Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has died aged 91 – with Joe Biden leading tributes and calling him “a man of remarkable vision” who helped avert the prospect of nuclear war.
One of the most significant figures of the 20th century, Mr Gorbachev was known for ending the Cold War without bloodshed, but failed to prevent the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mr Gorbachev’s office earlier said that he was undergoing treatment at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.
He died after a long illness, the hospital was quoted as saying by news agencies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his deepest condolences and said he would send an official telegram to his family, a Kremlin spokesman said.
US President Joe Biden praised Mr Gorbachev’s achievements in believing “in a better world” and dramatically reducing the potential for a third world war.
“As leader of the USSR, he worked with President Reagan to reduce our two countries’ nuclear arsenals, to the relief of people worldwide praying for an end to the nuclear arms race,” said Mr Biden in a statement.
“These were the acts of a rare leader,” added the US president.
“One with the imagination to see that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.”
Mr Gorbachev forged arms reduction agreements with the US and partnerships with Western powers to remove the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe since the Second World War.
It led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. His efforts earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.
When Mr Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, he set out to revitalise the communist system and shape a new union based on a more equal partnership between the 15 USSR republics.
But in the space of six years, both communism and the Union came crashing down.
He attempted political and economic reforms simultaneously and on too ambitious a scale, unleashing forces he could not control.
As pro-democracy protests swept across communist Eastern Europe in 1989, he refrained from using force – unlike predecessors who had deployed tanks to crush uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
However, the demonstrations fuelled aspirations for autonomy in the republics, and the last Soviet leader failed to anticipate the strength of nationalist feeling.
‘Glasnost’ emboldened nationalists
Mr Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost” – free speech – allowed previously unthinkable criticism of the party and the state, but also emboldened nationalists who began to press for independence in the Baltics and later elsewhere.
His series of extraordinary reforms quickly overtook him and resulted in the collapse of the authoritarian state.
His power was sapped by an attempted coup against him in August 1991, and he spent his last months in office watching republic after republic declare independence until he resigned on Christmas Day the same year.
The following day, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.
PM draws contrast with ‘Putin’s aggression’
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “saddened to hear of the death of Gorbachev”.
He tweeted he “always admired the courage and integrity he showed in bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion”.
“In a time of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, his tireless commitment to opening up Soviet society remains an example to us all.”
But many Russians never forgave Mr Gorbachev for the turbulence that his reforms unleashed, as they felt the subsequent plunge in their living standards was too high a price to pay for democracy.
He later said he had not considered using widespread force to try to keep the USSR together because he feared chaos in a nuclear nation.
“The country was loaded to the brim with weapons. And it would have immediately pushed the country into a civil war,” he said.
Jonathan Eyal, of the think-tank the Royal United Services Institute, said: “He didn’t believe that the Soviet Union was actually an empire in itself of nations that did not want to be shackled.
“Like all Soviet leaders, and dare I say like Russian leaders today, he saw the Soviet Union as synonymous with Russia, and he simply could not understand why nations wanted to be independent.”