Likhotal, Alexander and Gorbachev, Mikhail

Alexander Likhotal (Gorbachev's spokesman), 1991

Interview with Alexander A. Likhotal, Moscow August 1991.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
When I met Likhotal in Austria, he had just become Pro-Rector of the Soviet Diplomatic Academy. I liked him immensely; he was democratic and had an excellent perspective on how to end the Cold War in Europe. We talked for several hours in all. In July 1991 I tried to find him in Moscow but he had moved on and was
Director of Research for the International Department of the Central Committee. I had lunch with him. This tape is transcript of that conversation. Also present, a man named Fiedorov (or something close to that) who worked with him at the Central Committee, especially doing naval policy, I think he said.
The coup was to take place about three days later, and when I next saw Likhotal, he was Gorbachev’s spokesperson during the final weeks of the SU. In fact, it was he who announced the agreement of Gorbachev to finally give up the fight to preserve the Soviet Union.


M.S. What are the channels those ideas go through?

Likhotal: There are no unique sources for the essence of these ideas. There are several sources and I would not name them all, because we are just touching the subject. I do believe one source is the military confrontation between east and west… and the concept of mutual assured destruction, which brought the arms race, which exhausted ourselves economically, and that’s why the notion of new defensive defence or reasonable sufficiency was invented in the Soviet Union as a theory. The next source was probably an attempt to restructure the Soviet economy as well, because we felt by the middle of the eighties we needed to restructure our military industrial complex, which had …

MS: You are saying before Gorbachev?

Likhotal: Yes, absolutely, because Gorbachev put into words what had appeared before him, what was felt before him. And that’s why I think this was the next source for the appearance of these ideas. The other one was the restructuring of Europe, the new process of shaping of the European political landscape. By this I mean that by the middle of the eighties I think it was a common knowledge that the confrontation between East and West could not resolve political problems that existed in Europe. It was an attempt of a military approach to political problems. That’s why it was necessary to change the military posture of the Soviet Union just to make it more adaptable, just to make it more relevant for the political process.

MS: To me, that’s a question in itself. How was that decision or consensus established that thre would be no intervention, say in Poland or anywhere else? When were you clear in your own mind that there would be no intervention? When did you know it, how did you know it?

Likhotal: Well, frankly speaking I do believe that the signal for this was in ’80 because when the situation with Solidarity in Poland did not bring a new venture from the part of the Soviet regime as in the past, it was understood that the regime was exhausted, that it could not do it as in the past ways. It was a signal. Later on, it was analyzed — and by the way it was very wise on the part of the Polish leaders to use martial law at this time because in a way they facilitated by this the transformation of the Soviet political mentality.

MS: So that was a turning point in public opinion here.

Likhotal: It was a turning point for comprehension of the new political situation in Europe and a turning point for the comprehension of new challenges in European security.

MS: I hadn’t thought about it in terms of public opinion before. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the Soviet public may have realized they weren’t going to be intervening in Europe. I was thinking of it as a decision that may have been made and understood in certain circles in the government but not necessarily by everyone. Do you think that after 1980 the ordinary citizen throughout the country …

Likhotal: Well, I don’t think that ordinary citizens put this question to themselves in everyday life. But for analysts it was clear by this time that the regime was exhausted.

MS: One of the things I have been puzzled about is why it took the Europeans so long to realize because the events of 1989 were undertaken because they finally realized that nothing punitive would happen. Why didn’t they know that earlier? I knew it earlier, I felt it earlier, that they could do something like that if they wanted to, but they didn’t. I asked people in Poland why they didn’t understand that opportunity to exist earlier and the answer was: some people still don’t think it’s so. They still expect the Russians to come in. (We laugh.)

Likhotal: I would say that there was motive, another reality. By this time it was clear that the so-called security belt around the Soviet Union was not a security belt but a source of disturbance. It was irrelevant from the point of view of security to the Soviet Union A new generation of politicians, of military men, came to understand this fact. That also played a great role in these developments.

Fiedorov(?): There was no one decision about whether to intervene or not in Eastern Europe. That was a process of changing of minds and attitudes first of all of the top level and this process of change began, I guess, in the beginning of the eighties and the end of the seventies, and ended in ’89.… The final decisions were made about new political realities in Eastern Europe. It was a process, not one step.

MS: If it was a process can you say that there were debates still continuing throughout that period? Was this a live issue or a forgone conclusion within the top level of government?

Fiedorov : I know that discussions are going on but not at the governmental level, but at the level of different political forces in the country. Some people think it was a mistake to allow the events in E. Europe to develop as they developed. I do not think that anybody now really thinks that we must use tanks in E. Europe two or three years ago. It is to my mind a process of estimating whether the process in E. Europe was good or bad for Soviet security. Our discussions are going in that direction now: whether it’s good or not for us.

MS: [interruption here from waiter, etc.] … Let me see if I understand you right, that there were no serious proposals in ’89 to intervene with tanks.

Likhotal: I do not think so. (both he and Fiedorov speak here) . . . We were giving away the security belt of the Soviet Union, but … It complicated some problems, such as the negotiating mechanisms and for the reparation of decisions……[unclear]

Fiedorov: One of the problems was and is now, the rate of withdrawal of Soviet troops from eastern Europe. Because

MS: Someone told me by the way that there are still over 3 million troops that have not been withdrawn. I can’t believe that.

Likhotal. Where, in Eastern Europe? We pulled our forces from Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

M. He said that those 500,000 troops have not been withdrawn. That’s not true?

Fiedorov: We had a little more than half a million troops in the whole of Eastern Europe, including the GDR. Total! We have withdrawn from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Now the process begins with Poland and with GDR. Up to now we have withdrawn only about 150,000 of military personnel from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, so we have to withdraw 40,000 people from Poland, something like that. The negotiations are going on now about the conditions for withdrawal. And about 300,000 troops in GDR. So that is the approximate figures.

MS: So originally, if there were half a million there, where were they?

Fiedorov: They had about 350,000 in GDR, and others were distributed between Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. About 40,000 in Poland, 60,000 in Hungary, and the rest in Czechoslovakia, something like that.

MS: So if he was talking about 3 million, how many troops are there now? Anywhere. I am just trying to figure out where he got that figure.

Fiedorov: I think it something about 3 and a half million but the difficulties are connected with the problem: What complements of Soviet military force must be included in this number? Because there are a lot of construction troops, railroad troops, troops which are attached to the ministry of internal affairs. For the professional discussion and in negotiations in Vienna is now: what complements of military forces must be included in the notion of military personnel. Whether it is people who are armed. There are some parts of the army who do not have arms. — technical jobs, and jobs in the economy, etc.

MS: This is beside the point, but among the presentations of Soldiers Mothers there seems to be a lot of interest in getting rid of the construction units. Why? What is worse about the construction units?

Fiedorov: Well, our minister of defence is greatly against having these construction units because they do not have any military use and basically they do construction work for nonmilitary sections of the country — road construction or building construction and so forth.

MS: The demand also seems to be for a professional army, which means no conscription, I suppose. In the government, is there support for that idea?

Fiedorov: The basic idea seems to be a professional army. But it is difficult to say what is a professional army. Because they have professional officers corps, they have a lot of people who … I think the main problem of privates (which is what are under conscription) is the problem of how it will much cost because a true professional army is much more expensive. You know that some opinion polls show that young men are ready to go into the military service on a voluntary basis if he would receive about 400 rubles per month, but it is impossible for us in the present economic situation. In pure military terms, a professional army is much more effective, but it is too expensive for us.

MS: Are there real pressures from particular groups — reactionary groups or conservative military doctrines — that you can identify?

Likhotal: With reference to East European situations?

MS: Yeah.

Likhotal: No, I think that even the most conservative elements understand quite well that it is impossible to bring E. European countries back into the orbit of influence of the Soviet Union. It is impossible and it will bring harsh confrontation with the West and with regard to the situation of the Soviet Union it is suicidal. So this not a question for domestic politics in the Soviet Union, though there are different planes of the government on Gorbachev that he had betrayed our lives, that he gave them away, but this is all just linguistics and nothing more than that. It is a question of interpretation, nothing more, because I can argue that it is the Warsaw Pact which succeeded and NATO which failed. It is very simple.

MS: Please argue that! (We laugh)

Likhotal: Sure! The main aim of the Warsaw Pact was the building of the all-European security system, which is now in the making, so in a way, an aim of the Warsaw Pact was implemented, while the main aim of NATO was to guarantee NATO countries from the advance of Soviet troops. Now we have Soviet troops in a NATO country — Germany and nothing happens! (Laughter)

MS: Okay, you say that the security of Europe is in the making. What is that going to look like? I heard yesterday what I thought was an outrageous comment by a man I like very much, Vladislav Kornilov. You know him?

Likhotal. No. What institution was he . . .?

MS: I don’t know. When I first knew him he was Secretary of the Soviet Peace Committee but he quit that a couple of years ago and quit the Party and he organized another project for peace and nature. Anyway, I like him and he said something that I thought was almost silly when he proposed yesterday that we should think about having NATO become the security forces for the CSCE. Turn NATO into a military structure to be used by CSCE when it needed to intervene in something like Yugoslavia. I shouldn’t call it silly but I didn’t think it was very plausible.

Likhotal: [unclear] Well I don’t think it is plausible and, more than that, I do think that NaTO belongs to the confrontational part of the Eruopean structure, and I don’t think we have to facilitate the process of bringing NATO into the new architecture of Europe. At the same time, we should not dramatize the fact of Nato’s existence because if we do not dramatize, we will not provide new motives for its survival, and at the same time we should use more effectively other [tables?] of European [interplay?]. This is, of course, CSCE, first of all, the Council of Europe, the European Community, and with the building of new structures, NATO either will transform itself ultimately or it will fade away.

MS: It is trying to survive by thinking up new projects for itself., new raison d’etre.

Likhotal: I know.

MS. But I hope you’re right. (To Fiedorov) I met him three or four years ago in Austria and he predicted how things were going to turn out and he gave himself ten years to end the Cold War and create a new Europe. I would say he’s about 7 or 8 years ahead of schedule. (Laughter)

Likhotal: Well, let us be absolutely frank. The absence of NATO resistance is the presence of American forces in Europe. The focal point of this resistance is the presence of American troops on German soil. After the reunification of Germany, the European political agenda is … In not more than two or three years, the Germans will put forward the question of the military presence of the United States. And after that, this will be the process of the [agony???] of NATO because there will be no political [agreement?] for such a presence. It is not that I am personally in favor of the withdrawal of American troops. I do think that at this time they play some stabilizing role in Europe and at least they are not menacing the present European stability.

MS (to Fiedorov). I remember the last time we had something like this conversation, it was ironical. I was the one trying to abolish NATO and he was the one trying to leave it alone! (Laughter). Maybe we should trade countries.

Likhotal: Metta, you should take into consideration that I, as a member of the Communist Party, am the representative of a very conservative organization. (Laughter)

Fiedorov: I believe that what is important is not to enlarge NaTO, not to spread its sphere in Eastern Europe because now we have the NATO [ I think he means “neutral”, not Nato] belt between Soviet Union and NATO countries, which to mind is very positive because there is no direct military confrontation or connections between military forces of NaTO countries and the Soviet Union in the Central European theatre. Now we have a direct connection only in the very small part of the North flank between Norway, USSR and Kola peninsula (but it is a very small area) , and between SU and Turkey in the Caucasus. In the more dangerous area of Central Europe, we do not have direct connections — or we will not. If NATO’s area of responsibility spread over Eastern Europe, then there will be a new strategic factor, namely the restoration of direct contact of military forces. I think the neutral belt in Central Europe and the Balkans is a very positive factor both for us and for NaTO.

MS: I was promoting that idea several years ago. I was traveling around trying to find out if there was much interest in it, but I hadn’t thought of it in quite the way you do, as a reality. I guess in a way it is a reality, although so far as I can tell, Czechoslovakia would love to join NaTO any day that it could get in. It would like to get into EC and everything else, but anyway.

Fiedorov: In my view, the present configuration in Europe is much more stable than before. It is not only due to the various treaties about the conventional forces. I think it is very important to preserve it, and not to change.

MS: Okay. Well, you both are real conservatives! But that’s all right. I agree with you that there is nothing very dangerous right now — except I don’t like military expenditures.

What went on during the discussion about the reunification of Germany. From outside it looks as if the original statement was, “No, No, a thousand times No!” And then a few weeks later, “Well, maybe.” And then “All right.” But I didn’t see any evidence of the kind of debates or the kinds of considerations or the kinds of trade-offs. What kinds of offers were made that may have turned things in a different direction? Who was influential in the government in getting that decision made, and what was the debate like internally?

Likhotal: Well, I do believe that the true story of this will be available only in the future. We do not know everything that happened at this time but there are several points. I think we should take into consideration that this turnaround in Soviet position has happened after the return of Shevardnadze from — where was it? He was in the United States with …?

Fiedorov: Negotiations on some four-plus-two mechanism, I guess, huh?

Likhotal: In Wyoming. When he returned back, afterwards the position of the Soviet Union was changed. The reasons and the talks that happened there are not available yet for the knowledge of public opinion.

MS: Do you know?

Likhotal. No. Unfortunately not. But I do believe that the dramatic role in this situation was played by Shevardnadze.

MS: Does Falin still have any influence in German affairs?

Likhotal: Well, I wish I knew the answer to that question. But you have come to the Soviet Union in a dramatic period and we are not used to dramatic periods in our lives. This is one of the elements of the restructuring of the decision-making mechanisms. As one of the best experts on the field of relations with Germany, Falin in his personal capacity, I would say, is a personality who is heard in the decision-making echelons, but at the same time, as a representative of the communist structure, the Secretary of the Communist Party, he is in a very tense situation. That’s why probably his knowledge is artifically low in the decision-making process. I don’t think that [he? it?] is for the good of the Soviet Union and I don’t think that [he? it?] is for the good of European interests as well because he’s a very knowledgeable man and he knows what really goes on in the SU and in Europe as well. In the future you will understand the present period of politics in the SU but it is too vague to make any conclusions.

MS: If I understand you, Falin doesn’t have much clout.

Likhotal: Yeah, that’s right.

Fiedorov: The institutional structures and operational structures are changing, including those with the mechanisms and procedures of foreign policy decision-making. That’s why it’s really very difficult to say who personally and which institution is more or less influential in present-day decision-making. It is difficult to understand, even inside the country: what persons or institution are more influential in the particular decision-making. Sometimes decisions are taken on an ad hoc basis.

MS: Do you usually know? I mean, you have to work in a climate where you have to be able to guess who is going to be pulling what strings, no?

Fiedorov: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. [ lengthy passage here inaudible.]

MS: Back to military policy. You took a unilateral decision to withdraw 500,000 troops. How did that happen? I take it that at some point someone is talking about reasonable sufficiency and someone else said “then how much is enough?” And then somebody gave a number. And then somebody else proposed to raise it or lower it. And that’s what we’ll say we’re going to do unilaterally. I remember an article by Karaganov and Kortunov and Zhurkin. I see that cited all the time. Can one say that an article of that kind — which I guess people brought together some diffuse ideas and sharpened them a little bit — would something of that kind have had a real impact, and if you so can you tell me anything about the way that works?

Fiedorov: Well, first of all it is very interesting to theorize about defensive sufficiency, but it is very difficult to translate the theoretical estimates into practical figures because what does defensive sufficiency mean? It means that we have enough to neutralize the possible potential military threat. So first of all you need to determine what is the practical level of military threat might come about. It is dynamic. Now we have one estimate, then another. It is not very easy to do.

But another point is very important and this point is not very widely spread in public opinion: I am speaking about military planning. Practical military planners take into account the worst-case scenario. It is the nature of military planning in many countries, so they need to take into account not only the attitudes of the other side but the real military potential, because political views can change, and what will be the worst case? So I think the practical realization of defensive sufficiency concept is really very difficult because in practical terms both sides have to preserve some balance. So the concrete, the particular, fears depend on describing military potential. When when political decisions are made about reasonable sufficiency it is one thing, but the practical realization of the decisions of this in the militar level, it is very different.

MS: Okay, let me make it more specific. Did someone say, We’re going to cut half a million troops and take these tanks out? And did somebody else, like Yazov, say “Over my dead body!” Or was there that kind of conflict over that decision?

Fiedorov: Basically I think that the particular figures and the decisions of those figures are made by our military structure. They are responsible for defence and they determine what they need.

MS: Okay, they are responsible, but in this case that military decision is obviously an element in a political situation. Its implications were much more political than military. Something as dramatic as that would only have been done with a view to the responses of other countries.

Likhotal: Metta, if I understand your question, it has already been published in the Soviet press. There are some special mechanisms for reparation of these questions, namely in the program of disarmament and arms control, there are the so-called Committee of Five institutions that exist in the SU — the Minister of Defence, KGB, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Military-Industrial Commission, and the Central Committee. Now I think some role in the decision-making is played by the presidential structure — the presidential staff.

MS: That’s a fixed element or is that something at a different level?

Fiedorov: … It depends.

Likhotal: Representatives of these bodies sit together and their decisions are adopted or not adopted by the president, who is responsible for defence posture.

Fiedorov: If there is a consensus among all these groups, then it basically is automatically adopted by the president, but if there is no common point of view, the president plays a decision-making role.

MS : Okay. Can you tell me about the forces that led up to — well, take the speech at the United Nations about participating in international cooperative activities. Can you tell me anything about the intellectual history of how that came to be.

Likhotal: Well, frankly speaking, I must say that I was not at that time at the Central Committee yet. The speech was made in 1988. As far as I know, the official role in the preparation of these ideas was played personally by Yakovlev, who was Secretary of the Central Committee and in fact who was at that time the supervisor of the International Department of the Central Committee. Falin was the head of the Department at that time. And the ideas were put forward by Yakovlev and his staff and the essence, I mean the specific proposals, were reparated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So I suppose that two bodies mainly are responsible for the new thinking that was reflected in the speech. But of course it is very difficult to monitor the intellectual evolution of these ideas because the roots of these ideas go back to the beginning of the eighties or even to the sixties. In fact it was Sakharov’s ideas which were formulated by Gorbachev. So it is very difficult to see that any person was responsible for these ideas.

MS: I loved what you just said about Sakharov’s ideas being elaborated by Gorbachev because …

Likhotal: (You have to decide when you have to leave because I am staying here. The Central Committee is just across the road and I am going to my office.)

MS: I see. Anyway, one of the things that people hold against Gorbachev most ( I have heard it from so many people) was, “Look how he abused that poor old man the day before he died.” I would love to know that he really was influenced by Sakharov.

Likhotal: Well, I think that intellectually he was influenced. And his personal initiative to bring him back from exile in Gorky shows his real attitude to this great man. At the same time, I do believe that Gorbachev is human, and he takes very sharply the unjust criticism, and so when he was criticized by some of Sakharov’s team — Yelena Bonner, for instance — he took it very personally. One should understand that he is human. At the same time, intellectually he made a lot to save Sakharov’s image because if it had not been for Gorbachev, Sakharov could have died in Gorky and could have stayed just another dissident and not the great man of our time.

End of Interview

They went by bus back a short distance, across the street, to the Central Committee. And I talked with Likhotal en route. He said that the Central Committee was so split that they have separate entrances for the two factions so they don’t have to encounter each other. He also said he sould send me a copy of his new magazine and invited me to submit sometime to it. We joked about how long his job would last, and they said “So far, so good.” The coup was to take place about three days later.

See also
Alexander Likhotal (breakup of USSR), 1992

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books