115. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

3568. Subj: Soviet Role in Vietnam Crisis. Ref: A. USUN 1242;2 B. New Delhi 4551;3 C. Vientiane 2870.4

Summary: Embassy’s assessment is that Soviet remarks contained in reftels are deliberately misleading. Moscow is fully committed to provide DRV with means to conduct military operations in Indochina under conditions of Hanoi’s own choosing, including current offensive. Opening of Sino-US dialogue has if anything increased staunchness of Soviet support for Hanoi. High-level Soviet visitors to Hanoi in recent months provide further evidence of close Soviet-DRV ties at present, while recent Soviet lecturer described DRV as more independent from China than at any time in recent years. We have detected no wavering of Soviet support for Hanoi because of approaching Moscow summit. Moscow’s personal preferences probably less important than other factors in determining timing of DRV offensive. While Soviets are carefully controlling their response to developments in Indochina, they are making clear their refusal to be deterred by summit considerations in accepting challenge posed by US countermeasures in Vietnam. End summary.
We have noted number of recent cables reporting conversations with Soviet diplomats or other officials in which Soviets have attempted to dissociate Moscow from planning role in current DRV offensive (refs A and C) and to lay blame at Chinese door (refs A and B). [Page 365] We consider these to be disingenuous efforts to obscure Soviet intentions. They conflict with our own reading of Soviet policy and with other evidence available to us. Following represents our assessment of Soviet role at present.
In technical sense, Moscow is not the guiding hand behind DRV actions in South Vietnam and other parts of Indochina. Hanoi still gives every indication of being master of its own house. At same time, Moscow is fundamentally opposed to US goals in Vietnam and is fully committed to provide DRV with the wherewithal to conduct military operations in Indochina under conditions of Hanoi’s own choosing, including current offensive. If at times Moscow has desired to lower threshold of risk in Indochina for its own reasons, we do not consider this to be decisive factor at present. Critical factor has been and remains Hanoi’s will to continue struggle; availability of means to do so has thus far not been problem.
Aside from continuing factors underlying Soviet policy in Vietnam—e.g., Socialist solidarity, desire to destroy credibility of US defense commitment, sap US economic and military strength, and shake US willingness to assume similar responsibilities in future—opening of Sino-US dialogue has if anything increased staunchness of Soviet support for Hanoi. Soviets now have even greater interests in containing Chinese influence and in establishing their own credentials as country which can provide most reliable support and protection against “imperialist aggression.”
Recent months have provided convincing evidence of close Soviet ties with Hanoi. Three Soviet ministers visited DRV during March and presence of Air Defense Chief Batitskiy5 in North Vietnam on eve of current offensive leaves little doubt that Soviets were fully aware of DRV plans and anticipated US reaction.
Only visible indication of Soviet-DRV differences that has occurred in recent months resulted from DRV Ambassador’s call on Kosygin Feb 11, which was described as taking place in atmosphere of “friendly and comradely frankness” (Moscow 1322).6 We would guess that this “frank conversation” most likely concerned Sihanouk,7 who arrived in Hanoi the following day amid rumors that new Indochinese summit might take place (Hong Kong 943).8 We consider it highly unlikely on eve of President’s China visit, when Soviets were going out of their way to demonstrate solidarity with Hanoi, that Soviets would [Page 366] have openly disagreed with Hanoi on development related specifically with Vietnam.
As further factor, Soviet lectures in recent months have consistently played down Chinese influence in Hanoi and emphasized importance of Soviet aid, which described as amounting to 80 percent of external assistance to DRV. In latest example, Soviet lecturer April 13 claimed USSR has increased its military assistance to DRV in recent months so that Hanoi could better withstand both American and Chinese pressure. As result, he described DRV as being more independent from China than at any time in recent years.
We have detected no watering of Soviet support for Hanoi because of approaching Moscow summit. On the contrary, both before and after announcement of President’s trip to Moscow, Soviets have clearly indicated that they had no intention of moderating their full backing for DRV. Short time before Moscow summit was announced, Podgorny signed major new economic and military aid agreements in Hanoi.9 Since then they have continued to pour supplies into DRV. Their heavy-handed exploitation of Vietnam issue against Peking in connection with President’s China visit anticipated their current posture.
It is conceivable that Soviets considered test of strength in Vietnam desirable in advance of summit talks. Not only do they have less to lose than Washington, since US prestige is more heavily engaged in success or failure of Vietnamization than their own, but if Vietnamization program could be shown to have “feet of clay” prior to Moscow talks, general Soviet negotiating posture would be strengthened. At same time, given DRV offensive’s potential for spoiling atmosphere of Moscow summit, to detriment of both sides, Soviets probably preferred that it occur sooner rather than later before Moscow talks. Hanoi, on other hand, may have seen advantages in having Vietnam issue on active irritant during summit, thus reducing likelihood of some “great power” understanding that would reduce level of Soviet support for Hanoi war effort. Political wishes of either Moscow or Hanoi with regard to summit, however, may well have been less decisive in timing of offensive than considerations of weather and increasing Saigon military strength.
Once offensive was unleashed, the die was cast and Moscow could only be expected to give full support to Hanoi, at same time resorting to “disinformation” maneuvers like those reported reftels to minimize US reaction in pre-summit period. In general Soviets have [Page 367] carefully controlled their response and have avoided striking more provocative posture than is inherent in fundamental nature of their differences with us over Vietnam. Thus, Brezhnev took care to frame his expression of support for Hanoi primarily in defensive terms.10
The Soviet leaders are obviously concerned that, if the scale of fighting and retaliatory bombing continues to mount, it could jeopardize not only the atmosphere of the summit but the visit itself. Nevertheless, Moscow appears to be signalling that it will not be deterred by summit considerations in accepting challenge posed by US countermeasures in Vietnam. This was forcefully stated in Pravda commentary by political observer Korionov Apr 15, which emphasized that Vietnamese people have faithful reliable allies and warned that “nothing” will prevent Soviet people from completely fulfilling their “sacred international duty” to aid patriots of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. With Soviet position laid on the line, commentary indicated in conclusion that crucial factor is how US itself chooses to resolve Vietnam problem.
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 VIET S. Confidential; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to Hong Kong, Saigon, and USDEL France.
  2. In telegram 1242 from USUN New York, April 6, the Embassy reported that Kalinkin, a key Soviet official in the UN Secretariat, had approached David Henry, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, to discuss the North Vietnamese offensive. According to Henry: “Kalinkin stated invasion most unfortunate, particularly coming at this time, and he hoped it would in no way interfere with President’s forthcoming trip to USSR. Kalinkin stressed Soviets in no way involved in planning or coordination of invasion and exercised no control over North Vietnamese; control is effectively maintained by PRC over Hanoi, he added.” (Ibid.)
  3. In telegram 4551 from New Delhi, April 12, the Embassy reported that Ivan Shchedrov, a Pravda correspondent, noted in a conversation with a Soviet diplomat that the North Vietnamese offensive began shortly after Chinese Premier Chou En-lai visited Hanoi. The Embassy commented that this attempt to blame the Chinese appeared to parallel the previous report on Kalinkin. (Ibid.)
  4. In telegram 2870 from Vientiane, April 12, the Embassy reported that the Soviet Military Attaché told an Embassy official that the North Vietnamese offensive obviously reflected “political decisions” related to the Moscow summit rather than careful military planning. (Ibid.)
  5. See Document 90.
  6. Not found.
  7. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, former President and Prime Minister of Cambodia.
  8. Not found.
  9. Podgorny headed an official Soviet delegation to Hanoi October 3–8, 1971. For public documentation, including speeches delivered during the visit and the joint statement issued at its conclusion, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIII, No. 40, November 12, 1971, pp. 1–2, 5–12, 16.
  10. Presumably a reference to the meeting between Brezhnev and the North Vietnamese Ambassador in Moscow on April 12; see Document 120.