Gorbachev’s “Diplomatic Marathon” to Prevent the 1991 Persian Gulf War

Malcolm Byrne's picture

Documents show Gorbachev’s desperate efforts to talk Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and head off the Bush administration’s military solution in the Gulf


Anatoly Chernyaev: The swan song of new policy aimed at ‘a new world order’


Karen Brutents: The first war of the New World Order


Mikhail Gorbachev: We had entered the new era to the thunder of cannon


Edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton


Washington, D.C., February 26, 2021 – Thirty years ago this week, the U.S.-led coalition launched its ground offensive in the Persian Gulf after spending months trying to get Saddam Hussein to withdraw his troops from Kuwait and comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions without conditions or linkages to a wider settlement in the Middle East.  Only 100 hours after the ground offensive started (the air war had run for more than a month previously), the U.S. ceased hostilities as images of decimated Iraqi troops, strung along a “highway of death” out of Kuwait, ran on global media.


Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev spent weeks before combat began trying to prevent the application of military force, which he saw as antithetical to his “new thinking” about a post-Cold War, norms-based world order.  But Gorbachev failed, undermined by the erratic decisions and stalling of the Iraqi dictator, by the inexorable military logic of the coalition build-up, and by the growing determination of U.S. President George H.W. Bush that Saddam could not be trusted.


Today’s publication of Soviet and American transcripts of highest-level phone calls, meetings, and letters documents what top Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev called a “diplomatic marathon” that Bush kept saying he appreciated – keeping Gorbachev inside the tent so to speak – while always pushing back and setting hard deadlines for action rather than just statements.  The publication features, for the first time in English, memoranda of ten Gorbachev phone calls on February 23, 1991, alone – hours before ground combat started – with foreign leaders ranging from Bush to Iran’s Rafsanjani, India’s Gandhi, Egypt’s Mubarak, and Germany’s Kohl, among others. The collection also includes the declassified American summary of all the U.S.-Soviet discussions from January 11 through February 23, and the full U.S. memcons of the final set of Bush-Gorbachev calls on February 21, 22 and 23, 1991.