In private conversations with visiting U.S. business leaders, Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin have recently referred to President Barack Obama as “your Gorbachev.” And they haven’t meant it positively.
For the West, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the visionary leader who tackled the economic and political failings of the Soviet Union’s authoritarian system, with Perestroika and then Glasnost, introducing an era that ended Communist oppression, brought down the Berlin Wall, ended the Cold War and expanded Europe’s community of democracies.
For President Putin, who returned to the Kremlin among violent demonstrations last May, Gorbachev’s legacy was national humiliation and Soviet collapse, which the Russian leader has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” When the members of his inner circle compare Obama to Gorbachev, they betray a conviction that the U.S. is in a state of decline under a leader who is accelerating that trajectory through his efforts at reform.
The Obama-Gorbachev comparison is easily dismissed. Even before the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, it suffered from decades of internal rot and never enjoyed America’s regenerating, democratic dynamism. What Obama and Gorbachev have in common is that both are reform-minded lawyers, but little connects them beyond that thin reed.
What’s more significant about the Gorbachev-Obama comparison is what it reveals about Putin’s thinking.