250. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt and William Hyland of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

    • Some Thoughts on Soviet Policy

There seems to be a growing feeling that with the SALT agreement of May 20 a logjam has been broken in our relations with the USSR, and that we are now more firmly on a new course. In addition to the SALT agreement one could point to considerable Soviet flexibility in the Berlin talks, Brezhnev’s gratuitous assistance during the Mansfield debate,2 and the probability of yet another East-West negotiation, on MBFR. Only the Middle East does not quite fit into this pattern, at least not as yet.

In short there is some reason to speculate, as Max Frankel was moved to do a while ago, that we are witnessing an important thaw in Soviet foreign policy. On the other hand, there is a counterpoint developing (Kraft and Alsop) that stresses how little has changed in Moscow.3

The Current Setting

Some perspective is gained by placing recent events in the setting of the 24th Party Congress. We had concluded that the Congress had [Page 737] certain tentative results: (1) Brezhnev improved his power position considerably; (2) he outlined a program that seemed to rest on “peace and prosperity”; (3) he thus put himself in the position of having to show some movement or tangible results that the “peace program” (this is the phrase all Soviet publications now use), is more than rhetoric.

The motives behind this shift are mixed.

Brezhnev had made himself the spokesman, in 1964, for a program of internal rectification of Khrushchev’s mistakes. He therefore tended to draw support from conservative, status quo elements which Khrushchev had most offended—the party apparatus, the heavy industrialist interests, and especially the military. From Brezhnev’s viewpoint, after six years there was little more to be gained in terms of his own position from playing this role, particularly in view of the internal economic problems. There was the possibility, however, that he could outflank his opposition (as ill-defined as it may be) by preempting some of their program, that is, by championing the consumer goods program as his own, by identifying himself with various foreign policies, including the German treaties and to some extent SALT.

Aside from these internal considerations, a more flexible stand was probably dictated by the frustrations of the last year or so. The failure to bring the German treaties to a conclusion, for example, was a setback which Gromyko was more or less forced to defend at the Congress. The Sino-American rapprochement was another potentially dangerous development that was not likely to be solved by new Soviet pressures on either Peking or Washington. And general Soviet policy in Europe seemed to have run into problems: the Europeans were preoccupied with the EC, suspicious of Ostpolitik, and in general unwilling to move toward a détente if American-Soviet relations remained strained.

Yet in light of Czechoslovakia, and more recently Poland, the Soviets wanted and needed more than ever the tangible sign that the West conceded the political and territorial status quo.

If, in fact, there is this defensive aspect to the present phase of Soviet policy, it is also true that the terms of the détente that might be emerging are not all that unpalatable to the Soviet regime:

  • —The SALT agreement now seems likely to be close to the ABM-only approach first surfaced in the summer of last year.4
  • —Any Berlin agreement will have to involve some Soviet concessions, but these they have always been willing to consider if the return was large enough. And the ratification of the Eastern treaties apparently justifies concessions.
  • MBFR is not as clear cut, but it too fits into a general scheme of trying to loosen up the Western Alliance at a time when the consolidation of Britain’s place in Europe threatens to provide the Western Alliance with a greater underlying political and economic cohesion and create a more powerful magnet for drawing the countries of Eastern Europe into more East-West economic involvements.

Nevertheless, there is change. The Soviets obviously had the option of waiting some 18 months to determine whether this Administration would be re-elected. In view of the positions taken in the Congress on defense issues such as ABMs and European forces, this might have seemed a prudent and attractive option. But one must conclude that the Soviets have decided instead that there are gains to be made now in dealing with this Administration. This is the major shift of policy.

We also felt that at the Congress, and since then, this general line has not been without challenge. The Soviet military-industrialist clique, among others, has seemed skeptical about Brezhnev’s foreign and internal positions, if not opposed to them outright. Events would suggest, however, that Brezhnev is moving cautiously; partly because it is a maneuver that offends strong vested interests inside the USSR, and partly because he is under no pressure of deadlines.


This line of reasoning seems best demonstrated in the strange Soviet treatment of the SALT agreement. It has been virtually buried in the Soviet press and commentaries. Not only that, but at the time it was announced the Soviets seemed to go out of their way to emphasize vigilance and militancy.

  • —For example, the only Soviet press discussion of a freeze came at the very moment Semyonov and Dobrynin were discussing it; this was an attack on Senator Jackson’s proposal, which was criticized for failing to take account of FBS (an authoritative article of last February in Pravda was recalled as supporting evidence).5
  • —On May 20–21, in addition to the SALT announcement on page 4 of Pravda,6 there was an announcement of the submarine visit to Cuba,7 the attendance of the top Soviet leaders at an inspection of new [Page 739] “warplanes,”8 the first of several attacks on our naval maneuvers especially in the Baltic,9 and the announcement of major summer maneuvers in the USSR.
  • —The pronouncements of the Soviet military immediately preceding the SALT agreement, and since, are strong on the need for increased defense efforts, with only limited support for the notion of Soviet “sufficiency.”


If Brezhnev felt it was prudent to make some gestures to the military, why did he go out of his way to intervene in the Mansfield debate in a manner that could only cause further concern? His revival of MBFR—especially concerning foreign forces—rather than allowing the American debate to run its course must be dismaying to some Soviet leaders. There is a thesis now prominent in this country that Brezhnev or his speech writers simply goofed. But this is not at all tenable. The speech he gave came after several days of publicity to the Mansfield debate in the Soviet press (and we are fairly certain that each Politburo member receives a foreign press summary). Moreover, this was a special speech, since it was given in Stalin’s home territory of Georgia. Brezhnev carefully dealt with the Stalin issue and it is reasonable that he would have carefully read this speech in advance. Finally, it was not really a foreign policy address, and the part on MBFR almost appears as an insertion.

In other words Brezhnev made a deliberate statement knowing (1) that it would probably receive inordinate publicity, and (2) that it would virtually force us into a negotiation on terms that the Soviets could easily exploit.


A decision to turn toward MBFR makes considerable sense if one considers what the Soviet leaders must regard as a major frustration in dealing with the Eastern treaties, Berlin, and a European Security Conference. While tacitly accepting the ordering and linkage defined by the West, the Soviets have been far from content and for some time have tried to break out of the Western formula, mainly by exerting direct pressures on Brandt.

That this line was considered fruitless was signaled at the Party Congress by Gromyko’s formula that all European-German issues [Page 740] ought to be dealt with “in parallel.” It was in this context that Brezhnev broke the Soviet linkage of MBFR to CES—thus opening the way to circumvent the Berlin condition to CES and to strengthening the Soviets’ hand in the Berlin negotiations by raising the specter of GDR participation in MBFR.

Along this same line the Soviets have continued to work on the CES, mainly with the French with some success, to weaken the linkage to Berlin.

Finally we come to Berlin itself and what appears to be the most significant of recent Soviet decisions.

  • —First of all there was the succession to Ulbricht, which seems too convenient for post-Congress Soviet policy to have been entirely fortuitous.10
  • —If there was to be a new period of European détente based on the ratification of the German treaties and a prior Berlin agreement, it would have to be at the expense of East Germany’s claim to sovereignty (over access).
  • —That this was the Soviet intention seems fairly clear from the way they handled their initial meeting with Honecker. The GDR-Soviet communiqué was the prerequisite to the flexibility the Soviets have subsequently shown in the Berlin talks.11 The importance the Soviets attached to achieving some negotiating room is also apparent if one considers how delicate and potentially dangerous a succession period is in East Germany, and yet the Soviets were willing to virtually humiliate Honecker in their first encounter.

The Middle East

The current situation in the Middle East does not easily fit into the preceding scenario, mainly because other factors—US diplomacy and internal disruptions in the UAR—have influenced Soviet policy.

The Soviet position in the UAR had undoubtedly suffered a setback. The new treaty has partly covered up this defeat, but represents only a limited gain.12 The Soviet position has always profited and grown when tensions have been high. But over the years the vulnerability of Soviet influence to the rise and fall of Arab-Israeli tensions has [Page 741] been protected by a growing influence within the UAR and particularly within the Arab Social Union. The prospects of an interim settlement that appeared as a result of what the Soviets considered unilateral US diplomacy might have been irritating, but it became much more serious in light of realignment of internal UAR political forces at the expense of Soviet influence. It would be natural for the Soviet leaders to trace their setback to the US.

The effect of the new treaty is difficult to divine. Sovietologists see it as a major gain in consolidating a long-term Soviet position. Arabists see no essential change. Israelis worry that the prospects of Soviet military intervention have increased and some Americans seem to think it will promote an interim settlement.

It would seem that the treaty reflects a Soviet sense that there will not be a resumption of fighting, that tensions will begin to recede, beginning with an interim agreement, and that their best course was to look to the longer term, no longer being able to count on a manipulation of internal Arab forces. Thus the treaty leaves Sadat free to negotiate for terms less than full withdrawal (the UN resolution is conveniently skipped over and only a “fair peace” consistent with UN principles is mentioned). It provides a legal basis for a continuing Soviet military presence and suggests, but does not so stipulate, that the Soviets have a veto over UAR military actions.

In short the treaty is reminiscent of the 19th Century treaties that Great Powers used to define a sphere of influence. In this sense it also suggests that the Soviets are less concerned about the near term and more about the longer term. If a period of European and Soviet-American détente develops, the Soviets will retain a base for political influence in the Middle East. (It will be interesting for the lawyers to sort out the relationship of the Soviet-UAR treaty to the new Arab Federation. Do the Soviets obtain similar rights and obligations for Libya and Syria?)

A word of caution is in order, however. If the interim arrangement fails to come off, the Soviets by virtue of this treaty are somewhat more committed to the UAR than before, at least they are more vulnerable to UAR demands for help. Given the enormous stake in the area, the Soviets, as they demonstrated last year, are willing to pay a high price in terms of damage to the political atmosphere with us, if forced to do so by events in the Arab-Israeli confrontation. Also, the Soviets may move against Sadat at some point since his unreliability from their standpoint has been amply demonstrated.


If we are right in speculating that the Soviets are experimenting with détente, there are some relevant considerations for our policy: [Page 742]

  • —First of all, to the extent this line represents a personal commitment of Brezhnev—to SALT, the German treaties and Berlin—then we have somewhat more leverage than sometimes imagined.
  • —Second, the terms of the détente are nevertheless going to be tougher than in previous periods, simply because the Soviets are much stronger.
  • —Third, whatever the improvements in our relations, even if based on SALT and Berlin, they are going to be fragile and vulnerable to shifts inside the Soviet Union and to outside events.
  • —Finally, and most important, we must recognize that the Soviets are pursuing their current line not only because it suits Brezhnev’s internal requirements at the moment, but also because of Soviet concern over the Sino-American rapprochement; the Soviets must have concluded as well that the period now opening will offer some new opportunities that usually accompany a relaxation of tensions: economic contacts, expansion into new areas, a relaxation of Western defenses, etc. Thus, there is some reason to doubt that we are operating on the basis of common interests and certainly not convergent ones.

In sum this is an extremely tricky period: one in which our opportunities may be expanding, but also a period in which our stake in the détente will loom much larger than the USSR’s. Inevitably the durability of whatever we achieve will be tested, just as it was in 1956, 1960, 1964–65, and the risks of failure and setbacks will have far greater consequences in this country than in Russia. And our ability to react to challenges less than major confrontations will be more constricted.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 715, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XIV. Secret. Sent for information. Haig initialed the memorandum. Kissinger returned the memorandum to Sonnenfeldt on June 8 with a handwritten note in the margin: “Turn into memo for Pres. 1st class.” In a memorandum to Kissinger the next day, Hyland reported that he had done a brief covering memorandum from Kissinger to the President, recommending that Nixon read the first and last sections. Kissinger responded: “Damn it. I don’t want to see another memo for Pres. with that ambiguous heading. Pres. knows damn well I don’t write these memos. Pres. doesn’t read tabs. Turn into one memo. Anyone not wanting to work this way should resign.” Kennedy returned the package to Hyland on June 15 with instructions for further revision. No memorandum to the President, however, has been found.
  2. See Document 217.
  3. Frankel’s comments were not found. Alsop contended on May 31 and June 2 that the recent SALT “breakthrough” was neither “as encouraging as most have supposed” nor “as hopeful as it has been made out.” (Alsop, “The Real Story of SALT,” Washington Post, May 31, 1971, p. A23; and “Playing Russian Roulette,” Washington Post, June 2, 1971, p. A19) Kraft, meanwhile, argued on June 1 that there had not been in Soviet policy, “as many supposed, a deviation in favor of détente with the West.” (Kraft, “Russians Back in Form,” Washington Post, June 1, 1971, p. A17)
  4. Kissinger wrote in the margin: “No.”
  5. V. Shestov, “What Is Hidden Behind the Propaganda Screen?,” Pravda, February 4; for the complete English text, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXIII, No. 5 (March 2, 1971), pp. 6–8.
  6. See Document 225.
  7. See footnote 2, Document 228.
  8. For the condensed English text of the report on the inspection, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXIII, No. 21 (June 22, 1971), p. 26.
  9. See footnote 2, Document 245.
  10. Erich Honecker succeeded Ulbricht as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the East German Socialist Unity Party on May 3.
  11. Brezhnev invited Honecker for a “friendly visit” to Moscow on May 18. After the meeting, the two sides issued a joint communiqué on their discussion, which included a section on the quadripartite negotiations on Berlin. For a condensed English text, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXIII, No. 20 (June 15, 1971), p. 37.
  12. See Document 241.