90. Intelligence Note Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1

RESN–42

USSR/DRV: HANOI’S OFFENSIVE: IS MOSCOW HAPPY?

North Vietnam’s action in undertaking the major offensive now underway raises questions about Moscow’s role in the decision and its timing.

The Case for Soviet Complicity. The visit of a high–ranking Soviet military delegation headed by Marshal Batitskiy, chief of the Soviet air defense forces, on the very eve of the offensive2 suggests the possibility that the Soviets participated in the decision to launch the offensive and in its timing, and that therefore Hanoi’s action was designed to serve the interests not only of the DRV but of the USSR as well. Indeed, it is possible to argue that a successful offensive by the North Vietnamese at this time would strengthen Moscow’s credentials in Hanoi over those of Peking, improve the position of the USSR in Asia in dealing with both China and the US, and strengthen the Soviet leadership’s hand in negotiating with the President when he goes to Moscow in May. Under this argument, the failure of Soviet media to publicize the Batitskiy visit appears as a rather obvious attempt by Moscow not to make its complicity so blatant as to jeopardize the President’s visit to the USSR.

The Argument to the Contrary. It is also possible to argue that the case for Soviet complicity is outweighed by evidence of more important Soviet considerations.

The case against using Batitskiy’s visit as evidence of direct Soviet complicity in the offensive rests mainly on the logic of the situation—that the USSR would achieve only marginal advantages, or even [Page 284]disadvantages, to its own interests from the outcome of the offensive on the eve of the President’s visit. At the same time, the USSR would see important Soviet interests threatened if the offensive were to jeopardize the President’s trip.

Underneath Hanoi’s frequent expressions of gratitude for Soviet aid (reiterated in DRV press treatment of the Batitskiy visit), and Moscow’s frequent assurances of support for the DRV, there is a history of a more complex relationship between the USSR and the DRV. Over the years the Soviets have tended to hedge their bets by leaving open the option of a political settlement. There have been two recent instances of this tendency. Both showed Moscow and Hanoi to be in disagreement over the conduct of the war and the handling of peace negotiations, with the Soviets taking positions that favored a diplomatic rather than a military solution.

On February 11, TASS described an audience between Kosygin and the DRV Ambassador in Moscow as having involved a “frank” discussion. The latter evidently protested Moscow’s slowness in condemning President Nixon’s 8–point peace plan of January 25, although it is also possible that they were arguing over a Soviet effort to arrange an understanding between Hanoi and Phnom Penh. Subsequently, a DRV/FUNK communiqué of March 5 expressed Hanoi’s public disapproval of the Soviet diplomatic initiative, labeling it as “foreign interference.”

Effects of the Offensive on Moscow Visit. Given this background, it would appear unlikely that Moscow’s failure to publicize Batitskiy’s visit showed the Soviets to be engaged in a surreptitious effort to incite Hanoi to escalate the war in Indochina. To the contrary, the Soviets could well have had reservations about Hanoi’s intentions, either because they regarded the timing of the offensive to be inappropriate, or perhaps because they had doubts about Hanoi’s ability to score a significant military success. If Soviet leaders were hoping to discuss the possibility of a diplomatic settlement of the conflict with the President in Moscow on terms generally favorable to the DRV, any demonstration of military weakness by Hanoi at this time could significantly weaken Moscow’s negotiating position and strengthen that of the US. And since the Soviets have matters to discuss with the President even more important than Vietnam, it seems hardly plausible that they would wish to jeopardize the visit by helping North Vietnam to press for a military victory at this time.

A senior Soviet official in the UN Secretariat told a former US diplomat on April 43 that the timing of the offensive was “most unfortunate” [Page 285]and expressed the hope that it would not interfere with the President’s trip. He stressed that Moscow was in no way involved in the planning of the attack. Such an approach, while clearly self–serving, gains in credibility when added to the record of discord in Soviet–DRV relations.

It is even possible to argue that in seeking an optimum posture for the Moscow talks, the Soviets would want to preserve a situation in Indochina which would allow them some flexibility to discuss a political settlement short of Hanoi’s maximum objectives. If Hanoi had just scored a significant military success, the Soviets would not have this latitude, for they would find themselves, as before, locked into a rigid posture of supporting the DRV while Hanoi continued to press for an unconditional victory.

By the same token, Hanoi is currently under great pressure to demonstrate its capability and determination to press the war to a successful conclusion. Given the fluid diplomatic situation in the wake of the Peking visit, the North Vietnamese are apprehensive that the great powers may seek understandings at their expense.

Recent statements from North Vietnam have clearly shown Hanoi’s awareness that both China and the USSR have matters to consider more important to them than the attainment by the DRV of its maximum objectives. Thus, Hanoi probably concluded that it must gamble in order to keep both locked into a posture of commitment to the achievement of victory.

Batitskiy Visit in Retrospect. In this context, the Batitskiy visit appears in an altogether different light. It would seem rather that Moscow knew about the imminence of the offensive but was concerned about Hanoi’s capability to limit the damage from the heavy US air raids, which were all but certain to be the US response to the offensive. This would explain the choice of the chief of the Soviet air defense forces to head a group of high–ranking air defense commanders to inspect North Vietnamese air defense capabilities.

If the Soviets have their fingers crossed over the current fighting, this is not to say that they are prepared to sell out Hanoi. After all, in the larger sense, the offensive was made possible by the USSR’s longtime supply of economic and military aid to North Vietnam. If the offensive succeeds, Soviet support of the DRV will continue as before, and with fewer qualifications. If it fails or the results are inconclusive, Moscow will assume the probability of a political settlement and trim its sails accordingly, while continuing to support North Vietnam in a measured way until such time as Hanoi comes around to a recognition of political realities.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 VIET S. Confidential; No Foreign Dissem. Drafted by Igor N. Belousovitch (INR/DRR/RES/FP), cleared by Director of INR/DRR/RSE Martin Packman, and approved by Deputy Director of the Directorate for Regional Research David E. Mark. The following note appears on the first page: “This report was produced by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Aside from normal substantive exchange with other agencies at the working level, it has not been coordinated elsewhere.”
  2. Batitsky visited Hanoi March 16–27. Pravda published the following announcement on March 28: “The D.R.V. Ministry of National Defense reports that a Soviet military delegation, headed by Marshal of the Soviet Union P. F. Batitsky, has arrived in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on a visit of friendship at the Ministry’s invitation. Leaders of the Vietnamese People’s Army and officers arranged a warm reception for the delegation, the Vietnamese News Agency reports.” (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIV, No. 13, April 26, 1972, p. 23)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 115.