The Coup: The U.S. Perspective
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bush repeated his condemnation of the Soviet coup today. He called it “an affront to the goals and aspirations of the Soviet people.” He said he had spoken with Boris Yeltsin and supported his demand that Mikhail Gorbachev be returned to power.
At a news conference in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Bush said he was dispatching newly sworn Ambassador Robert Strauss to the Soviet Union. He said Strauss would assess the situation and return to the U.S. within the next several days. But he added Strauss would not yet present his diplomatic credentials because he did not want to legitimize an illegal regime. Mr. Bush was asked if he thought the coup was on shaky ground.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I said yesterday that some coups fail. The likelihood of this — it’s hard to evaluate in this circumstance, however, there appears to be very strong support from the people in the Soviet Union for a constitutional government, for democratic reform, and when you see the numbers turn out, President Yeltsin told me that he anticipated there were — he thought there were a hundred thousand people near his building when I talked to him a few minutes ago.
He thinks that there will be strong support from labor to his requests that labor go out and do not — don’t produce until this matter is resolved. So you don’t take freedom away from people very easily. You don’t set back democracy very easily and I’d say that it is in the best interest of the Soviet Union and its relations with other countries if a constitutional government is promptly put back into, into operation there.
RITA BEAMISH, AP: Mr. President, what kind of support though are you going to give Yeltsin, or do you just have to stay on the sidelines and offer verbal encouragement?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, we’re certainly going to offer encouragement in every way we can and we’re making very clear to the coup plotters and the coup people that there will not be normal relations with the United States as long as this illegal coup remains in effect.
The Western Europeans have met and they have come out with a statement along those lines and I think with the exception of a few renegade regimes around the world, we’re seeing universal condemnation. So let’s hope that that will bring the — these people to their, to their senses.
BRIT HUME, ABC News: Mr. President, in light of your statement of yesterday, late yesterday afternoon, and in light of the fact that you’re now denouncing the new regime in Moscow as illegitimate and unconstitutional, might you now or soon be considering granting to Lithuania and the other Baltic republics, which are after all elected governments, the full recognition they have long demanded?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Our position on the Baltic states has not changed. And if there’s ever a change in the position, we’ll let you know. As you all know, we have not ever recognized the forcible incorporation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union. And that’s where that matter is right now. But we are not giving up on the restoration of constitutional government in the Soviet Union, itself. And so we’ll leave that matter right there.
TIM McNULTY: Have you heard from Mr. Yeltsin about the whereabouts or the well being of Mr. Gorbachev, or from anyone else for that matter?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Mr. Yeltsin told me that he tried to send emissaries to see Mr. Gorbachev, that those emissaries were unsuccessful because Mr. Gorbachev is being prevented from seeing people. As I say, I’ve tried to call him yesterday. I think Prime Minister Major tried the same thing.
I tried again today. Mr. Gorbachev is the duly constituted leader of the Soviet Union and we will continue to try. The other thing that Yeltsin told me is — and I think he’s said this publicly — that he feels that if this medical answer has any validity to it, that the World Health Organization should be permitted to see and examine Mr. Gorbachev.
I can tell you that Yeltsin doesn’t believe that, and I must tell you I don’t believe it, but that is one of the canards being thrown out. It’s really old fashioned, but, nevertheless, we will continue to try to, try to stand with Mr. Gorbachev, as Yeltsin is trying to do. Owen, and this is the last one.
OWEN ULLMAN: You met with Gorbachev over the past month. Did either of you in your conversations talk about the possibility of something like this happening, or the possibility of even civil war in the Soviet Union?
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No. What was talked about on his part was the irreversibility of this change, the fact that constitutional government is there, elections are over the horizon, and have taken place in the republics, some of the republics, and his conviction that the people are committed to reform and certainly to openness, glasnost as well.
And I’ve seen nothing in the last day or two that would — would compel him or me to alter that. Now that isn’t to say that there’s a formidable obstacle right now in the way, and that is eight people that have usurped unto themselves all the power and are trying to take over by force, although Yanayev has said he looks forward to working with Mr. Gorbachev in the future. So there wasn’t discussion of that.
As you know, I think I have referred to — I know I have in our own meetings — concerns that we conduct ourselves in such a way to minimize the chance of military takeovers and that military takeover has taken place. But I believe that the policy that we’ve had into effect of supporting Gorbachev, as Yeltsin is now — has been doing over the last few months is the correct policy. I think it is the best hope for democracy, was the best hope for democracy and reform, and remains the best hope for democracy and reform.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Sec. of State Baker leaves tonight for an emergency meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels. NATO Sec. Gen. Manford Woerner said, plans for military reductions could be influenced by developments in the Soviet Union. He said, NATO would retain what is necessary to assure the security of Western nations…
ROBERT MacNEIL: Now to analyze events in the Soviet Union and the Bush administration’s response, we get the views of McGeorge Bundy, who was National Security Adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He joins us from Boston. Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations. He joins us from Kent, Connecticut. Donald McHenry was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter administration and Jeane Kirkpatrick held that post during the Reagan administration.
Ms. Kirkpatrick, from adding up all that we’ve heard, how does the coup look to you tonight? Are Yanayev’s men ruthless enough to crush Yeltsin by force, to create another Tiananmen Square? What do you think?
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: Well, I think we still don’t know, and I think that’s the most important outstanding question at this moment. I believe we will know within the next 24 hours.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Donald McHenry, do you have a feel for what kind of men these are and what kind of situation we face?
DONALD McHENRY: Well, I think the jury is still out. It may very well be that the force which Gorbachev set in motion, that is glasnost, will be the same thing that saves it.
ROBERT MacNEIL: How would that happen?
DONALD McHENRY: Well, it’s the resistance of the public, itself. I’m not suggesting that that’s going to happen. There’s a tremendous amount of power on the side of the coup leaders. But the resistance which has taken place has been as a result of this new found freedom, as the public has demonstrated in the street, and as Yeltsin has also demonstrated.
ROBERT MacNEIL: McGeorge Bundy, from what you’ve seen and heard tonight, how does the coup look to you on its second night?
McGEORGE BUNDY: Well, I agree that the jury is still out. I think there are signs that these people are acting hastily and desperately, but they do in the measure that they keep control, they do have a very large measure of force to apply and we simply don’t know how the encounter between those forces and the people of Russia and their leaders like Yeltsin will come out.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Kissinger, is another Tiananmen Square possible in Moscow?
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: I think it will be possible and I think it will be even bloodier if it were to happen. I agree with Jeane Kirkpatrick that within the next 48 hours it will break one way or the other. If the Junta doesn’t apply force, I believe that the matter of public opinion will produce defections in the army and they will not be able to prevail. If they do use force and were to prevail, they would, in my view, have a very empty victory because the economic problems, the political problem, and the problems of the cohesion of the state which brought all of this on would still continue, and this is, after all, the group that created the mess to begin with.
ROBERT MacNEIL: What do you think, Dr. Kissinger, of the stand President Bush has taken?
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: I think it’s the correct stand to take for the present circumstances. I think we have to be on the side of Yeltsin. After this crisis is over one way or the other, we need to have a national discussion or a national policy on the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union or whatever is there at this stage, so that it doesn’t become so tied to individual personalities.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Jeane Kirkpatrick, what do you think of the way the President’s played this?
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: I think the President’s done very well. It seems to me that he’s done it just right. He’s taken it very seriously. He was right to come back from Kennebunkport, of course. He was right to make clear strong statements about the negative and unacceptable aspect of this development, right to support the Yeltsin stand in this context, and I think it’s right for Jim Baker to go tomorrow to meet with the foreign ministers of the NATO countries. It seems to me that he’s really done all there is to do at this point.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Has he done that, Donald McHenry, all there is to do?
DONALD McHENRY: I don’t think there is more that he could do. The only thing I would say is that I would not agree with too much emphasis on Yeltsin. Yeltsin represents the force of legitimacy and we ought to try and restore the legitimate government and not get ourselves tied up with an individual.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And McGeorge Bundy, what do you feel about the way the President’s played it?
McGEORGE BUNDY: I think the President has done right in his basic reactions to the events of the last two days and I think we all have to understand that even the best handling of the American hand in this game is not likely to be decisive. Just the same, it is important for us to be on the side that the President has chosen and broadly in the fashion that he has chosen it.
I also agree with Henry Kissinger that you have to think about the question of our long run relationship with the government of the Soviet Union, however this comes out. We have a common interest in the safety of the planet even when the government of the Soviet Union is not the one we or the Russian people would have chosen.
ROBERT MacNEIL: So does that mean if these — if the coup leaders manage to stay in power for a time and become the de facto government of the Soviet Union, Mr. Bush is going to have to recognize them whether he likes it or not?
McGEORGE BUNDY: He will have to have a political relationship with them. My own view is that there would have to be — and I would expect that there would be in due course recognition of any government which, in fact, is in control of the power, political power, in the Soviet Union. But I don’t think it’s wrong in this critical and unsettled period to emphasize that there is one government or one set of forces which is constitutional and one which is not in the present situation.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Henry Kissinger, how long can President Bush maintain that posture do you think?
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: He can maintain this posture until there is some clear cut outcome. If this turns into a civil war, I think it would be right to support the constitution of the elected government, the only elected government that has ever existed in the territory of the Russian republic.
If, unfortunately, the Junta were to win, which doesn’t look all that likely to me now, but if it were to happen, deplorable as it is, we have to keep in mind that there are 20,000 nuclear weapons on the Soviet side and that the question of war and peace existed even under very appalling Soviet regimes and that a variety of American Presidents felt it necessary to have some diplomatic contact with them and negotiate on those issues.
I hope this doesn’t happen. I think the President is absolutely right in the policy he’s now adopting and I hope it prevails. Even if it were to prevail, however, at the end of it, we should not think, as Don McHenry indicated, Yeltsin is also going after a while to present a specific foreign policy problem with which we have to deal. We need some concept of what we want there.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Donald McHenry –
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: But for the time being –
ROBERT MacNEIL: I’m sorry.
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: — I’m in total support of the President.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Donald McHenry, how long can — do you think President Bush can maintain this posture?
DONALD McHENRY: Well, I think he can maintain it as long as he has to. I would agree with what was stated earlier and that is that I believe we will know in the next few days whether this coup is going to continue or it will break the other way. It doesn’t seem to me that this group has too long to get its act together and there are some signs in my view that, that they are having difficulty.
ROBERT MacNEIL: What are those signs?
DONALD McHENRY: Well, the persisted rumors in terms of resignations. At least one has resigned. We have rumors that illness has now hit at least two others. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know. But in addition to that, there are some things that you might expect them to have done to have consolidated their power, which they haven’t done. They have cut off the media and newspapers within the country, but they’re not stopping broadcasts, telecasts, and so forth coming from outside and of course, in today’s technological world, it’s possible to take those broadcasts from outside and send them right back into the Soviet Union, thus, helping the opposition forces to rally their forces against the government.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Are you saying you think the coup leaders have shown a certain lack of nerve or stomach for the, the real iron fist?
DONALD McHENRY: Well, I think they’re capable of using the iron fist. But obviously, there is a reluctance on their part to do so. They have to contend with what’s happened over the last five or six years. There have been forces set in motion in the Soviet Union which they are now going to have to deal with. And then of course even if they — if they succeed, as Dr. Kissinger noted earlier, they have the same economic and political problems that Mr. Gorbachev has been wrestling with.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Jeane Kirkpatrick, how influential do you think on the coup leaders is Mr. Bush saying, I’m not going to recognize you and we’re going to reduce any aid we’ve promised and the European countries are doing that too? Why when they’ve staked everything on this desperate gamble would those measures be — really influence them?
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: Well, I don’t — I think it’s important, by the way, that you included the other Western countries and Japan, the democracies generally have spoken here with something close to envoys, at least they had a common reaction and I think it’s important to emphasize that — that we’re not just talking about President Bush and the United States.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Right.
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: Because I think the Europeans are at least as important to the Soviets, either Gorbachev or his successors, as the United States. I — the stakes, in my view — I think they think the stakes are higher than whether or not they receive aid next month. I think this is, above all, a struggle of a power, power of the government of the Soviet Union, power of the control of the Soviet Union’s future, and that they want more than they want aid from Germany or aid from the United States.
ROBERT MacNEIL: I guess my question is: What kind of a sanction really, collectively speaking, is the denial of international respectability and legitimacy, and the cutting off of aid? Can that really hurt them?
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: It’s about the only sanction we’ve got, if we’re realistic about that, in fact, and it doesn’t hurt them enough in the short run, in my judgment, to seriously influence their conduct in the short run. You know, I think it’s very important that the unity of these coup makers has already apparently ended and the group that was eight is now presumably five or sometimes it sounds as though they may be four, and I find it very interesting that the most well known and we thought most powerful of the eight are those who have presumably dropped out –
ROBERT MacNEIL: That’s –
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: I don’t think we’re influencing any of that at all.
ROBERT MacNEIL: That’s Mr. Pavlov, the prime minister who was reported to have a heart attack or high blood pressure today and Dmitri Yazov, the defense minister, whose position is unclear.
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: Right. And Mr. Kryuchkov.
ROBERT MacNEIL: And Mr. Kryuchkov, the KGB leader.
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: The KGB, right. And we would have thought I think from the outside that these were the most powerful men, probably those calling the shots in the coup. Presumably they’re out now or may be out or some people think they’re out anyway. We don’t know how many people are in. We don’t know who’s calling the shots and we don’t know whether they give a fig, frankly, about the opinions of Chancellor Kohl or George Bush or both of them.
ROBERT MacNEIL: We have a report from — bulletin from the Reuters News Service referring to that shooting we mentioned at the beginning of the program — that three people were shot dead outside the Russian parliament building by Soviet tank crews, and that is the only detail that has come in. Henry Kissinger, do you agree with Jeane Kirkpatrick that in the short run the denial of legitimacy by Mr. Bush and other Western leaders, the threat to cut off aid, is not going to be terribly influential on the coup leaders?
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: Well, I think — I think it is going to be somewhat influential. I don’t think it’s going to be decisive, because at this moment, the personal survival of these coup leaders is on the line. I would like to make one additional point. The United States has to be extremely careful that we don’t maneuver ourselves in a position where the coup leaders can use historic reference to xenophobia and paranoia to paint their opponents into the position of being American stooges, and, therefore, we have to tie it as much as possible to, to the future of the Russian people, rather than to say what the United States wants in Russia. It’s – - again, this is not a clear decision of anything that has been done, but Yeltsin and his associates will be most effective if he speaks on behalf of the Russian people, of the need for autonomy and similar issues.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. Bundy, what do you think about the — what kind of attention the coup leaders will be paying to the fact that President Bush, Prime Minister Major, President Mitterrand and other Western leaders, Japanese government, have denied them legitimacy and are immediately rescinding or holding back the aid they promised?
McGEORGE BUNDY: I don’t believe, as others have said, the coup leaders will be much affected by that, but I think one has to remember that this is a two-sided or many-sided contest. And it seems to me that many other Russians will be strongly affected and encouraged in their resistance by the fact that the leaders of many countries, not just one of the super powers, Ms. Kirkpatrick properly pointed out, are strongly on the side of resistance to this kind of — of really rather crazy coup.
ROBERT MacNEIL: What more, Mr. Bundy, what more in terms of sanctions, moral or practical, can — tangible — can the West or the world exercise in a situation like this? I mean, it’s not like Iraq invading another and violating the UN Charter. What more can the world do about this?
McGEORGE BUNDY: Well, I think you’re right. It’s not like Iraq. It’s not an invasion. The President has, himself, made it very clear, and I think rightly so, yesterday, if I’m right, that this is not a case where we would expect to have or where the West can expect to have the kind of military or even political influence that would be created if it were an international issue. It’s a Soviet issue within the Soviet Union.
So I think we’ve done what it’s appropriate to do and I think it’s important to remember that this is, as many have said in this discussion, a matter which is likely to be resolved one way or another relatively rapidly or else turn into an extraordinarily difficult, brutal, and variegated civil war.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Mr. McHenry, do you see anything more that President Bush and other Western leaders can do at present?
DONALD McHENRY: I don’t see anything more. I would say what they have to do is maintain unity to speak as much as they can with a single voice. I think we should never expect that sanctions alone are going to be “the” decisive action.
They are an action which can influence those who are taking the kinds of steps in the Soviet Union. But I would suggest to you that for the most part these coup leaders took their action without regard for the international community. It’s true they are concerned about some actions which have been taken by Gorbachev in the international theme. But for the most part, this is influenced by domestic events and to that extent, it seems to me, they aren’t going to be that concerned by what we do outside.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Henry Kissinger, Shevardnadze, the foreign minister who resigned dramatically last summer, was also on the podium there outside the Russian parliament with Yeltsin today, his warning was this, that a right wing coup is the beginning of civil war. It is the end of peaceful co-existence, and the start of a new cold war, a new arms race. Now Sec. Baker this evening said, we do not see it as a matter of — as inherently a matter of East-West confrontation. Is Shevardnadze right, or is Baker?
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: I think Shevardnadze is essentially right. If I could go back to the previous point for one minute –
ROBERT MacNEIL: Sure.
DR. HENRY KISSINGER: — I think it is quite possible, incidentally, that the coup leaders are stunned at the American reaction, that, therefore, we might have more of an impact and that this might explain some of the resignations.
They may have thought they were doing the same thing as when Kruschev was removed in 1964 when the transition once they had seized power was uncontested and could not be contested, and since they are old line apparatchiks, they may have thought that simply seizing the former power would be — uh – - would give them full legitimacy. Now to go to your question, I believe that if the coup leaders win, there is a high likelihood that relations between the West and the Soviet Union will deteriorate rapidly.
The coup leaders or whoever replaces them will have to go back to this idea that foreign danger has or the foreign powers have generated a lot of this dissention that is going on in the Soviet Union — since they obviously are trying to keep the whole country together, they will have to look back to the old xenophobia of claiming that it’s a — that a foreign danger is greater than the internal rivalry.
And I fear very much that if the right wing coup prevails and a highly centralized government is re-established, that that together with the sanctions that will inevitably follow will worsen the relationship dramatically — that we will then be back to a cold war type situation and then we will have to conduct the diplomacy that would be appropriate to these circumstances.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Does that raise that ominous possibility to you, McGeorge Bundy?
McGEORGE BUNDY: Well, I’m a little less gloomy, as I often am, a little less gloomy than my friend, Henry Kissinger. I believe, however, that we would have a very important task to try to hold to the most important changes that have occurred in the Gorbachev years. You would have to be sure that everything we could do was done to make sure that a new freedom of Central and Eastern Europe is maintained. We would I think wish to hold very hard to the agreements that have been made about conventional forces in Europe and about the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the places they’ve been so long.
And we would want to hold to our side of the bargain over strategic arms reductions, which is I believe also deeply in the interest of the Soviet Union with its massive domestic, economic, and social problems. So I think it’s too soon to say that we would want to give up on keeping the best of what has been achieved in Gorbachev’s years, or that the victors, the coup leaders would themselves wish to embark upon a xenophobic cold war- like enterprise. They will have plenty to do even if they win quickly.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Jeane Kirkpatrick, do you take Shevardnadze seriously, that this is the end of peaceful coexistence and the start of a new cold war?
JEANE KIRKPATRICK: I always take Shevardnadze seriously, let me say, because I think he is a brilliant and a courageous man. And I think that he is seeking to warn that certainly this is a threat to the dramatically improved relations between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world, which has occurred in the last two years or three years. I believe that the internal character of a regime always influences its foreign policy, quite frankly, and it influences it enormously, and that it is very rarely the case that a regime that uses a lot of force against its own people will be peaceful and sensitive in its relations, correct even in its relations with other governments, so I think it would be more dangerous.
I think the world is more dangerous today than it was yesterday or the day before, frankly, and if the coup leaders succeed, whomever they may be, it’s likely to become more dangerous still. We don’t know who those coup leaders who might successful may be. We do not know whether they will be prudent men who are restrained in the use of force or whether they will be highly ambitious, ruthless types, and I think it’s very difficult to try to speculate about the specific individuals’ inclinations in foreign affairs until we know, but we will know that the structure of the government will discourage peaceful coexistence.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Can I ask Mr. McHenry just briefly — we have a few seconds — how do you read Shevardnadze’s warning?
DONALD McHENRY: I suspect he’s overstated it. It won’t be the same as we’d seen over the last several years, but I suspect he’s overstated it.
ROBERT MacNEIL: Well, thank you very much. Mr. McHenry, George Bundy, Henry Kissinger, and Jean Kirkpatrick.