Jack Matlock: Maintaining Any Sort of Meaningful Union Becomes Impossible

By 1991 the Soviet Union had changed sufficiently that there was no possibility of returning to the Communist Party dictatorship of the past, which essentially was the goal of Gorbachev’s opponents in the CPSU.

Valdaiclub.com interview with Jack Matlock, former American ambassador to the USSR; Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA Faculty) Columbia University.

Was the Putsch foreseen or predicted by the US political elite or did it come unexpected for the intelligence and diplomatic community?

People in the United States who think seriously about foreign affairs are rarely united in their views on any important question. However, if we talk about decision makers in the U.S. government, then we were aware that there was talk of removing Gorbachev by force. This was no secret. There had been demands at the CPSU Central Committee meeting in the spring for Gorbachev to resign. Attempts to remove him could have taken various forms. So far as the U.S. government was concerned, the President and the Secretary of State wanted Gorbachev to succeed in creating a voluntary union of the 12 republics we recognized as part of the USSR (the United States and most Western countries had never recognized the legality of Stalin’s seizure of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).

Obviously the President and Secretary of State were aware of the report that Kryuchkov, Yazov, and Pavlov were conspiring against Gorbachev. But they were not certain that it was true. My own position was that there could not be a successful coup against Gorbachev so long as the KGB Chairman, the Minister of Defense, and the Commander of the Kremlin Guard stayed loyal. It was precisely those persons who betrayed the President of the USSR.

When I was asked in my last press conference in Moscow in late July or early August, 1991, whether there might be attempts to “reverse” perestroika, I replied that there might be but if so they would likely fail.

Were you ready to trust Gavriil Popov’s message on the spot? Why did he try to warn the Ambassador of the United States and not Gorbachev or Yeltsin themselves?

Gavriil Popov’s message was not for me or for my President, but for Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia.

As I explain whenever this question is asked, Yeltsin was in Washington and Popov had no way of getting the message to him except through us. As for notifying Gorbachev, you may recall that Gorbachev and Popov were not on good terms (I believe this was based on misunderstandings on the part of both, but in any case, this is a question that should be posed to Popov rather than to me).

So far as “trusting” the message, I trusted that Mayor of Moscow wished for the President of Russia to be informed and therefore I sent the message. When Yeltsin received it, he suggested that we should “warn” Gorbachev. Therefore, I was instructed to do so, but without naming individuals, precisely because we had no independent confirmation that they were involved. If they were, however, the threat was obviously serious.

What was the general mood in Moscow that summer, before the Putsch?

The mood in Moscow was not good, as any history of the period will make clear.

The Baltic countries had declared their independence, Georgia was acting with total independence, nationalist movements were gathering strength in several other republics, including Ukraine. Meanwhile the economy was in a tailspin and there was no credible program to improve it. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were in personal conflict. When Russia declared its “sovereignty” in the summer of 1991, it was clear that the union could not survive unless Russia’s elected leaders were willing to support it.

But the United States wanted the Soviet Union to survive as a voluntary federation and therefore tried in every way possible to support Gorbachev’s efforts.

How was it interpreted in the United States, what were the predictions of the possible scenarios?

Different people interpreted the Putsch differently. Some thought that the GKChP would massacre the people at the White House, as the Chinese had done at Tiananmen Square. Others initially thought that people would accept the coup, as they had accepted the removal of Khrushchev many years earlier. They, of course, were wrong. I was in the United States and was questioned on television the evening of August 19 and I said, “This is not a ‘done deal.’ If the coup leaders persist, they may have a civil war on their hands, and I do not believe they are prepared for that.”

Could the Putsch be successful?

We can never be sure what might be possible under other conditions. But I think that by 1991 the Soviet Union had changed sufficiently that there was no possibility of returning to the Communist Party dictatorship of the past, which essentially was the goal of Gorbachev’s opponents in the CPSU. Furthermore, most of the members of the GKChP were incompetent. Some were even drunk much of the brief time until the Putsch failed.

What was the Putsch’s significance for the dissolution of the USSR and the development of Russia?

It so weakened Gorbachev and the government of the USSR that maintaining any sort of meaningful union became impossible. Therefore it had precisely the opposite effect of what the coup leaders intended.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.