MOSCOW (AP) — When the leaders of the Soviet Union's three Slavic republics met at a secluded hunting lodge on Dec. 8, 1991, the fate of the vast country hung in the balance. With a stroke of their pens, they delivered a death blow to the USSR, triggering shockwaves that are still reverberating three decades later in the tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
The agreement they signed at the dacha in Viskuli, in the Belavezha forest near the border with Poland, declared that “the USSR ceases to exist as a subject of international law and as a geopolitical reality.” It also created the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose alliance of ex-Soviet republics that still exists but carries little meaning.
Two weeks later, eight other Soviet republics joined the alliance, effectively terminating the authority of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who stepped down on Dec. 25, 1991, with the hammer and sickle flag lowered over the Kremlin.
Stanislav Shushkevich, the head of the republic of Byelorussia, as Belarus was called at the time, spoke about the signing of the agreement with pride. The accord reached with Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, marked a “diplomatic masterpiece,” he said.
“A great empire, a nuclear superpower, split into independent countries that could cooperate with each other as closely as they wanted, and not a single drop of blood was shed,” added Shushkevich, 86, in an interview with The Associated Press.
But that blood would be spilled later — in multiple conflicts across the former Soviet republics once yoked under Moscow's tight control.
One of the deadliest began in eastern Ukraine shortly after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, as Russian-backed separatists battled Ukrainian troops in fighting that has killed over 14,000 people.
The latest Russian troop buildup on its border with Ukraine has fueled Western concerns of an invasion. During a video conference Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow will face economy-jarring sanctions if it launches an offensive against its neighbor.
In his memoirs, Gorbachev expressed bitterness about the 1991 agreement, which doomed his desperate attempt to save the USSR from collapse by trying to negotiate a new “union treaty” among the republics, an effort he had begun months earlier.
“What they so hastily and stealthily did in Belavezha was like a plot to kill an injured but still living person by dismembering it,” wrote Gorbachev, now 90. “The striving for power and personal interests prevailed over any legal arguments or doubts.”
For Shushkevich, however, "It wasn't a tragedy at all!”
“We decided to shut the prison of nations," he added. "There was nothing to feel contrition for.”
Shushkevich argued that he and the other leaders saw no point in Gorbachev's efforts to keep the remaining 12 Soviet republics together. The Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia already had seceded and the failed August coup against Gorbachev by hard-line members of the Communist Party had eroded his authority and encouraged other republics to seek independence.
“All versions of the union treaty boiled down to the restoration of the old ways or to Gorbachev's proposal of a new structure where he still would be the boss,” Shushkevich said.
Shushkevich, Yeltsin and Kravchuk had arrived at the Viskuli lodge near the border with Poland accompanied by a few senior aides on Dec. 7. Participants later described the atmosphere as tense — everyone realized that the stakes were high and they all faced the risk of being arrested on treason charges, if Gorbachev wanted.
Shushkevich noted that Eduard Shirkovsky, the head of the republic's KGB who was at the hunting lodge, had assured him there was no threat. Years later, however, the hard-line Shirkovsky voiced regret that he didn't order their arrest.
In the AP interview, Shushkevich said he didn't expect Gorbachev, whose power was waning rapidly, to try to arrest them.
“I don't think there was such a threat, given Gorbachev's cowardice; at least I didn't feel it,” he said.
Gorbachev said he decided against it for fear of provoking bloodshed in a volatile situation when the loyalties of the Soviet army and law enforcement were split.
“If I decided to rely on some armed structures, it would have inevitably resulted in an acute political conflict fraught with bloodshed," he wrote.
Gorbachev blamed Yeltsin, his archrival, for spearheading the Soviet collapse in a bid to take over the Kremlin. Yeltsin, who died in 2007 at the age of 76, had defended his action by saying the USSR was doomed. The Belovezha agreement, he said, was the only way to avoid a conflict between the central government and the independence-minded republics.
Some participants in the historic meeting pointed to Ukraine's Kravchuk as playing the pivotal role in the demise of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine had declared its sovereignty after the August coup that dramatically weakened Gorbachev's authority. A week before the Belovezha agreement, Kravchuk was elected president of Ukraine in a vote that also overwhelmingly approved its independence from Moscow.
In the talks at the hunting lodge, Kravchuk took a forceful stand, rejecting any kind of revamped version of the Soviet Union.
“Kravchuk was focused on Ukraine's independence,” Shushkevich said. “He was proud that Ukraine declared its independence in a referendum and he was elected president on Dec. 1, 1991.”
Sergei Shakhrai, a top Yeltsin aide, also said Ukraine's vote played a decisive role.
“The Ukrainian independence referendum and the subsequent decision by the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet to disavow the 1922 Treaty on creation of the USSR put a political and legal completion to the process of disintegration,” Shakhrai said. “Yeltsin and Shushkevich first tried to persuade Kravchuk to maintain some form of union, but after the referendum, he wouldn't even like to hear that word.”
After signing the agreement, Yeltsin and Kravchuk asked Shushkevich to tell Gorbachev about the deal. Yeltsin also called Soviet Defense Minister Yevgeny Shaposhnikov to discourage him from using any force if Gorbachev ordered him to do so, and later called then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
Shushkevich recalled that Gorbachev was livid at the news declaring the Soviet Union dead.
“Gorbachev told me in a mentor tone: ‘Do you know what the international community would say?’" Shushkevich said. “And I responded that I do know. By that time, the conversation with Bush already started and I was hearing it. I said that Yeltsin was telling Bush about it and he (Bush) was reacting in a positive way.”
While they focused on unseating Gorbachev, the three leaders put aside disputes among themselves, but those rifts resurfaced later.
Putin, who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” has continuously alleged that Ukraine unfairly inherited historic parts of Russia in the demise of the USSR.
When Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president was driven from power by protests in 2014, Russia responded by annexing Crimea and throwing its support behind a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
Amid the recent Russian troop buildup reported by Washington and Kyiv, Putin has sought guarantees from Biden that the NATO military alliance will never expand to include Ukraine, which has long sought membership. The Americans and their NATO allies said that request was a nonstarter.
“Modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era,” Putin said in an article published in July. “We know and remember well that it was shaped — for a significant part — on the lands of historical Russia. It's crystal clear that Russia was effectively robbed."
Karmanau reported from Kyiv, Ukraine.
Vladimir Isachenkov And Yuras Karmanau, The Associated Press