Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev may be remembered today as the man who presided over the collapse of an empire: The recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw major celebrations to mark the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany.
Less well remembered was a meeting that followed just a few weeks later between Gorbachev and US President George H.W. Bush off the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the two leaders tried to come to grips with how quickly history had changed.
“Look at how nervous we are,” Gorbachev told Bush, according to a Soviet transcript.
“We were shocked by the swiftness of the changes that unfolded,” Bush said.
Thirty years later, some of the top issues discussed at the Malta summit still carry particular resonance — arms control, Afghanistan and the difficulty building trust between Moscow and Washington.
On the day CNN sat down with Gorbachev in Moscow, President Donald Trump paid a surprise visit to US troops in Afghanistan, where he announced that peace talks with the Taliban have restarted. Like the Soviet Union three decades ago, the US is trying to broker an exit from Afghanistan while ensuring that the central government in Kabul does not collapse.
Back in 1989, the United States and the Soviets were on opposite sides of the conflict, with Washington supporting mujahideen fighters trying to topple the government of Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah’s Soviet-backed regime. But just over two years later, the USSR collapsed, assistance to the Kabul government dried up and Najibullah’s government fell.
Asked what lessons could be drawn from the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Gorbachev said: “They must be withdrawn. That is the main lesson. You know, it’s like a match. The match is lit, a fire spreads. And these clashes, when the leading, largest countries in this conflict become ever more involved, they are dangerous for all nations.”