The 1970s saw a relaxation of tension in the Cold War. The USSR was spending 20% of its National Income on defence, and people in the communist bloc were fed up with a low standard of living. Meanwhile, the USA was in a period of ‘stagflation’ (rising prices AND economic recession), and was losing the Vietnam War. In 1969, Nixon announced the ‘Nixon Doctrine’ – that the USA would maintain a nuclear ‘shield’, but western countries would have to pay for their own defence.
In 1972, Nixon visited both Moscow and China in 1972, Brezhnev went to Washington in 1974, and in 1972, Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT1) agreed to limit the number of ICBMs.
There were a number of public relations exercises (in 1975, US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts docked their spacecraft together) and in 1975, 35 countries, including America and the USSR, signed the Helsinki Agreement – agreeing to increase economic cooperation, and improve human rights.
Soviet involvement in Afghanistan
Détente had its limitations. Human rights did not improve in the Soviet Bloc, and both sides ignored their promises in the SALT1 agreement. Then, in 1979, fearing that Muslim groups were about to take over in Afghanistan, the Soviet government invaded and set up a new government under Babrak Karmal.
The invasion was condemned by the United Nations, but also by China. President Carter of the USA withdrew from the SALT2 negotiations, boycotted the 1980 Olympics being held in Moscow, cut trade with the USSR and armed the rebel Afghan Islamic Mujaheddin guerrilla fighters.
By the 1980s there were 125000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan. They used tanks and helicopter gunships; they attacked villages, because they could not find the guerrilla forces to attack. 1 million Afghans died, 3 million refugees fled to Pakistan.
But the Soviets could not defeat the rebels. They were ambushed, and their helicopters shot down – in 1982, a major attack in the Panjahir Valley was repulsed by guerrillas.
The effect in the USSR was devastating. It destroyed the reputation and morale of the Soviet army, and bankrupted the Soviet Union and helped its collapse in 1989.
Reagan and the renewal of the Cold War
Reagan became said president in 1980. He hated Communism, calling the USSR ‘the evil empire’. He thought that détente had made American go soft on the Soviets.
He actively began a new Cold War, doubling US defence spending, deploying Cruise Missiles in Europe, developing the neutron bomb and new MX ‘Peacekeeper’ missiles which were much more accurate than existing ICBMs, and in 1983 startuing work on a ‘star wars’ Strategic Defence Initiative, which planned to destroy Soviet missiles by firing lasers from space.
Reagan sabotaged the planned Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START2) by 1982, he had terrified the Soviets into believing that he wanted a nuclear war.
In 1980, the first crack in the Iron Curtain occurred in Poland. Shipyard workers in the port of Gdansk (Danzig) formed the trade union Solidarity. Its leader was Lech Walesa and it demanded, not just economic reforms, but political freedom. Nine million Poles joined the union.
The Polish government, led by General Jaruzelski, imposed martial law, arrested 10,000 political opponents (including Walesa) and banned Solidarity.
However Solidarity survived as a secret, underground, anti-government organisation. And in 1982, Reagan and Pope John Paul II (a Pole) made an alliance to destroy the Polish government (Polish priests worked as spies for the CIA).
Weaknesses of the USSR
The truth was that, by 1989, unknown to the western world, the USSR was seriously weakened:
Soviet industry was inefficient and out-of-date, producing poor quality goods. There was dreadful pollution – the Aral Sea had dried up, and in 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown. There were food shortages, poor housing and poor standards of living.
Meanwhile, the USSR was hugely in debt to the west. The country could not afford the arms race and the war in Afghanistan, which was costing 25% of the Soviet National Income.
Indeed, Afghanistan had destroyed the morale of the whole system. Many government officials had lost hope. The Communist party corrupt; the police were powerless against the Mafia. Ordinary citizens were angry at the KGB (secret police), censorship and the lack of human rights. Protest groups (e.g. Helsinki Watch in Moscow and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia) produced underground pamphlets and radio broadcasts. Jokes against the system were passed round secretly as a form of subversion.
Glasnost and Perestroika
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbechev was elected as the Soviet leader. He tried to reform Russia by:
Perestroika (‘restructuring) – reducing state control of industry, allowing free enterprise.
Glasnost (‘openness’) – ending state corruption and allowing freedom of speech.
In foreign policy, he ended the Brezhnev Doctrine – telling the eastern bloc states in March 1989 that the Soviet Army would no longer support them.
Instead, to cut military spending, he met Reagan and cut offensive weapons by 50% (Geneva Summit 1985), signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty (1987) dismantling all short- and medium-range nuclear weapons, and pulled out of Afghanistan (1989).
In 1989 he and the new US President George Bush announced the end of the Cold War.
The end of Soviet control in Eastern Europe
Gorbachev hoped that these reforms would ‘save’ the USSR and keep the Communist Party in power. Instead, they unleashed a flood of unrest and change in eastern Europe.
Communist regimes toppled in Hungary, Poland (where Solidarity won the elections and Walesa became President), East Germany (where the Berlin Wall was pulled down in 1989), Czechoslovakia (called the ‘Velvet Revolution’ it was so peaceful), Romania (where the hated Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, Bulgaria and Albania.
Even in Russia, Gorbachev’s reforms merely destabilised the government
In February 1990, the Baltic state of Lithuania declared independence; a half-hearted attempt by the Red Army in January 1991 to quell the revolution there failed. Soon after, Latvia and Estonia also declared their independence from the USSR.
Gorbachev proposed the New Union Treaty, hoping to replace the USSR with a federation of independent republics. To stop this happening, in August 1991, a group of generals and hard-line Communist leaders (the ‘Gang of Eight’) tried to mount a coup d’état – but this failed too, because Russian president Boris Yeltsin and thousands of Moscow people went out to oppose it. The coup collapsed, and Yeltsin banned the Communist Party and disbanded the KGB.
By the end of 1991, all the republics of the USSR had declared independence and Gorbachev resigned.