137. Special National Intelligence Estimate1

SNIE 11–16–70



How the Soviets Saw Helsinki

It was plainly the view of the Soviet delegation at Helsinki that the first round of talks was to be no more than preliminary and [Page 408] exploratory. But the Soviets were also intent on demonstrating by their demeanor—the avoidance of propagandistic or tendentious debating tactics—that Moscow was ready for a serious exploration of the prospects for strategic arms control. They wanted, in return, renewed evidence of American “seriousness.”
The essential test of this seriousness, in the Russian view, is whether the US is ready to acknowledge that it does not think of itself as bargaining from a position of strategic superiority and will treat with the USSR as an equal. Thus, at Helsinki, the Soviets tried to satisfy themselves that the US did not aim to use the talks as a lever to obtain concessions from the USSR on other international issues; among other reasons, because they did not want the impression to be left that the USSR needed arms control more than the US did. So too, the Soviets insisted that an arms control agreement must assure “equal security” for both sides and not give a military advantage to either.
Other than to carry out this kind of broad reconnaissance of US intentions, the instructions of the Soviet delegation at Helsinki seemed to call generally for letting the US take the lead in opening substantive issues. The Soviets were quick, however, to endorse certain broad propositions which the US put forward as essential premises for an agreement. Thus, they affirmed that they understood mutual deterrence to be the governing principle of the US-Soviet strategic relationship. And they recognized officially for the first time the interrelationship between offensive and defensive strategic systems and acknowledged that defensive, as well as offensive, systems can pose a threat to stability.
Generally, on broad concepts underlying the problems at issue the Soviets demonstrated sophistication; this was apparently intended to show their seriousness as well as to assert their claim to equality. Insofar as the Soviet statements approached more concrete issues, they reflected primarily a concern to lay the groundwork, at least for bargaining purposes, for definitions which would include or exclude weapon systems to the Soviet advantage. But it did not appear that the Soviets had even in their own minds a fully coherent view of the various elements which might go into an eventual agreement, and some of their points were made as a response to an illustrative negotiating outline offered by the US.
Moscow’s willingness to move on to a second round of talks indicates that it found US motives in SALT to be sufficiently “serious.” No doubt some in the Soviet leadership were already persuaded of this, but others probably argued that the results of Helsinki should be awaited. In any case, it appears that Moscow was uncertain until the discussions were nearly ended whether they had gone well enough to warrant the conclusion that a second phase would have reasonable chances of success from the Soviet point of view. The decision to go ahead only [Page 409] after a four-month interval may have been due to foot-dragging by some elements in Moscow, though it could equally have resulted from recognition that much more elaborate preparation would be needed than had been thought.
Probably the Soviets left Helsinki without a clear understanding of the shape and content of an agreement at which the US might be aiming. That the US presented categories and definitions which the Soviets took to be self-serving presumably did not disturb them greatly, though they probably came away uncertain as to how flexible the US would be in this regard. Some features of the US presentation may have genuinely puzzled them, notably the tentative approach to the ABM problem and the mention of MIRV only in passing, as part of a list of component parts of missile systems. They may still be uncertain concerning the degree to which the “illustrative elements” outlined to them actually represented an initial US negotiating position. They are also probably confused concerning the extent to which the US intends to press for qualitative as well as quantitative limitations.
In particular, the Soviets are probably uncertain as to how comprehensive and complex an agreement the US will eventually seek. Even in a fairly simple agreement, the standards of equivalence will be difficult to establish, due to asymmetries in the structure of strategic forces—a fact that both sides acknowledged at Helsinki. And the Soviets are probably not sure whether the US will be satisfied to rely for verification on national means only. Nevertheless, they have probably concluded tentatively that the US approach did not disclose any insuperable obstacles to an eventual agreement and that the chances of working out an agreement satisfactory to the USSR were good enough to be worth pursuing further.

Factors Bearing on Soviet Negotiating Tactics

The Helsinki round was altogether too preliminary and tentative to have clarified Soviet motives in entering SALT. Nevertheless, it strongly suggests that Moscow is seriously interested in discovering whether the intensity of the strategic arms competition can be contained, through SALT, on terms which do not prejudice Soviet security. The USSR’s interest in exploring this avenue seems to rest, in the first place, on its perception of the present state of the strategic relationship with the US. Economic considerations also bear on the Soviet attitude toward SALT, as do certain Soviet foreign policy concerns, e.g., Western Europe, NATO, and China. But, at the same time, there are a number of factors which set limits to how far and how fast Moscow will go in SALT.
The Strategic Relationship with the US. We have no way of knowing with certainty whether the Soviet leaders believe that the present [Page 410] strategic relationship is the best they can now hope for and, if they do, whether they also think that long-term stabilization of this relationship is desirable or even possible. It may be that the decision-making apparatus in Moscow has not come to a firm consensus on such questions. There is agreement in Moscow, of course, that the USSR must have rough parity at least. It is possible that some Soviet leaders believe that a useful margin of advantage in strategic weaponry is attainable. We do think, however, that as the Soviet leaders now see the future they believe that it will not be feasible to attain superiority of a clear and decisive nature.2 They may fear, in fact, that the technical and economic capabilities of the US will enable it to reduce the USSR’s relative position once again.
If these are the views the Soviets entertain about the present situation, they may see value in an agreement which would stabilize the present situation. They might want such an agreement in a form which would not foreclose their options if and when they came to a different view of what the strategic relationship might be. They would be realistic enough to recognize, however, that an agreement loose enough to permit them some future freedom of choice would also give the same to the US.
Economic Considerations. At a time when the rate of industrial growth is declining, when the agricultural sector remains in parlous condition, and when it is openly acknowledged that the Soviet economy is lagging behind technologically, the Soviet leadership must be reluctant to face the prospect of additional heavy arms expenditures. [Page 411] Any easing of the strategic arms burden would make possible the redistribution of scarce investment funds and high-quality human resources. On those grounds, some Soviet leaders probably wish SALT well. Others would probably welcome the opportunity to shift resources within the military establishment itself. Nevertheless, given its present size, nature, and rate of growth, the Soviet economy could, if need be, support even higher levels of arms spending than at present. Though probably an important consideration, the state of the Soviet economy will not be the decisive factor in the Soviet approach to SALT. It does not oblige the USSR to seek agreement.
SALT and Current Soviet Foreign Policies. While its assessment of SALT’s impact on the US-Soviet strategic relationship is paramount in Soviet thinking, Moscow must also realize that SALT is now involved in the total context of its foreign policy, and particularly its relations with the US. If a failure in SALT were to be added to differences over Vietnam and the Middle East, relations between the two great powers would tend to deteriorate. Such a trend at present would probably cause the USSR considerable concern. The USSR’s current European diplomacy, which aims at generating an atmosphere of détente, would suffer a setback. Moreover, the Russians could expect the Chinese, seeing the failure of the US-Soviet enterprise and foreseeing the possibility of further overtures toward themselves from the US, to adopt a more uncompromising line toward Moscow. On the other hand, the Soviets could calculate that, if SALT were to show signs of progress, certain issues in US–USSR relations might become more manageable from their point of view.
Taken together, considerations of this kind do give Moscow incentives for taking a positive approach to SALT, at least initially. On the other hand, the Soviets will not wish the US to believe that it has leverage in SALT because of the USSR’s broader policy concerns, and they will not, in fact, make important concessions because of such concerns. Actually, they will hope that as SALT develops they will have opportunities to exploit weaknesses and divisions in the US and between the US and its allies. They are likely to exercise restraint in this respect, however, so long as they think they have a good chance of getting a satisfactory agreement.
Domestic Politics. The deliberations which led up to Moscow’s acceptance of the US proposal for SALT were long and probably hard. There is no reason to suppose that the decision to go ahead, so deliberately reached, is likely to be easily reversed. Most signs indicate, however, that the prevailing instinct in Moscow is to move into SALT slowly and carefully. The momentousness of the negotiations for the national security of the USSR, as for that of the US, inevitably impresses itself on the minds of the Soviet leadership. The intrinsic complexity of the [Page 412] issues involved and the lack of experience of negotiation in this sensitive area also make for a cautious approach. Decisions which might not come easily in any circumstances will, moreover, in this case be affected by the ungainliness of the Soviet decision-making process and the conservative reflexes of the collective leadership.
A Soviet official at Helsinki confirmed that control over the delegation’s activities came, as might have been surmised, from the Politburo itself, through the foreign ministry machinery. This procedure will presumably be maintained through the Vienna phase. The Politburo’s watchfulness is not surprising, given not only the inherent significance of the issues but also the possible domestic effects of the decisions to be made and their implications for relations among the top leaders. None of the decisions faced by the present governing committee have cut across so many bureaucratic interests. Though some of these interests will have a positive attitude toward SALT, many of them will have misgivings. Among the latter will be that part of the economic bureaucracy which has a vested interest in defense industry and its many allies in the party apparatus. And, of course, the Politburo will need to give weight to military views, toward which it has been generally attentive in recent years.

Military Attitudes. A large part of the Soviet military establishment—probably the bulk of it—undoubtedly has serious reservations about strategic arms limitations. But some of the military leaders have long resisted the high priority given to strategic weapons at the expense of the traditional arms of service. In recent years, the militarization of the Sino-Soviet dispute has greatly enlarged requirements for general purpose forces. Moreover, some military writers see in the nuclear stalemate a need to improve capabilities for conventional warfare, especially in view of NATO’s adoption of a strategy of “flexible response.” An arms limitation agreement which freed resources to meet these requirements would surely be welcome in some military quarters. Thus, the political leadership will probably not receive uniform advice from the military establishment as the negotiations develop.

[Omitted here is discussion on possible Soviet positions at Vienna printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXII, SALT I, 1969–1972.]

Concluding Observations. Given the distances that will separate the two sides on most of the above key issues and the complexities that will need to be overcome, the Soviets have almost certainly not yet decided whether, in the end, an agreement acceptable to them can be achieved. Nor is there a single view in Moscow at present as to whether Soviet long-term interests would be better served by stabilizing the strategic relationship under an agreement rather than by continuing a competitive situation. The play of group interest and personal ambition which will surround this choice is bound to be intense.
Clearly there is much in the traditional Soviet outlook which would generate negative attitudes toward the idea of agreed stabilization. Long-held premises about the inevitability of conflict, mistrust of American motives, fear of being duped, even ignorance of the relevant technical facts would help to sustain such attitudes. And it is true that conservative instincts seem to be dominant in the present leadership.
On the other hand, there are obviously a number of people, including some military men, who have the ear of the leadership and will be able to make a strong case for a serious try at stabilization by agreement. The argument for easing economic pressures is a strong one, particularly for those who want more margin to experiment with economic reform. It will be said that as the arms race enters a new technological phase Soviet chances of lagging seriously behind are high. Some will argue that at present levels of strength strategic weapons are no longer as critical to the power competition, that, in fact, if the strategic arms race can be contained by agreement, other factors, including conventional military power, could be enhanced and would better serve the security and ambitions of the USSR.
We see no way of forecasting how such arguments will net out. Obviously the concrete choices presented by the interaction of the two sides in negotiations will be more determining than arguments made in the abstract. We would judge, however, that at present the Soviet leaders have a consensus, perhaps a shaky one, that the option of strategic stabilization by agreement should be given a long, hard look through SALT.
  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R1012A, NIEs and SNIEs. Top Secret; Sensitive; Limited Distribution. According to a prefatory note, the Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Department of State, Defense, Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Security Agency participated in the preparation of this estimate, which was submitted by the Director of Central Intelligence and concurred by all members of the USIB. This SNIE superseded SNIE 11–16–68, November 7, 1968, “The Soviet Approach to Arms Control,” which “dealt with the attitudes the Soviets might be expected to bring to talks on limiting strategic weapons (SALT). It discussed how such factors as the USSR’s economic position and its view of the strategic relationship with the US might be thought to bear on the Soviet approach to SALT.” It is printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XI, Arms Control and Disarmament, Document 291.
  2. Maj. Gen. Rockly Triantafellu, the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF, disagrees with the assessment in this sentence. He believes as follows:

    While the Soviets are sensitive to the possibility of the US embarking on an expanded strategic military program (including MIRVs, hardening, mobility, and ABMs), they are also sensitive to the mood of the US toward decreasing military expenditures. A judgment as to whether the Soviets would consider feasible the attainment of clear and decisive superiority must be addressed in the context of past Soviet decisions. The Soviets mounted an enormous effort to develop and deploy strategic military nuclear systems (ICBMs, SLBMs, aircraft, and ABMs) to overtake the US in numbers and weapon yield and to achieve an initial advantage in ABM capability. While the decision to catch up posed a severe technological and economic challenge to the Soviets, they accepted the challenge and have now achieved at least parity. At the same time, they have continued to greatly expand their military research programs, have continued to develop new systems—such as fractional orbit and depressed trajectory missiles—and have continued the pace of their deployment of strategic systems. Therefore, in reviewing past Soviet achievements and weighing their present and future actions, there is no evidence to support a view that the Soviets will ignore an opportunity to forge ahead. The goal may now seem to them closer at hand than it was 10 years ago. The resources in terms of technical and scientific personnel, production capacity, and internal political control are available to motivate and facilitate a Soviet decision to achieve clear and decisive strategic superiority. [Footnote in the source text.]