30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Inside the Gorbachev-Bush “Partnership” on the First Gulf War 1990

bush gorbachev
Published: Sep 9, 2020
Briefing Book #720

By Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

New Documents Show Soviet Leader Scrambling to Stay in Sync with Americans, But Ultimately Aiming for Non-Use of Force

Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait 30 Years Ago Posed First Test for Post-Cold War Superpower Cooperation

Soviet transcripts of Gorbachev conversations with Mitterrand, Cheney, Baker, and Saudis published for the first time in English

Washington, D.C., September 9, 2020 – Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev quickly decided that joint action with the United States was the most important course for the USSR in dealing with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait 30 years ago, rather than the long-standing Soviet-Iraq alliance, and built what he explicitly called a “partnership” with the U.S. that was key to the international condemnation of Iraq’s actions, according to declassified Soviet and American documents published today by the National Security Archive.

The documents, many published in English for the first time, show Gorbachev joining the American denunciations of Saddam’s aggression, assuring Secretary of State James Baker and President George H.W. Bush that cooperative U.S.-Soviet action at the United Nations and elsewhere was vital, but gradually over the fall of 1990 emphasizing his principled objections to the use of force in the Gulf, especially as U.S. fundraising came up with $50 billion towards the ultimate war effort and nothing to help the beleaguered Soviet economy.

Between the lines in the documents may also be found Gorbachev’s reliance on his foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, to handle the internal negotiations among senior Moscow officials who were instinctively anti-American and focused on Soviet advisers and weapon sales to Iraq, thus largely hostile to Shevardnadze’s forward leaning public statements issued jointly with the Americans. As early as August 7, 1990, however, even Shevardnadze accused the Americans of “informing, not consulting” about the imminent announcement of major troop deployments to Saudi Arabia.

Today’s publication features key Bush conversations with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, President Francois Mitterrand of France, and Gorbachev himself at the Helsinki summit 30 years ago today. The newly translated Soviet documents include Gorbachev’s own discussions with Mitterrand, with Turkish president Turgut Ozal, as well as with Baker, U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Saudi Foreign Minister Al-Feisal.

The documents provide fascinating evidence pointing to a multitude of factors leading to the Soviet-American partnership on the Iraq issue in August and September 1990. One was the personal relationship between Shevardnadze and Baker, and the happenstance that they were together in Irkutsk for talks just as the news of the Iraqi invasion arrived. Another was the sense of betrayal on Shevardnadze’s part, having been lied to by Iraqi officials about Saddam’s intentions, and the sense of shock felt by Baker, since none of his analysts (nor the Kuwaitis) had seen the invasion coming, thinking instead the massing of troops along the border was just more of Saddam’s blackmail for a Kuwaiti payoff. A third factor was the way the Bush administration moved from a chaotic initial response centered around just ensuring continued oil supplies,[1] to a more coordinated focus against Iraqi aggression – which also resonated with Gorbachev’s own “new thinking” against such violence.

Setting the tone for U.S.-Soviet cooperation on the Persian Gulf crisis was the historic Joint Statement read out by Baker and Shevardnadze at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport on August 3, 1990 condemning the Iraq invasion and taking the “unusual step” of “jointly calling upon the rest of the international community to join with us in an international cutoff of all arms supplies to Iraq.”[2] The Americans had proposed the statement and written a first draft with Shevardnadze’s aide, Sergei Tarasenko; Gorbachev had approved the idea in principle but left it to his foreign minister to haggle with the internal opposition who resisted such a stand; and it was Shevardnadze who ultimately took it on himself to agree with the arms embargo.[3]

Special thanks to Professor Jeffrey Engel, who kindly provided us with his own file of declassified Bush Library documents on the Persian Gulf, including especially the controversial August 2 National Security Council minutes.  Also vital to the declassification process at the Bush Library has been Zachary Roberts, who has helped us for years with our document requests.

 

The Documents:

1. Anatoly S. Chernyaev Diary 1990 (excerpts)

Source: Donation to the National Security Archive

These excerpts from the invaluable diary written by Gorbachev’s top foreign policy adviser, Anatoly S. Chernyaev, put the Persian Gulf crisis into the context of extraordinary political and economic turmoil in the Soviet Union. Chernyaev’s first entry mentioning the Iraqi invasion comes only on August 11: “Meanwhile, the crisis in Iraq was developing. I was afraid that M.S. [Gorbachev] would be hesitant to sharply condemn Hussein. Luckily I was wrong.” Later, Chernyaev is the Soviet side notetaker at the Bush-Gorbachev summit at Helsinki (counterpart to Brent Scowcroft), where he records Bush asking: “Can I call you by your first name?” Chernyaev details the core decision Gorbachev made: “No matter how Primakov and Mitterrand may try, Gorbachev is reasonably saying that we cannot separate from the Americans, no matter how much we might want to avoid war. Then everything would come undone.”


2. National Security Council meeting, August 2, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library

This is the first U.S. reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the meeting about which Scowcroft later wrote, “I was frankly appalled….” There are fascinating moments in this discussion, such as when Bush’s budget director, Richard Darman, comments: “There is a chance to defend Saudi Arabia if we do all that’s possible. On liberating Kuwait, I sense it’s not viable.” So the discussion centers around intermediate options. Remarkably, Scowcroft says “the Saudis have said no to TACAIR” – this was a decision Bush would work to reverse, and then some.


3. Bush Telcon with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, August 2, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons

President Bush finally reaches Saudi King Fahd late in the day on August 2 “to hear your views,” and is gratified when the Saudi launches into strong language comparing Saddam to Hitler and saying: “I believe nothing will work with Saddam but use of force.” But when Bush mentions sending U.S. air forces to defend Saudi Arabia (“TACAIR”) from a possible Iraqi invasion, Fahd says only let’s talk about this after tomorrow, after the Arab countries have a chance to discuss and come to some joint action. The conversation leaves Bush worried the Saudis may not accept U.S. forces.


4. Telephone Call to Prime Minister Thatcher of the United Kingdom, August 3, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons

The U.S. president had just seen the “Iron Lady,” Margaret Thatcher, at Aspen, Colorado, where they denounced Saddam at a joint press conference. This telcon includes a key Bush phrase, after mentioning the meeting of Arab states, where 7 out of 21 countries refused to denounce the Iraq invasion of Kuwait: “My fear is of handwringing by offering a payoff to Saddam Hussein.” Bush reports skeptically that “Shevardnadze said he has assurances from the Iraqis that they would move back,” adding that U.S. defense experts will be discussing military options in the morning.


5. National Security Council Meeting, August 4, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, NSC, Richard N. Haass Files

This NSC meeting at the president’s dacha, Camp David, focuses on the military options for responding to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. As the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Colin Powell, articulates the goals, first is to defend Saudi Arabia against the possibility of Saddam taking the oil fields, and second is to build the basis for a future operation into Kuwait, by moving significant numbers of U.S. troops and air power to bases in Saudi Arabia. Bush remarks, “My worry is the lack of Saudi will and that they might bug out. We need to ask them.” Which Bush does later that day via phone to King Fahd.


6. Bush telcon with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, August 4, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons

After the morning NSC meeting that detailed U.S. military options and Pentagon plans, Bush reaches the Saudi king with the message, “I am prepared to instruct General Powell to start deploying forces to the Kingdom.” But the Saudi leader keeps mentioning a team of Americans that he understands is coming to work out arrangements for any U.S. planes and troops. Bush admits, “I was not told” – but quickly figures out that such a team process is necessary for the Saudis to agree to the basing.


7. National Security Council meeting, August 5, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, NSC, Richard N. Haass Files

While the covert action and intelligence reporting sections at the beginning of this set of minutes of the August 5 NSC meeting remain largely redacted, the remainder shows how quickly U.S. decisionmaking has moved. Scowcroft comments that the Saudis “have accepted Cheney going over [the team King Fahd wanted] with the presumption that we are not talking about ‘if’ but ‘how,’ ‘types’, etc.” for the U.S. force deployments. At one point, Baker inquires, “Should we ask the Soviets to weigh in?” But Scowcroft quickly shoots that down: “We don’t want to ask the Soviets. It would send a bad signal.”


8. Secretary of State James Baker telcon with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, August 7, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library; Savranskaya and Blanton, Gorbachev and Bush, pp. 245-246.

Baker calls his counterpart in Moscow to apply some soothing personal diplomacy to the message delivered by the U.S. embassy earlier that day, letting the Soviet foreign minister know about the imminent U.S. military deployments to Saudi Arabia. Shevardnadze first asks if the U.S. decision has already been taken, and when Baker admits yes, last night, the Soviet diplomat bitterly “wondered what he was being consulted about.” Being informed and not consulted was a far cry from just days earlier, when the two men had produced their historic joint statement condemning the invasion. Now the U.S. was taking unilateral steps. Shevardnadze says: “the Soviet Union would consider this action exceptional, extraordinary and temporary and any military forces should leave as quickly as possible.”


9. Gorbachev memcon with Turkish President Turgut Ozal, Moscow, August 25, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, Gorbachev is engaged in personal diplomacy with leaders of the Middle East, emphasizing, on the one hand, his closeness to Bush and the U.S. position, and on the other, trying to prevent sliding toward a military solution to the crisis. The Soviet president tells Ozal that the Soviet position demands that Iraq implement all the U.N. Security Council resolutions, but that the USSR is “advising our American partners not to succumb to any provocations and not to be involved in any kind of military actions that may have dire consequences.” Ozal expresses hope that “at this critical hour it is still possible to solve this problem without military conflict.”


10. Gorbachev memcon with Egyptian Foreign Minister A. I. Abdel Meguid, August 27, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

Gorbachev and Meguid discuss the need for an Arab response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. While Gorbachev firmly states that U.N. resolutions must be strictly enforced, he sees an opportunity to find a more comprehensive solution for the Middle East including the “Palestinian problem.” He also raises a geopolitical dimension to strengthening the U.S. presence in the region: “if we do not untie the Kuwaiti knot and a regrouping of forces in the region occurs, the Americans will strengthen their positions. This will complicate establishment of the peace process in the Middle East.” Meguid agrees on the importance of convening an international conference on the Middle East, saying “[t]his is the main issue for us, and we will do everything we can to resolve it.” He says President Mubarak was “extremely alarmed and saddened” by the actions of Iraq because Saddam Hussein assured him he did not intend to invade Kuwait just days before the invasion.


11. Gorbachev memcon with Iraq Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, September 5, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

Saddam Hussein’s trusted envoy comes to Moscow hoping to present the Iraqi version of events to Gorbachev and persuade him “not to speak the same language” with the United States. Gorbachev responds that “[i]n regards to what has happened in the Persian Gulf, the entire world is speaking approximately the same language.” Gorbachev states that although he is in favor of continuing a dialog with the Iraqi side, he is doing so only to find a political solution to the crisis and avoid war in the Middle East. He firmly states that the Iraqi invasion was “unacceptable” to the Soviet Union but “a massive, prolonged presence of U.S. troops in this area is also unacceptable.” By its actions, Gorbachev says, Iraq is contributing to an increasing U.S. presence in the region. The Soviet leader firmly tells the Iraqi envoy that they must withdraw their forces from Kuwait and carry out U.N. resolutions.  He suggests that this would open a way to a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East.


12. Bush telcon with French President Francois Mitterrand, September 6, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons

Continuing his prodigious telephone diplomacy around the Gulf crisis, Bush checks in with Mitterrand in advance of the planned Helsinki summit with Gorbachev, and is pleased to hear the French leader’s report on his own phone call initiated by Gorbachev. Mitterrand tells Bush, “He is very cautious about any movement toward open warfare, but he emphasized the need to maintain a common front regarding the Kuwait situation.” Indeed, Bush says, the whole idea of the Helsinki summit “is to show a common front with the Soviets, just like your telephone call with Gorbachev shows solidarity.”


13. Bush-Gorbachev memcon, Helsinki, September 9, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons

The one-day Helsinki summit, organized at the U.S. president’s initiative and located at the Finnish Presidential Palace for Gorbachev’s convenience, focused on the Gulf crisis. Gorbachev brought with him a detailed plan, developed by the Soviet experts, for step-by-step withdrawals of troops, first by Saddam from Kuwait but also by the Americans from Saudi Arabia, leading ultimately to a Middle East peace conference that would address the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Bush pushes back against the plan, saying it would reward Saddam’s aggression, but circles back to specifics he can agree with, like the restoration of the Kuwaiti government. Bush’s goal is simply to keep a united front with Gorbachev, so the American emphasizes the temporary nature of the U.S. military presence in the region, and his own preference not to use force. Bush makes a personal appeal to Gorbachev, using words the latter wants to hear: “Mr. President, I appeal to you as a respected friend, an equal, an important partner and participant in the events whose role is quite significant.” Bush presents the partnership as a major change from previous U.S. policy that sought to keep the Soviet Union out of the Middle East, and de facto agrees to a future Middle East peace conference, just without linkage to Saddam.


14. Gorbachev memcon with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, Moscow, September 13, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

As President Bush told Gorbachev in Helsinki, a large delegation of leading U.S. businessmen came to Moscow to explore opportunities to invest and support Gorbachev’s economic program, led by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher. Secretary of State Baker came to Moscow to reinforce the agreements on the Persian Gulf right after the summit in Helsinki. In the first part of the conversation the participants discussed the progress of Soviet economic reform. After the delegation leaves, Gorbachev and Baker talk one-on-one about the next steps on the Persian Gulf. Baker is effusive with praise for the Soviet president: “I will confess to you what I told my assistant a couple of days ago: I am not a novice in politics, I have seen many things, but I have never seen in any political leader, so much courage, so much bravery, as you have.” Gorbachev, while expressing his steadfast support for the partnership with the United States, strongly argues for a peaceful solution to the crisis. An important part of the conversation deals with possible financial relief for the USSR. Gorbachev asks Baker if he can find money, if not in the United States, then in other countries, like Saudi Arabia: “Maybe something could be done for us too. What is one billion for the Arabian prince who has $104-105 billion?” Baker asks if the Soviet Union would help with air transport of Syrian and Egyptian forces to Saudi Arabia and that he, “without linkage to this problem,” will “look at what can be done in order to obtain a loan [for you] from some third country.”


15. Gorbachev memcon with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Feisal, Moscow, September 17, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

In the course of conversation, Gorbachev and Al-Feisal agree to make an announcement about establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries and discuss various options for forcing Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Gorbachev tries to persuade Al-Feisal that the “Arab option” would be most effective, that a military option would destabilize the region and that Saddam should not be driven into a corner. Gorbachev asks the Saudi if they really believe that there is a danger of an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, to which Al-Feisal responds that they have “received intelligence information about the concentration of the Iraqi troops with the intention to invade the territory of our Kingdom.” Gorbachev suggests that although the immediate goals should be an Iraqi withdrawal, other problems of the Middle East have to be addressed as well.


16. Bush memcon with Soviet Chief of Staff Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, Washington D.C., October 2, 1990

Source: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, Memcons and Telcons

American efforts to keep the Soviets as partners against Saddam’s invasion come through in multiple details in this document. The Soviet military’s chief of staff, the relatively young (51) Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev is visiting Washington in the ongoing military-to-military process that began in the Reagan administration and receives the signal honor of a face-to-face meeting with the U.S. President in the Oval Office, in addition to talks with Defense Secretary Cheney at the Pentagon, and even a visit to Gen. Colin Powell’s home. Bush commiserates, “We know it’s not easy for you. You have had a close relationship with Iraq. We were trying to improve our relationship, too. Some say we were stupid to try.” Moiseyev summarizes the Soviet approach, “From the first day we have supported the position against Hussein. Annexation is impermissible. But it is not possible to use arms for this.”


17. Gorbachev memcon with U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Moscow, October 17, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

U.S. Defense Secretary Cheney is in Moscow to talk with Gorbachev and his Soviet counterpart, Dmitry Yazov, about the Persian Gulf and the stalemate over negotiations on the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE) . Gorbachev remarks that such meetings between Soviet and U.S. top defense officials are “amazing” but they are becoming the norm. Gorbachev assures Cheney that the Soviet leadership is “set on acting together with the United States. We are in favor of continuing a firm line, not allowing any cracks in the common position, and at the same time, not missing a single opportunity for a political solution.” Cheney calls cooperation with the Soviet Union in the Gulf “the cornerstone of ... success.”


18. U.S. Embassy Baghdad cable to Secretary of State, October 29, 1990, “Subject: Primakov Visit”

Source: U.S. Department of State, FOIA release F-2007-03992

The acting U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Joseph Wilson, reports to Washington that the visit to Iraq by special Soviet envoy Evgeny Primakov turned out to be a “severe disappointment to the GOI [Government of Iraq].” Apparently, Saddam Hussein expected Primakov to bring some compromise short of full implementation of the U.N. resolutions, in other words “a split in the ranks” on the international condemnation of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Instead, despite lavish Iraqi television attention to the Primakov visit, Saddam’s “efforts to pry the Soviets and the French away from the consensus have been an abject failure.”


19. Gorbachev memcons with French President Francois Mitterrand, Prime Minister Rocard and Foreign Minister Dumas, Paris, October 28-29, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

In this amazing set of conversations, one sees the differences between the U.S. and Soviet positions as the Soviet leader finds a receptive and supportive audience in the French leadership. The French and Soviet leaders discuss the just-arrived Primakov cable from Baghdad in which he reports on some limited progress in his talks with Saddam. Mitterrand believes that the U.S. and British position does not allow Saddam any chance to “save face” and would necessarily lead to war unless more time is given to negotiations. Mitterrand proposes two stages of negotiations: one short-term and one long-term, so that the “starting negotiations would focus on, in particular, possible concessions to Iraq, including, among others, access to the Persian Gulf, oil prospecting, and others. This way, Hussein’s vanity would be assuaged.” Then the second stage of negotiations would involve more general problems of the Middle East, most importantly the Palestinian problem without a firm linkage to the Iraqi withdrawal. Mitterand draws distinctions between the U.S. and British position on the one hand, and his and Gorbachev’s on the other. Gorbachev insists on the unity of the Western position but makes it clear that his ultimate goal is to prevent the use of force. Gorbachev is certainly on the same wavelength as Mitterrand in his preferences, but he sees partnership with the United States as key to the success of his international and domestic reforms.


20. Gorbachev memcon with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, Moscow, November 8, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation

Baker comes to Moscow with one urgent mission—to persuade Gorbachev to support a new U.N. resolution that would authorize the use of all necessary means to ensure that Iraq complies with all previous Security Council resolutions and withdraws from Kuwait. This resolution would have to be passed while the United States is still chair of the Security Council and, without specifically naming this, it would authorize use of force if Iraq does not comply. The United States is willing to set a deadline of January 1 before it will consider the military option. The conversation is very frank and direct. Baker needs Gorbachev’s support and U.N. vote. Gorbachev tries to plead with his American interlocutor not to resort to military action and asks to give more time to negotiations. Baker, on his part, appeals to things dear to Gorbachev—norms of the new international order, the idea of a U.S.-Soviet partnership. He even asks Gorbachev to participate in a U.S.-led operation in the Gulf: “if the use of force becomes necessary, the image of Americans and Russians fighting side by side (even if your participation is limited to a small unit) would make a very strong impression.” Both talk about the new international order as they see it, with Gorbachev questioning the rationale for the use of force at the very beginning of this new order. This conversation, more than any other, shows so clearly the incredible transformation in the U.S.-Soviet relationship that made this partnership in repelling Iraqi aggression possible and at the same time the limits of this partnership where U.S. preferences certainly prevailed.


21. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to President Bush, “My Day in Moscow, November 8, 1990”

Source: George H. W. Bush Presidential Library, FOIA release

Baker describes for the president his “rather extraordinary “ four hours with Shevardnadze and two hours with Gorbachev, working to persuade them in favor of a new U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq after a deadline in January or so. The delay in the deadline becomes crucial to Soviet agreement because it gives more time for diplomatic initiatives. Baker says Shevardnadze is against using force now, but sees it as inevitable eventually, while Gorbachev is “torn” and wants to avoid it in principle. Baker leans on them and tells Bush their “desire for partnership with us will lead them in the right direction.” Of course, once the Soviets agree to the revised U.N. resolution, the clock works against them.


22. Bush-Gorbachev memcon, Paris, November 19, 1990

Source: Gorbachev Foundation; Savranskaya and Blanton, Gorbachev and Bush: The Last Superpower Summits, pp. 295-301

This remarkable transcript shows the U.S. president pleading with Gorbachev to stay with the program, to keep denouncing Saddam, and join with the U.S. on a United Nations resolution that would authorize force after some period in which Saddam would still have the opportunity to withdraw from Kuwait. “I need your help on this issue,” Bush says, and “I do not want to use force,” but “I wanted to talk about this to you in private … to pour my heart out to you.” Gorbachev responds, “If you and I are not capable of stopping aggression, annexation, and blatant violations of international law, it means that we are not doing what we should.”

 

Notes

[1] Jeffrey Engel provides the most detailed account of the initial reaction in Washington, especially the August 2, 1990, National Security Council meeting that was “disjointed, unclear, and largely devoid of any high-minded principle of salvation or defense of the Kuwaiti regime,” and how that quickly changed. See Jeffrey A. Engel, When The World Seemed New, pp. 384-391. Brent Scowcroft later wrote of that initial NSC meeting that he was “frankly appalled at the undertone of the discussion, which suggested resignation to the invasion and even adaptation of a fait accompli.” George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed, p. 317.

[2] For the text and the press reaction, see Bill Keller, “The Iraqi Invasion: Moscow Joins U.S. in Criticizing Iraq,” New York Times, August 4, 1990, Section 1, p. 6.

[3] For the backstory, see the remarkable nearly contemporaneous account by Michael Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels, pp. 246-248. Their key source was Baker aide Dennis Ross, who manages to work credits to two of his junior staff into the account, Peter Houslohner for first suggesting a joint statement, and Andrew Carpendale for typing up the first draft on an English-language typewriter at the Soviet Foreign Ministry. For the Soviet backstory and the backlash against Shevardnadze, see the astute observations of Pavel Palazchenko, My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, pp. 209-211.