May 17

This Day in History

Cold War

May 17, 1990:

Gorbachev meets with Lithuanian prime minister

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meets with Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene in an effort to settle differences arising from Lithuania's recent proclamation of independence from the Soviet Union. For Gorbachev, the meeting was a test of his skill and ability to maintain the crumbling Soviet empire.

Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union after Soviet forces seized it in 1939, and the country remained a Soviet republic for the next 50 years. In 1989, Gorbachev publicly repudiated the so-called Brezhnev doctrine. This doctrine--established in 1968 to justify the Soviet military intervention to put down anti-government protest in Czechoslovakia--allowed the Soviet Union to use force to preserve already existing communist governments in other states. Gorbachev's repudiation was obviously intended to improve relations with Russia's increasingly restless allies in eastern Europe, where anti-government and anticommunist protests were growing. In Lithuania, however, anti-Soviet nationalists took Gorbachev's statement to mean that Russia would not interfere with an independent movement in one of its own republics. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared itself an independent republic.

Gorbachev, however, had no intention of allowing republics to break free from the USSR. On May 17, Gorbachev met with Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene in Moscow to discuss the situation. Despite optimistic press releases concerning their talks, it quickly became apparent that Lithuania would not back down on its claim to independence. After imposing economic sanctions and threatening military action, the Soviet Union launched a full-scale military assault against Lithuania in January 1991. The Soviet effort was in vain, however. In December 1991, 11 of the 12 Soviet Socialist Republics (including Lithuania) proclaimed their independence and established the Commonwealth of Independent States. A few weeks later, Gorbachev resigned as president and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

The Lithuanian-Soviet conflict had a significant impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. Many in the United States were horrified by the January 1991 military Soviet intervention into Lithuania. The U.S. Congress quickly moved to end economic assistance to the Soviet Union. Some U.S. officials also believed that Russia's actions indicated that Gorbachev, despite his talk of reform, was increasingly under the control of hard-liners in the Soviet government.

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