On Aug. 1, 1991, as Air Force One made its way to Kiev, where President George H.W. Bush would make one of the more pivotal foreign policy speeches of his presidency, his advisers were locked in heated debate over the word the.
“Make sure the president leaves out the article. He should just say ‘Ukraine,’ ” urged Jack Matlock, then ambassador to the Soviet Union. “Ukrainian-Americans think the article makes it sounds like a geographic area rather than a country.”
“But we say ‘the United States,’ don’t we?” protested one of the president’s speechwriters.
“If the president says ‘the Ukraine,’ the White House will be getting thousands of letters and telegrams in protest next week,” Matlock countered. Matlock won out, and copies of the speech in Bush’s presidential archive today show the articles penciled out, a distinction that would be entirely lost on those who read translations of the speech in Russian or Ukrainian. (Those languages don’t have definite articles.)
The anecdote, related in Serhii Plokhy’s extraordinarily well-timed new book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, underscores the degree of cognitive difficulty U.S. policymakers were having in the fateful year of 1991 in beginning to think of a vast empire that had dominated global politics for seven decades as 15 different countries. Relying on declassified U.S. and Russian archives, Plokhy makes a convincing case that contrary to the triumphalist American narrative of Cold War victory, or the more recent paranoid Russian narrative of Cold War defeat, the U.S. never anticipated the breakup of the Soviet Union—in fact, the U.S. tried to use what little influence it had over the situation to prevent it.
As it turned out, the definite articles were the least of the problems the administration faced in Bush’s speech. With Ukrainian nationalism on the rise and dismemberment of the Soviet Union being openly discussed, Bush sounded a cautious note at the urging of aides like his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and the young Russia expert Condoleezza Rice. “Freedom is not the same as independence,” he warned. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” The speech angered Ukrainian nationalists and American hawks, and was dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” speech by New York Times columnist William Safire—a nickname that stuck.
The Bush administration attempted to split the difference on the fall of the Soviet Union, favoring a transition toward democracy and free-market capitalism, and the independence of the Baltic countries—whose annexation by the Soviets during World War II had only been grumblingly accepted by the United States—but not a full dissolution of the Union. Secretary of State James Baker, in particular, worried that the disintegration of the Soviet Union could entail the “prospect of violence and bloodshed as well as the possibility of nuclear proliferation.” A “Yugoslavia with nukes” seemed like a very real potential outcome.
The Bush administration also valued what it saw as a friendly and productive relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, as opposed to the unknown quantity that was the hard-charging and hard-partying president of the Russian Republic , Boris Yeltsin. The two governments had worked together through perestroika and glasnost, negotiated a nuclear disarmament treaty, and co-sponsored new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Gorbachev and Bush were personally close, as were their families. “Baker and his State Department advisers did not want to let Gorbachev down after what he had done to improve Soviet-American relations,” Plokhy writes. It’s surprising to the modern-day reader that Bush wrote to his Russian counterpart on Jan. 24, 1991, to assure him that “No one wishes to see the disintegration of the Soviet Union.” It’s more surprising that all indications suggest he meant it.