Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Saturday expressed his “deep condolences” to the family of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and all Americans following his death.
Gorbachev worked closely with Bush to bring an end to the Cold War in the late 1980s and 1990s, and lauded the former president for his abilities as a politician and his personal character.
“It was a time of great change,” he told the Interfax news agency, “demanding great responsibility from everyone. The result was the end of the Cold War and nuclear arms race.”
Gorbachev said that he and his wife, Raisa, “deeply appreciated the attention, kindness and simplicity typical of George and Barbara Bush, as well as the rest of their large, friendly family.”
Pavel Palazhchenko, who worked as Gorbachev’s translator during those years, said that a tireless search for common ground and mutual understanding paved the way for some of the greatest achievements in the history of U.S.-Russia relations.
“Bush always took a balanced approach to things,” Palazhchenko told The Associated Press on Saturday. “He was not one to rush and took everything into account. He was always very well briefed. Gorbachev was too, and together they just looked for common ground.”
One thing that Palazhchenko said distinguished Bush from other U.S. presidents was his understanding of Gorbachev’s political situation, and a professed desire not to put Gorbachev in a corner at a time when others in the Soviet leadership were not thrilled with rapprochement.
“He was, in many respects, very different from Ronald Reagan,” Palazhchenko said. “Reagan was an intuitive politician, while Bush was analytical and in some ways more political. He understood that developments in Eastern Europe were not easy for Gorbachev.”
“He never put Gorbachev on the spot,” he said.
This relationship allowed Bush and Gorbachev to push through some of the most significant U.S.-Russia arms control agreements in history, including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. They found that mutual arms reduction was the cornerstone of stability between their nations.
This lesson is a salient one at a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia have hit their lowest point since the Cold War and Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have called for substantial investments in new nuclear weapons, risking a return to an arms race.
“Gorbachev and Bush showed that cooperation on arms reduction can have a very stabilizing effect on the situation and the relationship,” Palazhchenko said. “The centrality of nuclear arms control specifically is something they understood well.”
With this in mind, perhaps their greatest achievement is one Palazhchenko says is widely overlooked today: the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991. In a series of letters and unilateral decrees, both leaders eliminated their tactical nuclear weapons with the stroke of a pen.
“It is something that seems almost forgotten now, but they eliminated thousands of tactical nuclear weapons on both sides,” he said. “It was very significant.”