The Cold War’s Arab Spring: How the Soviets Created Today’s Middle East

Stolen Kremlin records show how the Soviets, including Gorbachev, created many of today’s Middle East conflicts

The dominant narrative of modern Middle East history emphasizes the depredations visited upon the region by European colonization and accepts as a truism that the former colonial powers prioritized the protection of their material interests—in oil, above all—above the dignity and self-determination of the region’s inhabitants. Thus did botched decolonization result in endless instability. The most intractable of the regional conflicts to which this gave rise, that between the Arabs and Israelis, is attributed in this narrative to Israel’s unwillingness to accede to Palestinian national aspirations. Thus did the region become a breeding ground for radicalism, intensified by Cold War rivalry between the superpowers, who replaced the European colonizers as the region’s meddling overlords. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev—a Westernizing reformer. At last, the Cold War was over. A new world order was at hand.

What if this conventional wisdom is nonsense? Russian exile Pavel Stroilov argues just this in his forthcoming book, Behind the Desert Storm. “Not a word of it is true,” he writes. “It was the Soviet Empire—not the British Empire—that was responsible for the instability in the Middle East.”

Stroilov, a historian now living in London, fled Russia in 2003 after stealing 50,000 top-secret Kremlin documents from the Gorbachev Foundation archives, where he was working as a researcher. He was given access to the archive in 1999, but Gorbachev refused him permission to copy its most significant documents. Having observed the network administrator entering the password into the system, Stroilov reproduced the archive and sent it to secure locations around the world.

Stroilov’s cache includes hundreds of transcripts of discussions between Gorbachev and foreign leaders, politicians, and diplomats. (The originals are still sealed under Kremlin pressure.) There are notes from Politburo and other top decision-making meetings, notes written by Gorbachev’s aides Anatoly Chernyaev and Georgy Shakhnazarov and by Politburo member Vadim Medvedev. None were ever available to independent researchers, although some were published by the Gorbachev Foundation in a heavily censored version. Stroilov also stole the 1972-1986 diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, deputy chief of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union International Department and Gorbachev’s principal aide on international affairs from 1986 to 1991. He stole reports dating from the 1960s by Vadim Zagladin, who was deputy chief of the International Department until 1987 and Gorbachev’s adviser from 1987 to 1991. (Stroilov also draws upon Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky’s vast, stolen collection of documents, as well as the Mitrokhin Archive, a collection of notes taken secretly by the defector Vasili Mitrokhin during his 30 years as a KGB archivist in the foreign intelligence service and the First Chief Directorate.)

Stroilov’s book about these documents, many only now translated into English, challenges the conventional wisdom that Western colonialists are to blame for the chaos in the region. All of its major conflicts, he argues, were caused by Soviet expansionism. Terrorism and the rabid anti-Israeli animus of the Arab world were Soviet inspirations. And the revolutions we are seeing now were inevitable, for the Soviet client states were socialist regimes, and sooner or later socialism exhausts economies and thus the patience of the people who live in them.

Stroilov focuses upon Gorbachev’s intrigues in the Middle East, explaining the Arab Spring as the “final act of the Cold War.” This thesis is overstated—Stroilov is a bit too enamored of his own collection to admit the complexity of these events—but there is nonetheless much in his archives to support this description. The documents clearly suggest that many contemporary conflicts in the Middle East were fomented by the Soviet empire, particularly in the final years before its break-up. And the events he describes have had a significant impact upon the current state of the region—from the conflict in Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to the development of a de facto alliance between the European Union and the Arab states. Perhaps most significantly, there is much here to suggest that it is past time to reexamine Gorbachev’s reputation as a reformer and liberalizer. Stroilov’s book suggests that in the Middle East, Gorbachev’s policy was old-school Kremlin imperialism, all the way to the end.

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From the close of World War I, the great prize of the Middle East has been the Persian Gulf. During the Cold War, America and its allies in Europe and Asia depended upon its oil for 90 percent of their energy needs; developing countries would be instantly crippled by a sharp hike in oil prices. But for the Soviets, attaining control of the Gulf could be achieved only by direct military aggression. Following the return of British forces to Kuwait in 1961 to defend the Emirate from Iraq’s Abd al-Karim Qasim—whose ambitions for Kuwait were subsequently, if temporarily, realized by Saddam Hussein—it became clear to the Soviets that the West would go to any length to defend the oil. “And so the comrades postponed the conquest of the Gulf,” writes Stroilov, “although some of them were sorely disappointed with that decision.”

What, then, was Plan B? It was “the subversion and eventual destruction of Israel.”

Though not as good as the Gulf oil fields, Israel would also be a big prize. It was the only democracy in the region, the strongest military power in the pro-Western camp and, indeed, the bridgehead of the Western world. Even more importantly, the very process of crusading (or jihadding) against Israel offered fantastic political opportunities. A besieged Israel effectively meant millions of Jewish hostages in the hands of the comrades, and the threat of genocide could intimidate the West into making great concessions in the Gulf or elsewhere. On the other hand, by making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the central problem of the Middle East, the Soviets could exploit Arab nationalism, anti-Semitism, and even Islamic religious feelings to mobilize support for their policies. Indeed, under the banner of Arab solidarity, the socialist influence in the region grew far beyond the socialist regimes and parties.

The code-name for this operation against Israel, according to Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking defector from the Soviet Bloc, was “SIG”—Sionistskiye Gosudarstva, or “Zionist Governments.” In a National Review article, Pacepa recalls a conversation he had with KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, who envisioned fomenting “a Nazi-style hatred for the Jews throughout the Islamic world. … We had only to keep repeating our themes—that the United States and Israel were ‘fascist, imperial-Zionist countries’ bankrolled by rich Jews.”