Mikhail Gorbachev inherited a situation from an entrenched Stalinist gerontocracy that was impossible to salvage. Economically, politically, and strategically, his well-intended policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were too little too late.
Glasnost was “openness” - when it was pointless, only finally acknowledging things everyone already knew - that Soviet Socialism was a failure. Perestroika meant “restructuring”, but reconfiguring an imploding structure only catalyzed its demise. The Soviet Union’s rich oil and gas deposits could not adequately subsidize the rest of the failed economy. A renewed arms race with the US, Britain, and NATO, was a contest the Soviets could not win. This began not with Reagan, but with Thatcher and Carter deploying cruise missile batteries in Britain and Europe in response to the intermediate range missile build up by the Soviets targeting western European capitals. In this, both Reagan and Gorbachev inherited an arms race from the preceding regime in the Kremlin and the previous administration in the White House. The Reagan battle cry was clear, with his "Star Wars" initiative, weaponizing space technology. As the USA had won the space race to the moon, so it would win a military space race against the same Soviet rivals. Gorbachev also inherited a costly and bloody imbroglio, crippling national morale , from Brezhnev’s adventurism into Afghanistan. Moreover, the client states of the Warsaw pact and Cuba were insatiably dependent on the Russian dole. These unproductive economies were functionally reliant on their welfare checks from Uncle Ivan.
Gorbachev is indeed seen as a champion of ending the Cold War, having to pick up the pieces of a defeated and humiliated Russia that witnessed the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union, and its weakened successor, the Commonwealth of Independent States. He became the ‘fall guy’ for disgruntled Russian nationalists of which Putin, an ex KGB agent, was one. In Putin’s attempts to revive Sovietism, he resorted to a combination of a thinly-masked neo-Stalinism, that even saw the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London, recapitulating the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico City. He combined this with a pre-Bolshevik Russian nationalism, where the Czars made political use of the Russian Orthodox Church in order to package Russian imperialism as a religious cause. The apparatchik of the Communist Party found their equivalent in certain Putin-supporting oligarchs. Putin also relaunched Russian military adventurism in the Middle East, often contrary to the interests of Israel, as he could not in the Soviet style use the Soviet Jewish community as a hostage bargaining chip to the same degree he would like to, because too many Russian Jews have emigrated. Yet the Jewishness of Zelensky, and Israeli membership in the western coalition on behalf of Ukraine has refuelled the Russian antisemitism that was a character trait of both Soviet and Czarist Russia.
While admired in the West, the legacy of Gorbachev in Russia is more of a scapegoat than that of a reconciler. No leader on earth could have rescued Sovietism and its ramifications that Gorbachev had handed to him following the death of the Stalinist dynasty of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Chernenko and Andropov. Not only ironically, but moronically, Putin in his convoluted efforts to make Russia great again and to placate his personal embitterment at having lost the Cold War, he absurdly repeats the same failed policies that triggered the decline of Sovietism and Russia to begin with. The Ukraine imbroglio is his ‘Afghanistan’. His hyper investment in competitive high tech armaments against America and NATO are his ‘Star Wars’ catastrophe. His military is just not performing well and his efforts to acquire client states like Belarus are fiercely resisted by the Baltic states and the ex-Warsaw pact nations from Bulgaria in the South to Poland in the North. Oil and natural gas did not economically save the Soviet Union, and neither will they bail out Putin’s economy. Instead of pushing Russia west, he has pushed NATO east, with even previously neutral Sweden and Finland bringing the NATO perimeter to Russia’s unbuffered border.
Additionally, he has had to make Russia a junior partner in his efforts to find some kind of redemption in economically aligning with China. The sense of national humiliation that plagued Soviet Russia in a series of defeats in technology races, proxy wars, and ultimately the collapse of the Soviet Empire, is now tormenting Putin again. Only this time the blame cannot be unjustly placed on Gorbachev, but accurately placed on Putin himself. In decades past, the state controlled Soviet media Izvestia and Pravda could spin, fabricate, or simply ignore one disastrous failure after another. The loss of the space race to the Americans, the loss of the proxy wars to destroy Israel in 1967 and 1973, and the Chernobyl disaster could all be swept under the carpet. In the cyber age however, such humiliating failures cannot be whitewashed or circumvented. For the second time in 35 years, Russia is in a conspicuous economic, strategic, and political crisis. Gorbachev had the mess dropped upon him. This time however, Putin created the mess and there is no one to drop it upon except his own arrogant and despotic head.