Interview with Vladimir Petrovsky at the UN in New York
Under Secretary General of the United Nations; later he ran the Geneva branch of the UN, dealing with disarmament, for about 13 years.
M Spencer: I am trying to examine three questions: (1) what the effect of the east-west peace dialogue was for Soviet policy, including such policies as the wonderful speech that Mr. Gorbachev delivered here [at the UN]; (2) whether there was a discussion and a plan to approach disarmament questions with unilateral initiatives, and (2) where Gorbachev was in the Gulf War when there seemed almost to be two Soviet foreign policies. Which one was his? You can choose which of these you want to talk about.
Petrovsky: I am ready to speak about all of them. I will start with how the new foreign policy was formulated. Of course the decisions on foreign affais were taken by Gorbachev in consultations with his colleagues — with the then-existing structures, but of course the opinions of intellectuals were particularly important for making the change in the foreign policy, to make it much more open, to make the Soviet Union at that time part of the international community. From this point of view, of particular importance was the congress of intellectuals — I don’t remember its name. It was a congress in February of 1986, to which all the intellectuals, all the peace movements were invited — not on the ideological basis as was the case before. Not only those who supported the Soviet Union. The idea of this congress was to invite all the people, even those who took critical positions— for example, human rights activists. This meeting was not only important for the government, for the Gorbachev “new thinking,” but was really important from the viewpoint of feedback. Many ideas which were expressed then (and Sakharov was very active) provided food for contemplation.
MS: That was already in ’86? I wasn’t aware that Sakharov was —
Petrovsky: It was 86 or ’87, in February (I am not sure of my memory but you can find it out) — in ’86 or ’87. That was the most important gathering. It was international. There was the group of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War — Lown’s group. Before that Gorbachev had been meeting with Nobel Prize laureates because he, from the very beginning, he started to pay much attention to the intellectuals and to the peace movement. He wanted to hear all opinions which existed on this matter. And then when we had restructured our foreign ministry, I became Deputy Foreign Minister. One of my tasks was to keep in close touch with non-governmental organizations, to open the foreign ministry to non-governmental organizations, and to bring their ideas to the attention of the top officials of the government. In other words, from a professional point of view we started an active participation. I remember I was in Canada for the congress of the Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. We started a dialogue. There was particular importance in the dialogue at the Chatauqua meetings. The first Chatauqua meeting was held in Riga, in the Baltic republics, which gave the opportunity to involve this new political process. Gorbunov, one the the young political functionaries, was also present at this meeting.
So, in other words, the foreign ministry has been open to all this. We have used it as a source of new thoughts which were brought to the government. Intellectuals of the world for this means of communication have contributed very much to developing this new thinking. The new thinking was not made somewhere in the closed rooms of the Kremlin. How was it done? It was a synthesis of all these advanced ideas which started at that moment. You know, there was a strong feeling among intellectuals that we live on one planet — a planet like an outer-space ship, and we are supposed to act like the passengers of this ship. This planetary thinking has been brought to the intellectual community. Gorbachev and all his people who were open to the West, like Shevardnadze, Yakovlev, and Yeltsin, were very open to these new ideas.
MS. Wonderful. That is a major part of what I want to do in the book, to demonstrate that those influences were real. I was frequently in the Soviet Union and I always felt I was listened to more by Soviet officials than I would have been listened to in Canada or in the States, where I also am a citizen. It was hard to explain how attentive I felt the government was at that point.
Petrovsky: Yes, because we felt at that point —. I just came back from a meeting in Minnesota with Nobel Prize winners. A forum was called there and we discussed, for example, the problem of the leadership of the United Nations. I could not imagine that this organization could have any effectiveness if it had no support because today is interdependent, not only through the countries, but through the peoples, who should be closely connected. This is the way the international community and the governments should act if they really want to be democratic, not only in their thinking but in their behavior.
MS. Uh huh. Were you involved in writing the speech that he gave here?
Petrovsky: Yes, I was very much involved in the preparations and actually was in charge of the task force which prepared the draft of the speech he gave to the General Assembly and also prepared a number of his statements, including this first article which was in the West.
MS: How much of it was problematic within the government? Did he or did you or other people working in those directions have to defend any part of the speech more than any other part?
Petrovsky: Of course I don’t remember all of the details but there were cases when something was not accepted, but we always had the right to explain some of it. Gorbachev and his associates were really open to differences of opinion.
MS. Now about this unilateral approach. It struck me as remarkable that the leader of a major power would decide to remove half a million troops from Europe without negotiation. Other decisions were also made unilaterally. Were there discussions of whether to do it that way or through negotiations? Do you remember?
Petrovsky: There was a discussion because certain people advocated some kinds of negotiations. But there was an understanding at that time that the situation was really so bad, especially in the military and political field, that it was necessary to take drastic measures, for something might happen — not intentionally, but still, something could happen. We have a famous writer, Chekhov, who said that the hunter’s gun that is on the wall always has a chance to fire unexpectedly. We had a long debate and we thought that this is unilateral in the sense that we took the initiative, but we also believed that this strategy of unilateral decisions was a policy of good example. In other words, you step, and you believe that the other side will match it. And we believed at that time that this would happen, that there would be opportunity to go deeper. And there were times when the United States responded in the process.
MS: Can you give me any idea of the intellectual roots of the idea of unilateral initiative?
Petrovsky: It was discussed in the foreign ministry. I think it was the view of Shevardnadze and the leadership in the foreign ministry. The major ideas for foreign policy came from the foreign minister. This idea of the unilateral move as a kind of good example was advocated by the foreign minister. I always considered it in my writings. You had the precedent for it in the relations with the United States in the beginning of the seventies. The idea was in the air.
MS. I remember that when Kennedy was president, under the influence of Charles Osgood there was an initiative based on an approach called “GRIT.”
Petrovsky: Yes, yes. There were some ideas there. And we started perestroika we needed to show the policy of good example.
MS: But some people thought you gave away the store.
Petrovsky: Yes, sure, sure. But like in any process, there were those who wanted to have the changes and others who wanted changes of a much more cosmetic nature, without going too deep in the restructuring.
MS: Did you participate, yourself, in private meetings such as Pugwash or the Dartmouth Group?
Petrovsky: You know, I participated in Dartmouth nearly from the very beginning. The Dartmouth meetings, for me, were of particular importance because they helped me to understand the political thinking in the West, in all its aspects from right to left. It was one of the most educational meetings. I had very good feelings about it. I was participating even as a young diplomat. But you know, my career was always two-track. I was a diplomat and I was also involved in ——___ activities. I was participating in the first meeting when there was a famous Ukrainian writer Alexander Kornichev was participating in this Dartmouth meeting. I was also very close with the Pugwash movement. In my early career I had a lot of meetings with the Pugwash movement and in Moscow, as a Deputy Foreign Minister, I had a lot of meetings with the Pugwash group when they came to Moscow. They brought us ideas and we immediately analyzed the ideas very thoroughly. At that time there [was___ for deterrence???] so we searched for new ideas. And Pugwash was for us a source of very important new ideas. I remember, as far back as ’87 we started to advocate these nuclear tests in the strongest arguments for doing it —
MS: The moratorium.
Petrovsky: Yes, yes, yes — were taken from the Pugwash group. It was really enriching.
MS: I am going to see Frank von Hippel in a couple of days.
Petrovsky: Oh, yes, yes. And so this group has played a tremendously important part because you know, all these groups — Pugwash, Dartmouth — they brought a fresh wind, fresh air. And it was really important that under Gorbachev this fresh wind has been materialized.
MS: I am active in Pugwash in Canada. I wonder whether some people like Anders Boserup — a Danish fellow who is dead now, but who was very active in promoting a policy of nonprovocative defence.
Petrovsky: Yes, that is also part of the new thinking. Non-offensive defence.
MS: Uh huh, good. So there is a connection.
Petrovsky: Yes, yes. A very strong connection, very strong!
MS: What about the Generals for Peace?
Petrovsky: That was also very helpful. It was helpful to have the military have this new feeling. Milshtein was in this movement of Generals for Peace. It was also very educative — first of all to show that the generals are beginning to think in political terms.
MS: I have heard it suggested that the decision to involve civilian military analysts at the institutes was an effort to balance the pressures from the regular military officials. Do you know anything about that?
Petrovsky: I don’t know but from a common sense point of view I think it was very important, and it is important that the military should also participate in this discussion. Because when they participate in the discussion they feel it much more broadly. They meet the academics, they meet the people who are in the bureaucracy. [ Bureaucrats have a very deep knowledge, like you know, in the West. When Gorbachev brought them, and people who work in the peace movement, you have a broad picture, you have a much better view of the situation sometimes known.??] That’s why it is important not to pit the scientists against the politicians or something like this, but to create common links, because they are complementary. There should be no antagonism. Both of them should gain much from this kind of contact.
MS; Uh huh. Can you tell me something about the Gulf War in Soviet policy.
Petrovsky: This Gulf War was a very serious test because it was the first aggression which happened in the process when the new world was starting to take shape. There was a whole understanding that in this new world, we should start very closely on a legal basis of the United Nations charter. What does it mean? It means, first of all, that when you are acting on the basis of the United Nations charter, you are supposed to observe the principles. And one of the principles is that the aggressor — it doesn’t matter what kind of aggressor — should be a responsibility for [ ____?] that the major responsibility for decisions should be with the Security Council. [?] So this policy has been developed. Shevardnadze took an immediate, strong reaction on this matter. Gorbachev was also [__?]. He wanted to see some kind of political solution.
MS: So he sent Mr. Primakov off to Baghdad and Mr. Primakov came home with something, which was not taken seriously. I heard that whole ministries were divided between people who supported the Shevardnadze line and people who wanted more negotiations. And I heard also that the support there was not along the same lines as in the West. I, as a peace activist, always wanted more negotiation. I didn’t like what was done through the United Nations, but I understand that most of the peace activists, including intellectuals who were progressive, almost all supported the United Nations and did not like the effort to make a deal with Saddam Hussein.
Petrovsky: I do not remember that there was a strong split.
MS: It wasn’t?
Petrovsky: No, it was not a split because actually both were preferring a negotiated solution — even when it was clear that the United Nations would apply the strongest sanctions. I remember, myself and [Alexander] Belonogov were sent to the Middle East.
MS: Were you ? When was that?
Petrovsky: It was November- December, before this operation started. We went to North Africa, to the _____ countries. Belonogov is now Ambassador to Canada. He brought a strong message with him, that if Saddam will not fulfill the demands of the Security Council, that the operations will be carried out against him. There will be no doubt that the diplomatic pressure existed till the last moment.
MS: You didn’t feel that there was a strong division of opinion?
Petrovsky: I didn’t.
MS: And you were working in the foreign ministry at the time?
Petrovsky: I was the Deputy Foreign Minister.
MS: I have heard people go so far as to say that the two approaches were so different that people wondered which was the real foreign policy, Mr. Primakov’s or Mr. Shevardnadze’s.
Petrovsky: Again, my impression was that there were two attempts to make different approaches, to find the negotiated solution, before the blow will be conducted. Probably somebody wanted to make it, but there was no split —
MS: I see.
Petrovsky: — in this foreign policy. We just wanted to make sure that there should be no impression that there should be some kind of ____. There were two attempts from different directions but toward one aim, to give a warning to Saddam Hussein.
MS: Well, the last trip of Mr. Primakov’s — or maybe there was only one — he came back with an offer, and yet it was not discussed. It was dismissed completely.
Petrovsky: I will tell you frankly, I don’t remember that there was something special.
MS: I see.
Petrovsky: Because after this, in November and December, we took extensive trips in the area to explain the positions and we made no illusions. If they will not remove from Kuwait, we made it quite clear that time was running very short. He should understand the seriousness of it.
MS: Did you go to Baghdad yourself?
Petrovsky: I was in Baghdad a month before Saddam committed the aggression against Kuwait. In June. But the aim of my mission was different at that time. It was after the Soviet- American summit meeting and I was supposed to bring a message and to explain the restructuring of our relations and that we were going to relate to the United States as a partner. So I brought that message and there was no question at that time about aggression against Kuwait — though I got a strong sense that something wrong was going on. I had a strong feeling (though it was my mistake of course) as if some kind of action was being prepared against Israel. There was much concern about Israel at that point — Shamir and so on. When I got to Moscow I made a press conference where I said it, and the press made a big headline that the area is on the beginning of the war. People criticized me for over-dramatizing the situation. I sensed some kind of military preparation, but I thought it would be in a different direction.
MS: I hear you are going off to Geneva to a new job.
Petrovsky: Yes, to Geneva to the new job. It is my fate to be involved in the reorganization, the perestroika. They just created this new department dealing with preventive diplomacy and peacemaking. We’ll put it on the rails. I will go to Geneva to do that and also to make it much more active in the situation in Europe. To push all the regional structures much more strongly.
MS: The job requires an angel, someone superhuman.
Petrovsky: It requires the support of other people. We have the expression that one man cannot be a soldier in the battle. You need the help of other people, both on the governmental and inter-governmental level. It is a very good idea, I think, that Geneva is also a place for intergovernmental organizations. I also considered that feedback from nongovernmental organizations should be very useful.
MS: Everyone in the world wishes you well.
Petrovsky: Thank you. That gives me the strength. I just came back from Minnesota and there was very much feeling of the people in favor of multilateralism, in favor of the United Nations.