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Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern says the fall of the Berlin wall should have been an opportunity to create a constructive alliance with Russia, but instead, it became an opportunity to contain and isolate it

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Sunday, November 9, it will be the 25th anniversary of the coming down of the Berlin Wall, the Berlin Wall one of the most iconic symbols of the Cold War. And one of the most iconic speeches of the Cold War was Ronald Reagan just a couple of years before the wall came down. Here’s what Reagan said.


RONALD REAGAN, U.S. PRESIDENT: General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.


JAY: And it was a couple of years later that the wall did come down. And, of course, here are some more pictures that people of that time remember very well, played over and over again on television.


So the vision of the wall coming down, well, this has been hailed by historians as one of the great victories of U.S. foreign policy. But according to our next guest, it’s actually a symbol–should be a symbol of one of the most squandered opportunities of U.S. foreign policy.

Now joining us from his home in Virginia is Ray McGovern. He’s a retired CIA officer. He was employed under seven U.S. presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House, including under President Ronald Reagan’s administration, where he briefed senior national security officials, including Vice President George Bush and, as he says, not very often President Reagan, ’cause, of course, sleeping seemed to be more important than dealing with national intelligence.

Thanks for joining us, Ray.


JAY: So let’s start a little bit with the narrative, the official narrative of this event. Ronald Reagan, the great fighter for freedom and democracy throughout the world uses U.S. pressure and helps break down the wall. It’s a biblical story of what is it? Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho. But this, as we know, is also the president that supported dictators throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and involved in what many people would think [are] war crimes. So how do you square that Reagan with this iconic Reagan?

MCGOVERN: Well, the Soviet Union in truth was falling apart. Its economic difficulties were huge. And it was losing its satellites in Eastern Europe one by one. When the wall came down and East Germany was freed, so to speak, that was an opportunity that really was squandered. What we had was a confluence of enlightened leadership in the Soviet Union–Gorbachev and Forward Minister Shevardnadze–who were persuaded not to use–not to use–the 24–count them–24 Soviet divisions in East Germany to do what the Soviets had done in Hungary in ’56 and in Czechoslovakia in ’68.

A deal was made. George H. W. Bush, to his credit, immediately called up Gorbachev and said, look, sorry, Mikhail, sorry for your troubles, but rest assured I’m not going to dance on the wall. Whoa. Let’s meet together, quickly. Three weeks later, three weeks after the wall fell, they met in Malta–a summit. How do we know it happened there? Ambassador Jack Matlock has told that story. A deal was reached. Look, you Soviets, you don’t use force, okay? And we, we won’t take advantage of your difficulties.

Now, two months later, James Baker, the secretary of state for Bush and Reagan, he goes to Moscow and he deals with Shevardnadze, his opposite number, and with Gorbachev. And the quid that we wanted was a reunified Germany. Now, when I say that, Paul, I spent five years in Germany; it still puts hairs on the back of my neck here. I didn’t want a reunified Germany. And the Soviets, who lost 25 million people in World War II, they were duly afraid of reunited Germany. And yet they acquiesced in that because the quo, the quid pro quo, the quo on this was that we would not move NATO, in James Baker’s words, one inch eastward toward the Soviet Union.

Fast-forward to President Clinton at the end of the campaign with Bob [Dole]. He decided that he would welcome Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland into NATO, and that built up his defense credentials. And sure enough, in ’99 they were admitted. And then, one decade later, 12 new members of NATO faced–faced what? The Warsaw Pact, the counterweight to NATO, had disappeared. And so NATO did encroach on Russia.

And that’s where the story of Ukraine starts, because after those 12, the Ukraine and Georgia were slated to become members of NATO. And this is a very interesting story. We know about it through WikiLeaks, okay? What happened? Well, we have a WikiLeaks cable from Moscow, from Bill Burns, who is the ambassador there. The date is 1 February 2008, so during the Bush-Cheney administration. What does Burns say? I was called by Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister then (and now), and he read me the riot act. He said, look, you’re thinking about–the rumors are saying you’re thinking about Ukraine and Georgia in NATO. Forget about it. Nyet means nyet. And that’s how Bill Burns titled the cable that he sent back from Moscow to Washington. He said, these people are very serious. What Lavrov says: if you do this, the Ukraine’s going to be split and there will be a civil war, and we’ll have to decide whether we’re going to intervene or not. Don’t do it. Okay. That’s 1 February, 2008.

The next month, Bill Bradley gets up and says, my God, this is a terrible, terrible mistake (Bill Bradley being the senator from New Jersey and the specialist on the Soviet Union). A month later–we’re talking April 3–NATO at a summit in Bucharest decides, Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO. That was the kernel of it. In other words, we thumbed our nose at the Soviet Union–at Russia at this point, and said, we’re going to make Ukraine a member of NATO.

Now, that was ’08. Fast-forward, what, six years here, and we have a situation where people like Victoria Nuland want to stir up the kind of unrest that worked so well in Tehran in 1953 or in Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973. And sure enough, there’s a coup, a coup, on 22 February in Kiev.

JAY: In Ukraine.

MCGOVERN: Yeah, in Kiev, in the Ukraine. And so the duly elected [Yanukovych] is knocked out, and in comes a fellow named Yatsenyuk, who, quite oddly–I’ve never seen the likes of it, Paul–he’s mentioned in an intercepted telephone conversation between the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Victoria Nuland, and the ambassador, our ambassador in Kiev. And what does she say? She says, Yats is our guy. Yats is the man. The other guys can wait in the wings, but we need Yats because he knows about the IMF, he’s not afraid of imposing his austerity measures. Yats is the man. Now, that appeared three weeks before the coup. In other words, that was posted on YouTube at the end of January. And all of a sudden, on 23 February, the day after the coup, I wake up, and who’s the new prime minister? Yats! I wrote a piece that day and said, yikes! It’s Yats!

So what am I saying? I’m saying that there was not even a decent respect for [the opinions of your (?)] [incompr.] to coin a phrase. Yats was the guy. They were unabashedly doing a coup.

And happened next with respect to the seizure or the annexation of Crimea by Russia? Well, people start–they like to start history there, Paul. But the history starts on 22 February with the coup against the duly elected government in Kiev. And there is not one scintilla of evidence that Putin nor any of his advisers ever even thought that they would be honoring a plebiscite in Crimea, reincorporating Crimea into Russia proper before the coup a month before. So the story starts there.

JAY: When you go back to the sort of American posture coming out of well, frankly, after the Russian Revolution, right through the ’20s and ’30s, there’s a sort of a temporary deal to fight Hitler. But the fundamental antagonism of the United States to the Soviet Union one can understand. It’s about antagonism to socialism. Now, whether or not this was any real form of socialism or became whatever it became, still, from the American official point of view, this was a massive sector of the global economy that was not in the American sphere. So one can understand that antagonism. Also one can understand what the Soviet Union stood for to workers all over the world. Rightly or wrongly, it stood for a place where workers had more rights and so on. But that antagonism is understandable.

But once the wall falls, once the Soviet Union falls, once Russia becomes not just a capitalist country, but fully integrated into global capitalism and global finance, why is there still such an antagonism? Why is there still the need to contain Russia? Why is there still–it’s almost like the foreign policy posture has not changed very much. Why?

MCGOVERN: Well, Paul, that’s the question, okay? The reality is that it was an incredibly terrible missed opportunity to change things. Bush, George H. W. Bush, in a major speech in Mainz in May 1989, before the wall fell, talked about a Europe “whole and free.” So did Gorbachev. And that chance was there.

Now, why was it squandered? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. We had people working in the Bush administration, like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, at kind of middle-high levels of the administration, who were saying, look, we want the Cold War. We don’t have to kowtow to anyone. Our policy should be to prevent, to deliberately prevent any state from challenging our preeminent position. And that means that the Soviet Union has to be–it’s Russia now–has to be kept in place, and it means also that we have to really enhance our ability to manufacture and sell arms to various and sundry.

So I see it as a combination of kind of kind of liberalism run amok, where we thought we could implant our brand on the whole world, including Russia, but also a need to make sure that there was an enemy that we could rally against, that we could build more weapons to defend against, and more NATO members to sell these weapons to. So I do see the military-industrial complex, so-called, as a major factor in this, because you can’t build a common European battle tank Leopard 2 with a consortium of French and German really high-tech and really wealthy arms manufacturers unless you have something that is portrayed as an enemy. And that, of course, is Russia. And Putin, of course, is elected as the eminence grace, the bête noire, the fellow that has evil intentions and has to be guarded against. It’s all a crock, Paul. It’s all a crock. And what has surprised me in this whole Ukrainian deal is the patience and, I would say, the statesmanship with which Putin and his advisers have conducted themselves in sharp contrast to his counterparts in Washington.

JAY: I mean, I have to agree with you to a large extent here, because it wasn’t that Putin and the Russian oligarchs were in any way adverse to integrating into the global economy in Europe. Europe obviously is their biggest customer for energy. In terms of finance, the Russians were up to their eyeballs in Western financial institutions. The oligarchs of the Russian–behind the Russian are just a bunch of big billionaires. And Putin, while I take your point, he’s been, as a representative of the elite of Russia, he’s been a far more–what’s the word?–judicious in his behavior than the Americans have, still he represents a class of oligarchs. This is not some great democrat here. But that’s more sort of the point. This should be an American kind of guy. They like these kind of guys that represent oligarchs and aren’t all that big on domestic democracy, ’cause Putin certainly isn’t. That being said, there’s got to be some reason why they want to have this antagonism, because it didn’t seem like it had to go that way. They could have integrated Russia more into the whole Western sphere.

MCGOVERN: Yeah. Well, again, it was in my view this overweening desire to act like the sole remaining superpower in the world and keep everyone else down. Meanwhile–and it was Yeltsin who was the real bête noire here–it was Yeltsin who was really the person at fault for inviting all the oligarchs in and turning what had been a reasonably decent economic situation–in shambles, but at least able to function–into the property of the oligarchs. Now, Putin is not quite that way. He’s stopped some of those oligarchs, and he’s not their favorite, except for some of his closest friends.

So all I’m saying here is that the chance was missed. Exactly why it was missed? I think it was due to a combination of the Madeleine Albrights of this world, who famously said, we are the sole indispensable country in the world–and if people remember what antonyms are, the antonym for indispensable is dispensable. And that means all the other countries in the world by definition are dispensable, and that included, of course, Russia. And so the economic outreach there to Western Europe and Western Europe trying to garner more cheap labor, like in Greece, trying to get Ukrainians into their economic system, they reached too far. Putin was not about–and none of the Russians were about to allow Ukraine to be embedded in an economic and a military system that would be the E.U. and NATO, in which the prospect of U.S. ships sailing into Sevastopol in the Crimea, the primary Russian naval base since Catherine the Great, their only one-water port–Putin said that explicitly; he said, you know, we don’t want Ukraine in NATO, but even more and what weighed even more heavily in our decision to reincorporate Crimea was the notion that U.S. or NATO ships would be sailing into Sevastopol, that missile-defense systems would be emplaced in the Black Sea. And then he sort of jocularly said, you know, I’m sure that the sailors of NATO and the U.S. are swell fellas, he says, but I’d really like it not to be that we would have to visit them at their port, at their base in Sevastopol; I really much prefer to have it the way it is now, where they’re free to visit us in our base in Sevastopol. These are strategic considerations. They weighed heavily.

And how Victoria Nuland and those sophomores in the White House thought they could ever get away with it is–well, it’s not beyond my ken. They just don’t have much experience.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us, Ray.

MCGOVERN: Most welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Ray McGovern is a retired CIA officer and was employed under seven US presidents for over 27 years, presenting the morning intelligence briefings at the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.