Photo/IllutrationMikhail Gorbachev responds in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. (Satoru Iizuka)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

With the Trump administration withdrawing from a key nuclear weapons agreement and even contemplating the use of low-grade nuclear weapons, former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev wants to reach out to the United States for dialogue.

"The main thing is to act so as not to allow the world to slide towards an arms race, to a confrontation, and to hostility," Gorbachev said. "Despite everything, I believe that this is still within our capabilities."

As general secretary of the former Soviet Union, Gorbachev played a large role in bringing the Cold War to an end and reaching agreements with the United States on reducing nuclear weapons. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.

The Asahi Shimbun recently interviewed Gorbachev, 88, in Moscow to hear his views on what needs to be done to restore mutual cooperation and negotiations to lessen the dangers of nuclear war.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: Having worked toward the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), how do you now feel about the invalidation of that treaty?

Gorbachev: I want to remind you of an idea which was the main driver on the road to this treaty. It is expressed in the joint announcement given by the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States that was agreed at our first meeting (in 1985) in Geneva: "A nuclear war is not acceptable, and there will be no winners in a nuclear war."

We announced that we had to get rid of nuclear weapons. This is something I am still praying for.

This was the first step as the states reviewed their respective military doctrines with the aim of reducing their reliance on nuclear weapons. In comparison with the peak of the Cold War, the number of nuclear weapons that Russia and the United States had was reduced by more than 80 percent.

The countries of Eastern and Western Europe agreed on reductions in their armed forces and their weaponry. This was the "peace dividend," which everyone received as a result of the end of the Cold War.

Q: But with the abandonment of various restrictions, what do you feel will be the effects for the future of the world?

Gorbachev: The decision by the United States to withdraw from the INF threatens to unleash a sequence of events that would move to undo all of this. The United States refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As a result of the unilateral decision in 2002, the United States nullified the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABMT).

Out of the three principal pillars of global strategic stability--the ABMT, INF and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)--only one is left, but even the fate of the New START, which was signed in 2010, is becoming unclear.

What's behind the United States' decision to withdraw from the INF is their striving to free themselves of any obligations with respect to weapons and obtain absolute military supremacy. That is an illusory aim, an unfulfilled hope. Hegemony by one single country is not possible in today's world. The result would be destabilization of the global strategic situation, a new arms race and all the randomness and unpredictability of global politics. The security of every country, including the United States, will suffer as a result.

Q: What would you like to say to the current U.S. president?

Gorbachev: I hear from the current president of the United States that they are the richest country, that they have more money than anybody else, so there is going to be a new arms race. Who is America planning to fight, however? The first country to come to mind, of course, is Russia.

We should never let ourselves embark on a course of developing nuclear weapons again and of a new arms race. We have to stop working on pipe dreams, and engage with realpolitik. We don't need an apocalypse! We need peace!

Q: I understand that one catalyst for your signing the INF was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Can you explain?

Gorbachev: The explosion of the atomic reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station became one of the most important boundaries in the history of our country and of the world, laying bare the problems in the Soviet Union and reminding us of the colossal destructive power of atomic energy and of nuclear weapons. Colossal efforts were put in place to find the reasons behind what happened and to liquidate the immediate consequences of this tragedy. The liquidators showed courage, but unfortunately, this did result in casualties.

My life was divided into two parts: before the Chernobyl accident, and after. They tried to prevent a nuclear explosion themselves, but they still lacked the understanding of what Japan had been through. Again, that was an experience which demonstrated to us that we had to do something about nuclear weapons.

Q: After the Chernobyl accident, you made a speech on television in May 1986 in which you called out to U.S. President Ronald Reagan for a meeting at a European capital or even Hiroshima. Why did you make that proposal?

Gorbachev: I don't think anyone wants a second Hiroshima. The powerful states who have 90 percent of the nuclear arsenal at their disposal have to reassure global public opinion that we are moving toward a liquidation of these weapons. Russia is ready.

Q: How have you been making your calls for eliminating nuclear weapons?

Gorbachev: I consider nuclear war to be unacceptable. Only a madman would start a nuclear war. Even during the course of what was mandatory training for a head of state I never pressed that button in the so-called "nuclear briefcase."

I recently wrote to Nobel Peace Prize laureates and called on them to approach the leaders of the nuclear states and request that they return to talks on the reduction and elimination of nuclear arsenals. Some of our experts are singing the praises of nuclear weapons. They are saying that nuclear weapons saved the world from war. But at least on one occasion they took the world to the brink of self-destruction. I am referring to the Cuban missile crisis. This should never be forgotten.

Q: What do you think needs to be done now?

Gorbachev: I think that talks between the United States and Russia must be resumed immediately. During these talks not only must the issues of the INF, or a continuation of the New START be reviewed, but also the principal questions of peace and security, and, first and foremost, the need to restore the movement toward a world without nuclear weapons. All the nuclear states need to make decisive steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence will not protect the world from a nuclear accident or from nuclear terrorism, but would keep it under a constant threat.

Q: What advice do you have for the current global situation?

Gorbachev: The agreements that created the basis for international security following the end of the Cold War should be used for further talks. I want to reach out to the Americans, especially to the members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats. I regret that the pressing situation with respect to internal politics that has unfolded in the United States over the last few years has led to a failure of dialogue between our two countries. It is time to overcome the inter-party disagreements and start a serious conversation.

New ideas are needed, which would help in moving relations between Russia and the United States away from their deadlock. Not so long ago, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and I called for the establishment of a non-governmental forum of Russian and American experts to develop proposals for the governments of our respective countries. The militarization of thought has led to the militarization of the behavior of countries. The key to resolving security issues lies not in weapons, but in politics. The main thing is to act so as not to allow the world to slide towards an arms race, to a confrontation, and to hostility. Despite everything, I believe that this is still within our capabilities.

Q: How did you first become involved in nuclear issues?

Gorbachev: It all began when I worked in the Komsomol (the Communist Party's youth division). We were a small group gathered at an officers' club and we were shown a film about the effects of a nuclear explosion and about the atomic bomb itself. There is so much power in that bomb. We were shocked. We were told you should never look directly at the blast and you have to cover yourself with a wet sheet. Back then when I saw all this, I said there is only one thing we can do--we have to fight for peace.

Q: What should be Japan's role?

Gorbachev: In terms of my principal position concerning nuclear weapons, my allegiance is with Japan. I think it was the Americans that started all this turmoil, since they were the first to develop the bomb. They told our leaders in talks that they had developed the bomb. They said this to intimidate us, so we would bow down to America. Their obsession with weapons is crazy. Neither do we need any other type of weapon, such as a humanitarian type of nuclear weapon. Enough of this humanization of the atom, we know that this cannot happen. The role of Japan and her voice are very important in this respect. Russia is in favor of reducing nuclear weapons and being free from it.

Q: How was it possible for you to reach an agreement with the United States during a time when the Cold War was much stronger than it is today?

Gorbachev: When we held talks with Reagan at the first summit in Geneva, he was dead set against me, and I was the same with him, because as far as we were concerned, he was an outright warmonger. I am grateful to him though.

Q: This year's Hiroshima peace declaration made mention of that first summit. What are your thoughts about that?

Gorbachev: I want to put myself forward as an example of someone who shares this point of view. I still feel exactly the same way as I have done about Hiroshima--that it was a calamity for the people of that city. So many people died there. So much of the city was destroyed. Japan has the moral right since she has lived through nuclear attacks on peaceful cities. Your voice would be heard around the world.

Q: The 30th anniversary of the Malta summit was recently observed. Looking back, what does the end of the Cold War mean to you?

Gorbachev: I agreed to meet President George Bush at Malta. Toward the end of the meeting, I said we are ready to announce publicly to the whole world that we do not consider America our enemy. Bush got up and offered his hand across the entire width of the table and shook me by the hand, saying that he did not consider us enemies either. The main thing is that talks with the Americans should release us from the threat of war.

The Berlin Wall is no more. It was necessary to put an end to the Cold War. There were mass demonstrations in East Germany and they were shouting "Gorbachev, help us." The British and the French were against the reunification of Germany. They felt that making Germany a powerful nation again would lead to trouble. There were some East Germans who were hoping that we could send in troops. Our orders were that nobody was to leave their post. Let the Germans sort it out themselves.

Q: Did the West win the Cold War?

Gorbachev: It is clear that here the decisive role belongs to Russia, but most important of all, to other countries. This was a victory for all the peoples of the Earth. It's a great achievement for everyone. When the West came to the conclusion that they had won, how can the question be put to them about what else they need. Maybe I am exaggerating this, they now rule the world. But the question needs to be put to them, as to whether they are planning to work in partnership with us as the leaders of a new world against the backdrop of global cooperation. Or are you going to gather up all the resources to engage in saber-rattling and intimidate and repress others?

I am sure that the moral lessons from human history will remain topical in today's contemporary society. Without morality, it is impossible to build a moral world. The world itself is our highest morality so we must save the world.

(This interview was conducted by Senior Staff Writer Hideki Soejima and Takashi Kida, the head of the Moscow bureau.)