The Final Years of the Cold War 1981-1991

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The USSR Under Pressure

Brezhnev dies in Nov 1982, Yuri Andropov confirms that Soviet economy was in difficulties. GNP was halved to 2.7% Although produced millions of tonnes of steel, still had to import from the USA. The USA failed to integrate its technical advances from space and military research into the civilian economy. The industrial decline was to have significant impact on the economies of Eastern European states which would lead to the weakening of communist control throughout the eastern bloc. Soviet Union had been a primary supplier of cheap fuel and raw materials to Eastern Europe - as growth declined, so did the SU's capacity to recieve eastern-European manufactured goods. Undermined popular confidence in the communist economic system. In 1975, the SU entered a five year agreement to buy grain annually from the USA which was stopped after its invasion of Afghanistan. The end of detente triggered an escalation of the nuclear arms race and the invasion of Afghanistan placed further strains to economic costs facing the state. These costs impacted on the Soviet people's quality of life. The Soviet system, and communism itself was failing to deliver progressive improvements relative to the West. By 1985, Gorbachev took over Soviet Union. Some take the view that when Gorbachev took over, the Soviet economy was not on the brink of collapsing and that Gorbachev was the architect of the decline. His policies were trying to work under an inflexible system of central planning - rejecting innovation and the introduction of new ideas to maximise productivity. This placed little focus on consumer goods. In conjunction with glastnost and perestroika would strain economy. Gorbachev tried to maximise the economic and production systems rather than dismantle them - the existing systems were not working and any retention of the failed system would not work either. 

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Soviet Reforms







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Collapse of Comecon

At the start of 1991, the SU economic position had become critical - GNP had fallen by 8%, exports and import reduction. Made worse by rise of natonalism accross the Union and political decentralisation. Republics began to be unwilling to cooperate and withheld revenue  = shortfall in national budget. The internal economic problems within the Soviet Union undermined its ability to compete in this Cold War environment.

In June 1984, Comecon met and the SU made clear that cheap exports of fuel and raw materials to Eastern Europe could not continue - forced these states into stronger economic links with the West. In Dec 1985, Comecon calls for increased scientific and technical cooperation to accelarate productivity - which failed because the communist system throughout Eastern Europe was based on centrally planned development within each individual state. Furthermore, eastern europe states we increasingly reluctant to contribute to what they saw as Soviet economic interests. This only weakened the links between the Soviet Union and other members. EC members began to negotiate with the Comecon members for mutual diplomatic recognition - connecting with West, starting with Hungary in Dec 1988. 

In Dec 1989 - SU announces end of cheap supply to the Eastern Europe states as SU could not take any further strain. As of Jan 1991, all trade between members was to be driven by market prices and not subsidaries. Comecon formally ends on 28 September 1991. Many argue Comecon did little to create economic unity in eastern bloc and final chapter in collapse of SU.

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Reagan and Militarism during the 1980s

Reagan brought tension and suspicion and the public once more began to fear the possibility of nuclear war. Reagan was determined to pursue aggressive policies which were designed to change Soviet behaviour. Reagan was convinced that detente had resulted in the USA's trust in the SU being misplaced. He blamed previous admins for allowing the USA to be taken advantage of and allowing America's power globally to be eroded. In March 1983, he referred to Soviet leaders as the focus of evil in the world. He believed that the way to address the Soviet challenge was to abandon detente and the cooperative resolution of conflicts - USA needed to return to unilateralism and restore its military strength. He feared communism would spread unless the USA was able to contain it - reverting back to old policies. USSR expected Reagan to support detente and continued to promote the need for dialogue with the USA. Andropov was committed to reviving detente but realised that the USA was not - soon after June 1983 after Reagan's 'evil empire'. 

On 1 Sepember 1983, a Korean Airliner KAL-007 was shot down over the Soviet Union - who claimed that the plane was on an intelligence gathering mission for the USA - USA accuses USSR of willfully destroying a civil aircraft and killing 269 people. Andropov releases a statement that the Reagan administration was a serious threat to peace. For the SU, the USA had abandoned detente and was moving towards a policy geared to military superiority over the USSR. Also the view that Reagan administration was seeking to undermine the SU and challenge national liberation movements globally. 

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Militarism and Arms Control

Reagan's policy was focused very heavily on restoration of the USA's military power. By 1989, Reagan presented his military spending budget needs at $300 billion. This would move USA's military capacity from a defensive to an offensive level. Throughout most of 1981, Dobrynin repeatedly tried to restart the SALT II process to no success, although had to eventually due to pressure from Europe and the increasingly popular nuclear 'freeze' movement. Talks were labelled START - Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. 

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INF Talks

Establishing intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF). Reagan proposes a 'zero' option - the USA would not deploy Cruise and Pershing II missiles if the Soviet Union removed its SS-20 missiles from Europe. This was heavily loaded against Soviet interests. Essentially the option made an offer to the USSR that they could do nothing than reject. It would have ended 572 US missiles to Europe, but required the USSR to dismantle nearly 600 intermediate-range missiles deployed since the late 1950s. The option only dealt with land-based missiles and not all sea-based missiles and aircraft. This would have enabled the USA to undertake unlimited expansion in these areas and thereby strengthen its strike capability against the USSR. The final rejection came with the requirement that limitations be imposed on all Soviet intermediate-range land based missiles wherever they were deployed - meaning the Far East and well beyond the range of Western Europe.

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The USA was only interested in deploying missiles in Europe and proceeded with this in Nov 1983. Deployment of Cruise and Pershing II missiles led to USSR abandoning the talks. START negotiations failed. A proposed limit of 5000 missile warheads would have meant a cut of about one third for each side. Problem lay with the proposal to set limits on ICBMs. These would have demanded a cut of more than half on Soviet ICBM warheads and more than 2/3 for Soviet SS-18 and SS-19. All US strategic modernisation programmes would have continued. The proposal would have greatly increased the vulnerability of Soviet land-based missiles. The view of the administration was that only when US military power had been expanded would the Soviets have the necessary incentive to negotiate seriously. USSR clearly took the view that the USA was not seriously interested in negotiating a mutually beneficial and equitable agreement. The USSR hoped that by ending the negotiations, the Western powers would apply pressure on the USA to adopt more realistic stance. Reagans response simply blamed the USSR.

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The Strategic Defence Initiative

1972 ABM treaty acknowledged that there could be no defence against nuclear missiles - removing the idea of ballistic missiles. The believe was that if one side embarked on a first strike it could then effectively disarm any counterforce. In effect, Reagan moved from assured defence as the basis of deterrence to one of assured retaliation - SDI. Reagan emphasised the alarming build up of Soviet arms. He believed in a system of defence against mass destruction rather than just retaliatory measures. A defence system against ICBMs could act as an incentive for the SU to reduce the stocks of its weapons. If his SDI made first strike capability impossible, there would be no need for heavy ICBMs. MAD was replaced by MAS. However, SDI challenged the foundations of mutual deterrence. Meant the USA was interested in developing anti-ballistic missiles which ended mutual deterrence guarantee - dangerous? Incompatible for ABM. Unsurprisingly, Soviet response was negative. Convinced that the idea was not viable and impossible. But equally sure that such a defence system could be effective against a less deadly retaliatory strike. American plan to develop first strike capability. Dangerous alternative to arms control, undermining process of strategic arms limitation. Possible trigger of new arms race. In reality SDI was impossible - could create a defence system to eliminate hostile missiles to the point where enemy could not realistically plan a first strike attack with confidence of its success, but not guaranteed to counter the attack. SDI was a dream, but had significant impact on relations.

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Relations between the USA and Europe 1980-6

Whilst American-Soviet detente collapsed, European detente flourished. Glaring lack of uniformity and coordination between the USA and Europe. Problems began to emerge as Europe became a major economic organisation becoming a threat to America's global economic power. USA opposed protectionism it associated with the EC. As Europe became prosperous and economically integreated, the USA began to question the extent of its own economic commitment to the strategic defence of Europe. Europe doubted Reagan's commitment to arms control - it feared the development of the USA's arms build up and SDI was a direct threat to the ABM treaty - risking escalation in nuclear weapons. Europe saw SDI as part of an American plan aimed at isolationism and possibility of USA detaching itself from defending Europe. From American perspective, Europe was too inclined towards detente and arms control - against Reagan admins policies. Despite this, still closely tied through NATO. In May 1981, NATO meeting, USA tried to remove references to detente but had to accept NATO allies would maintain a relationship with the SU. For the USA, the INF deployment was seen as a way to reinforce the alliance, Europe believed these deployments were driven by the USA's desire to influence Europe and control European independence from the USA. 

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Poland and the Solidarity Movement

Solidarity demnaded independent unions - banned in communist states. Polish government declares a state of martial law, bringing Solidarity under control. Its existence acting as an inspiration to others across Eastern Europe who wanted reforms. 

The internal political crisis in Poland began to intensify - martial law imposed in Dec 1981. Western states announced some limited economic controls in response to this action. USA pursued a far more direct and wide ranigng set of proposals. All government shipments of agricultural products were banned and withdrew Poland's trade status, and blocking aid recieved from the IMF. The USA went much further than Western European states in the application of economic sanctions. The most significant response to the problems in Poland came when the USA suspended sales of oil and gas tech to the USSR - placing the Soviet economy under further pressure but also undermining communism within the Eastern bloc states. 

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The Soviet Gas Pipeline 1982

Sales of equipment and tech for the construction of a Soviet gas pipline into Western Europe were banned. The ban also included the sale of US technology manufactured in western Europe under US license. This was seen by European states as a restriction on trade and angered thm as the USA had signed an agreement with the USSR, enabling them to buy US grain. This convinced Europeans that they were paying for the economic assault on the USSR while the USA was benefiting. The pipeline would have delivered 20% of gas needs to Europe and provided employment. USA attempted to justify actions in terms of European security. The rationale was that Europe would become dependent on the USSR Europeans thought that US sanctions wre not for European security or to put Soviet economy under pressure, but to undermine European detente. The pipeline was a major economic link between East and West. The USA feared that its influence over Western Europe would be undermined if this link remained intact - further fuelling doubts in Europe over the benefits of its relationship with the USA. 

Dispute came to head when the USA announced that it would sanction any European state defying its embargo on the SU but was forced to backdown after the backlash. In later 1982, the trade sanctions were withdrawn in return for an agreement that no further gas contracts would be agreed with the SU. 

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The British-American Relationship

LIBYA 1986: USA took the decision to bomb military targets in Libya. Reagan stated that defeating terrorism was a major objective. All political and economic ties were servered. The atack was facilitated by Britain, as they provided the military air bases. There was belief in Europe that the attacks would simply generate more terrorism and much of it would be inflicted on Europe, particularly on those who had supported the USA. Different approaches on how to deal with terrorism. Europe did not favour the strategy of direct attacks and saw a more united approach as the way forward. 

The Reagan-Thatcher relationship was strong. Thatcher like Reagan was convinced that the Cold War had gone on too long and the SU had been propped up by detente. There were some points of friction - Poland and the Soviet Gas pipeline, but for the most part, Britain remained a strong ally. Thatcher helped with Libya, Reagan helped with extradition of suspected IRA terrorists. However, Thatcher was less willing to back the SDI - she thought it would leave Europe defenceless and imbalance of forces in the world. Many believe that America still had a crucial role to play in Europe despite its strengthening and its ability to compete with the USA. Developing into a more economically, politically and strategically integrated organisation. Led to the conclusion that the traditional relationship between the USA and Europe would change and Europes dependency on the USA was diminishing. However, full integration of Europe was still undermined as long as there was the problem of incompatible national interests with USSR. This was a factor in ensuring that there would always be some sort of working relationship between USA and USSR. 

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The Impact of Gorbachev 1985-1991

Gorbachev brought with him modernity and a new vitality to address the crises that the Soviet Union was facing - a key part of his foreign policy was the relations with the USA. Reagan knew this was someone he could work with. He brought a 'New Thinking' to foreign policy - accepting that the expansion of nuclear weapons was no guarantee for security of a state. The achievement of security was a political rather than a military process. 

Gorbachev acknowledged that the states could best served working together. Gorbachev argued that there was a need to overcome the 'archaic' Iron Curtain. This idea did not signal the end of communism in the eastern European bloc but rather suggested a level of peaceful coexistence between al European states. The idea was clearly the first stage in Gorbachev's intention to abandon the Brezhnev Doctrine. Concept of 'reasonable sufficiency' - based on an open rejection of aggression by maintaining only the amount of nuclear weapons and conventional forces that were deemed sufficient. For the first time, Soviet leaders were in a position to accept military cuts without demanding comparable cuts for the USA. This shift was important in enabling the INF agreement in 1987. 

How important was Gorbachec's thinking in terms of contribution towards ending the Cold War?

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Summits 1985-1988


'Watershed in relations' between both powers. The joint statement went on to refer to the importance of preventing any war between the USA and USSR, whether nuclear or conventional. Highlighted the fact that Gorbachev had removed the ideological split between East and West. Reagan wanted an indication that Gorbachev would materially change Soviet attitudes which he did.


Gorbachev proposes intiative in which there would be a 50% cut in strategic nuclear weapons. USA welcomes this but not prepared to abandon the SDI. Br/Fr refuse to acknowledge the proposal. By August 1986: Soviet employee of UN was arrested for spying against the USA - USA respond in kind. Eventually solved, but shows still suspicious of each other. 

THE REYKJAVIK SUMMIT, OCTOBER 1986: Reagan would not compromise on his determination to continue SDI so USSR walks out. Western European leaders were behind Reagan because it meant the USA would not accept an end to nuclear weapons - they could not understand Reagan's hatred of weapons. Some take the view that the chance to make the most significant arms control agreement ever was lost, but it did convince Gorb that Reagan really did want to bring arms race, through the means of SDI - as weapons would be irrelevent.

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Summits 1985-1988 2


By this point, the strong supporters of SDI had left office. At this summit, the INF treaty was signed - most significant step taken to bring the arms race to an end. The treay removed all nuclear missiles that carried intermediate range ballistic missiles. Soviets agreed to removed their SS-20 and USA Cruise/Pershing. SU removed more missiles than the USA. It was the first time that both the Soviet Union and the USA had agreed to remove a whole class of nuclear weapons and to accept the right to verify the removal on each other's territory. It was also significant that the Soviet Union made no demands that the USA must withdraw SDI, or any demands that the SU keep some missiles for defence from China. The SU had effectively accepted all key elements of originally 'zero-option'. Gorbachev also announced withdrawal from Afghanistan for 1989 - because they were trapped and could not defeat the Afghani when USA was indirectly supporting. For the first time, it looked like the end of the Cold War was insight. 

THE MOSCOW SUMMIT MAY-JUNE 1988: Old arguments of SDI and ABM treaty - SU believed that SDI was designed to put offensive weapons into space. Gave Reagan opportunity to access the Russian people. Denounced 'evil empire' comment. Gorbachev formally denounced Brezhnev Doctrine - end to SU commitment to socialist states and their right to make their own choices - reducing forces by half. Gorb could not implement internal reforms without presenting the same in the Eastern bloc. Reagan's hard-soft strategy seemed to have worked - forcing the SU into a position from where it could not compete with the USA.

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George H W Bush, 1989

Bush did not take the view that the Cold War was definitely over. Arms control negotiations resumed by Sept 1989 - Soviet Union was facing meltdown in Eastern Europe and Gorbachev's ability to negotiate from a position of strength was rapidly diminishing. 

In Malta in December 1989, moves were made towards a closer economic relationship between the two powers. The Malta Summit marked the end of Cold War economic conflict. The SU was moving towards a market-driven economy and away from the state-controlled centrally planned economy. Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not use force to prevent Eastern European states determining their own political futures. There was less consensus over the reunification of Germany. Bush agreed to not interfere over Germany or the future of the Baltic states who wanted independence. Eastern Europe had changed beyond recognition as successive communist regimes fell from power - effectively Gorbachev admitted that the communist system, built the way it was, did not work. 

In November 1990, the CFE treaty was signed by Gorbachev, Bush and other European leaders. Gorb agreed to end the capability held by the Soviet Union in Europe. Limits were placed on the scale of military hardware any state could control. In July 1991 the final summit between Bush and Gorbachev was held - concluding in START I. Gorbachev's influence ends in Dec 1991 when the Soviet Union was formally dissolved. 

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Collapse of Communism in the USSR


Commitment to promote the principle of the freedom to criticise. Relaxation of controls the states had traditionally maintained over censorship. Some take the view that this was injecting democracy into the system. Gorbachev did not want to destroy the SU by gambling that the people would restate their support for the communist system. For him, Glastnost was the means by which the people could openly support the wider reforms he wanted. This extended to culture.  The problem with this was that it exposed the dominance of the Communist Party to challenge. Secondly, there was no certainity that the people would happily support Gorbachev's initative. What Glastnost did do, was undermine the dominance of the Communist Party. It began the process of bringing communist rule in the SU to an end. 


Designed to reinforce the socialist system in the Soviet Union. The first step in the restructuring was that of reducing the powr of the Communist Party. A new legislature, the Congress of Peoples Deputies was to be created, two thirds of whose members were to be elected. The rest was in the hands of the Communist Party - once again undermining their power. At the same time Gorbachev wanted to ensure he held on to the reins of power and was able to drive the reforms his way. He created an executive Presidency which we held and was not subject to elections. 

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Nationalism within the Soviet Union

Under Gorbachev, nationalist feelings began to emerge strongly in the 15 republic states. In 1988, a crisis developed in Azerbaijan as Armenians in Nagorny, an Armenian region administered by Azerbaijan, demanded separation. Gorbachev revealed his insensitivity to the Armenian nationalist movement when he sides with Azerbaijan. He was aware of the implications for the SU backing separatist nationalist movements. Demands for Georgian independence flared in 1989. 

The Soviet Union's Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia also had clear designs on independence. Wanted soverignity from the SU, Gorbachev sends troops. Overall, he failed to placate the nationalists by giving them more devolved power within the framework of the SU and failed to use enough force to destroy them, thereby retaining the support of the conservatives in the USSR who wanted firm action to prevent the break up of the Soviet-Union. 

In August 1991, a coupe to overthrow Gorbachev was set in place as a response to the introduction of a Union Treaty, giving freedom to the Soviet republics - would have marked the end of the Soviet Union. There was no return for Gorbachev. On 26 December the SU voted to dissolve itself and formally ends its existence. Russia's new President, Boris Yeltsin, seized Gorbachev's office in the Kremlin. Yelstin created the Commonwealth of Independent States. 

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Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe

After the collapse in the SU, the rest of Europe soon followed. The key event which opened the flood gates was Gorbachev's rejection of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Many historians regarded the Soviet possession of the states was at the heart of the Cold War. According to the Americans, Truman Doctrine and containment had been introduced as a response to the threat of Soviet ideological expansionism across Europe. The process of change did not come just from Gorbachev, but it stretched back to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and 1968 Prague Spring. Perhaps the most significant part of the process was the emergence of East-West detente in Europe driven by Ostpolitik. From 1973, the West was facing economic recession as a result of high oil prices. Trade between East and West began to decline and the East began to rely on the SU more. Despite this, Western Europe began to invest into E Europe economies and influence via "Westernisation" of E Europe attitudes, additionally with tourism rising. As SU began to be unable to support the bloc states, combining with the Gorbachev years, led to an end of communist rule in E Europe and ultimately an end to the Cold War. The SU simply couldnt upkeep the cost of keeping the satellite states. 

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Reunification of Germany

Half hearted attempts to bring some limited capitalist economic policies into Eastern Europe to offer socialist solutions to the people had lost credibility. Many historians argue that the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe was an outcome of the apathy within the communist leadership - could not address the sense of hopelessness. Started with Poland with the legislation of Soldarity and in August - first Prime Minister that was not communist. In May 1989, Hungary opens border with Austria to allow East Germans to escape to the West. In October 1989, Gorbachev visits East Germany and made it clear that no Soviet military or economic aid would be available to reinforce the communist regime there - the East Germans already were dissatisfied with the communist regime. On the 9 November, the Berlin Wall was taken down - revolution rolled over Eastern Europe like an irresistible tide. There was no evidence to suggest that Gorbachev planned this. This was not always peacefl like in Romania where communist leader Ceausescu was executed after refusing to give up control. When the Berlin Wall was taken down, the symbol of oppression was taken down, the symbol of the Cold War. 

West German chancellor, Kohl wanted a reunified Germany under NATO. Gorbachev accepted what was a inevitability - the USSR was so in need of money that he was prepared to do a deal on this important issue. Many take the view that Gorbachev agreeing to give up Germany to NATO in 1990 marked the end of the Cold War as the biggest conflict was taken away. He agreed on no restrictions to Germany soverignity - mostly taken up by the man himself, and not other key individuals in the party. A new era of international relations began. 

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'Mikhail Gorbachev was entirely responsible for the failure to revive the Soviet Union's economy from 1985.' How valid is this assessment?

How far was the development of a 'Second Cold War' the result of Ronald Reagan's polcies in the years 1981-1985?

'The relationship between Europe and the United States in the years 1981-1985 was as strong as it always had been.' How valid is this assessment? 

'The Cold War came to an end because the Soviet Union was simply unable to continue with it.' How valid is this view?

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