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How Mikhail Gorbachev resisted before accepting Ukraine independence

Mikhail Gorbachev is being remembered for his complicated views on Ukrainian independence, after the reformist Soviet leader reluctantly acquiesced to the country breaking free from Moscow but later called it a “mistake.”

The last leader of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev’s death at age 91 on Tuesday sparked a renewed look at his legacy that reshaped the global political order. Gorbachev led the Soviet Union as Ukraine declared independence in 1991, rejecting centuries of domination from Russia. With a resurgent Russia seeking to regain control over Ukraine, how Gorbachev shaped relations between the two countries is being given a fresh look.

Gorbachev is best remembered for ushering in a series of reforms as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the first and only president of the Soviet Union. He sought improved relations with Western countries and loosened government control over political and economic life that precipitated the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

“Death of ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at 91 is a reminder of what he did: ending the Soviet Union and setting free numerous, now independent, countries, including #Ukraine,” Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent, said in a tweet. “Already during my visit to Moscow in 1987 Russia was changing with his perestroika (reconstruction).”

Ukrainians Hold Rally in 1990s
A group of Ukrainians demonstrate their concern for Ukraine’s future and America’s role in the George H.W. Bush/Mikhail Gorbachev summit. Soviet leader Gorbachev had a complicated relationship with Ukraine’s independence.
Wally McNamee//Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed admiration for Gorbachev in a tweet, saying “his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”

But others pointed out that Gorbachev wasn’t seeking the dissolution of the Soviet Union and hoped to keep Ukraine in its orbit even as the country sought to break away. Gorbachev said in 2016 he had always sought to preserve a reformed version of the Soviet Union.

Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, pointed out in a tweet that Gorbachev urged then-President George H.W. Bush to warn against “suicidal nationalism.” Bush in a 1991 speech in Kyiv praised Gorbachev’s reforms and said “freedom is not the same as independence.”

“Gorbachev accepted Ukraine’s independence but hoped for positive relations between Russia and Ukraine, and integration through regional institution,” said Ramani.

As the Soviet Union declined in the 1980s, its member republics began to demand more autonomy from Russia, which had long dominated the Communist superpower. But Gorbachev appealed to leaders of Soviet republics to remain in a reformed Soviet Union.

“We cannot imagine a union without the Ukraine,” he told The Washington Post in October 1991.

Despite his appeal, Ukraine, the union’s largest republic, overwhelmingly declared independence in a December 1991 referendum.

“Last night marked the end of what probably had been the worst empire in the history of the world,” Ukrainian writer and legislator Volodymyr Yavorivsky told the Los Angeles Times following the vote.

Gorbachev had sought to maintain a political union with the Soviet republics and downplayed the vote, saying they could still rejoin a reformed Soviet Union, according to the Times.

“It should be clear that the collapse of the USSR wasn’t Gorbachev’s idea, nor was it his wish. He sloppily accepted the fact in the end,” said Myroslava Petsa, a journalist with the BBC’s Ukraine service. “That’s why a majority of Russians hate him. Until recently, he was Russia’s big advocate. The war vs. Ukraine made him re-evaluate his beliefs.”

Even after Ukraine’s vote for independence, Moscow insisted questions remained over the Crimean peninsula, which had earlier been incorporated into Ukraine by the Soviet authorities.

Gorbachev told the BBC in 2013 that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a “crime” and a “coup.”

When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move condemned internationally, Gorbachev said he supported the move.

“While Crimea had previously been joined to Ukraine based on the Soviet laws, which means [Communist Party] laws, without asking the people, now the people themselves have decided to correct that mistake,” Gorbachev told The Moscow Times.

Even as Gorbachev urged diplomacy between Washington and Moscow, he was banned from entering Ukraine in 2016 over his comments.

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