearly 300 million population. Moscow also needs its “no-limits” ally and next superpower Beijing a tad more than the latter has to depend on the former for anything.
Finally, far from being on the right side of history, Putin has made Russia a pariah nation – which is a huge climbdown from being a respected big power – because of the invasion of Ukraine. At most, only a few are neutral in their attitude towards Moscow. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution on 2 March 2022 demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine. A total of 141 countries out of 193 voted in favour of the resolution, which reaffirms Ukrainian sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity.
In short, unless he literally conquers Ukraine and the rest of the world and rewrites history beyond recognition and belief, he will be judged more badly than Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Soviet leader and US President Ronald Reagan had four summits – in Geneva (Switzerland) Reykjavik (Iceland), Washington DC and New York. They were not at ease for the first two meetings. But there were some signs that their two first ladies were getting along – Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbacheva loved fashion and the press splashed their pictures.
By the third summit in Washington DC in 1987, relations between the US and the Soviet Union and their leaders were thawing.
But it was in the Big Apple in December 1988 that Gorbachev showed he was ready to join the community of civilised nations.
I was lucky to be in New York during that summit.
US TV channels were doing reruns of the Soviet leader meeting Reagan for their “trust but verify” lunch toast at the White House at their third summit in DC. “Trust but verify” is a rhyming Russian proverb. The phrase became internationally known in English after Suzanne Massie, an American scholar, taught it to Reagan for his disarmament and other talks with the Soviets.
Gorbachev spoke at the United Nations GA where he announced that 50,000 troops would be withdrawn from Central and Eastern Europe.
Most people watching the two leaders sensed that something big was happening and the world was in one of those momentous occasions. And they were right.
At the hotel where I stayed I could hardly get a place for breakfast. I squeezed myself with the mainly office crowd at the bar and witnessed the planet becoming a far safer place than during the Cuban crisis or when Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoes at the UN – or for us in South-east Asia, when the Soviet-backed Vietnamese were carrying out daily incursions at the Thai border.
And, yes, the US media went to town. All the main TV channels – CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS – covered Gorbachev and Raisa – walking along Wall Street waving to everyone as if they were candidates for elections. In the evening, during prime time, the big guns Peter Jennings (ABC), Dan Rather (CBS) and Tom Brokaw (NBC) were asking the leader with the famous forehead birthmark questions about everything from nuclear warheads to Russian ballet.
May he RIP. He had secured his place in world and South-east Asian history.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.
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