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

3814. For the Secretary. Subj: Current Assessment of the Soviet Scene.

1. Summary. On the eve of your talks here, Brezhnev’s position within the leadership seems by outward evidence to be stronger than ever. He remains fully committed publicly to détente with the U.S., but is now turning some of his attention to other issues—particularly agriculture. He is counting on a summer summit and apparently wants not only atmospherics but also something concrete in SALT. He may complain to you about U.S. defense statements.2 Soviet desiderata at CSCE are clear and they may hope to nail down a few during your visit. In exploring both CSCE and MBFR with you they will have in mind our current difficulties with Europe. In the Middle East, the Soviets still seem interested in Syrian-Israeli disengagement, but they may be inclined to influence the Syrians to stiffen their position. While the Soviets may feel they have some advantage from U.S.-European differences, I think they view the President’s political difficulties at home not as an opportunity for leverage but as a cause for concern. On the other side of the ledger, I think China continues to gnaw at their self-confidence despite their occasional attempts at nonchalance, and [Page 689] they may be tempted to meddle in China’s internal problems if an appropriate opportunity arises. End summary.

2. Leonid Ilich, Head of Politburo. I have been struck by the extent to which Brezhnev’s Politburo peers in public speeches have taken to referring to him as “Leonid Ilich” (just as they refer to Lenin as “Vladimir Ilich”) and have begun applying to him the ritual (and extra-legal) title “Head of Politburo.” He may be taking on the aura of the untouchable national leader. If his colleagues permit this to happen, they must accept that it means a narrowing of their own options as a collective and improves his ability to override them in the event of a future policy crunch. I see no major signs that they are upset. Kosygin seems to be sliding relative to Brezhnev; Podgorny seems robust and active; and some of the younger luminaries have jumped on the Brezhnev bandwagon, at least in their speeches.

3. Agriculture. It is worth noting that this trend has been accompanied by a broadening of Brezhnev’s image: he is being presented not only as the architect of the peace program, but with his current initiative he has resumed his role as the leading figure in agricultural policy. The thrust of his policy—bringing the advantages of capital formation and management inherent in large-scale industry to bear on certain agricultural and food sectors—is hardly revolutionary. If it is accompanied by the shift of resources necessary to put Soviet agriculture on its feet for the longer term, however, the consequences would be important—for world trade in food; for other Soviet claimants of resources, including the military; and for Brezhnev’s political position. Obviously this trend deserves careful study.

4. Internal security and defense issues. From Moscow it appears that the regime is over the hump as far as foreign reaction to Solzhenitsyn3 is concerned. Internally the noise has also tapered off, but outspokenness on the part of well-known fringe establishment figures such as Yevtushenko4 may continue to provide ammunition against détente for doomsayers in the KGB. There is also a temptation to read Defense Minister Grechko’s tough public statements as a reflection of opposition to détente,5 but I think that would be an exaggeration. While the military surely counsels caution on SALT and MBFR, and lobbies for its share of the resource pie (as Brezhnev intimated to me), I view Grechko’s public statements also as a reaction to U.S. public discussion of de[Page 690]fense issues and as a rather subdued rattling of bargaining chips. Brezhnev told Pompidou he would take up with you recent remarks on defense by U.S. public figures. In addition to any response dealing with the substance of Soviet concerns about the U.S. attitude on parity, it might also be useful for you to point out the negative impact in the U.S. of Soviet remarks about the changing correlation of forces in favor of socialism.

5. Toward the summit. I have little doubt that the Soviet leadership—and Brezhnev in particular—is anxious for the summit meeting with the President to take place this summer. (Podgorny spoke of late June or early July.) Brezhnev continues to see the U.S.-Soviet summits as important stars in his détente crown. Some concern is evident here about the effect of Watergate on détente. Among the Soviet leaders it seems mainly to take the form of concern about the fate of the President. The importance Brezhnev attaches to his personal relationship with the President came through strongly during my first meeting with him here.6 It would not be surprising if he probed discreetly for some indication from you about the current domestic situation.

6. Summit substance. Exactly what the Soviet leaders want from the summit is a more complex question. I suspect their basic interest is to demonstrate that détente continues to have positive momentum. In this connection atmospherics play a larger role for them than they do for us. But the recent rough spots in our bilateral relations are probably making it more difficult for them to persuade their various constituencies that atmospherics are enough.

7. SALT. Therefore, there is pressure on the Soviet leadership to come out of the summit with something concrete. The interest expressed to me by both Brezhnev and Podgorny in progress in SALT probably reflects that pressure. I expect you will find the leadership prepared to discuss with you possible political decisions which could accelerate the pace at Geneva. The pressures for summit results merely create the incentive for a full exploration of the possibilities; they are not, of course, of a magnitude to encourage Moscow into a partial or full agreement on offensive systems which cannot be justified on its own merits.

8. Trade. While the Brezhnev leadership seems to realize the strength of the pro-JacksonVanik Amendment forces, and long ago hedged its internal position by playing down somewhat the immediate importance of MFN, they probably nevertheless hope you will succeed against the odds and produce a viable compromise in Congress. Your interlocutors will be anxious to hear from you on this, particularly [Page 691] about the outlook on credits. On this question, the Soviets I have seen so far have demonstrated substantial concern, but there is no feel of panic on their part.

9. Emigration. The current downswing in the Jewish emigration figure is worrisome; perhaps the Soviets will provide some clue whether it is a deliberate tactic or a temporary technical fluctuation.7

10. Agreements. The Soviet side may push for agreement on cooperation in energy and natural resources development, either in the context of a long-term economic cooperation agreement or separately.

11. CSCE. The Soviets will air their concerns about CSCE to you and are likely to press hard for a thirdstage summit. This was their main pitch to Pompidou. The overriding Soviet concern is still to have CSCE end in a way that will allow them to play it as another major success for their détente policy. They may be prepared by the time of your visit to acknowledge the shape of the compromise that is emerging at Geneva between the contents of Baskets One and Three and on a general preamble for Basket Three.

12. Middle East. It is still our impression that the Soviets are interested in a Syrian-Israeli disengagement—largely because it would take the play back to Geneva where they can become more active and would avoid the danger of new hostilities. On the other hand, the Soviets may be inclined to view Syrian-Israeli disengagement as a testing ground for their Middle East role. To demonstrate their importance to the Arabs, to curb the momentum of U.S. diplomacy, and to rebuke Cairo (with which Moscow’s relations have worsened), they may be tempted to insist on better terms for Syria than Egypt got via U.S. mediation. Soviet helpfulness on Golan is likely to depend on their assessment of whether the ultimate agreement will enhance their position with the Arabs.

13. China. The Soviet leaders, including Brezhnev, have China on their minds these days, perhaps even more than usual. The Chinese internal situation lends itself to speculation about a power struggle, which in turn arouses both concern and possibly some wishful thinking here. In a very fleeting reference to China in our March 5 meeting, [Page 692] Brezhnev admitted that he didn’t understand China, but he was keenly aware of reports of military clashes within the country. I do not have a current reading on the military readiness situation on the Sino-Soviet border. While it would be natural for the Soviets to take some contingency steps in the present uncertain situation, such moves could in their own right lead to a higher level of Sino-Soviet tension. Moreover, there is always the risk that a sudden fluid situation, such as might be brought on by the death of Mao, could tempt the Soviets to lend a hand to elements in China which they deem sympathetic to their Moscow brand of Marxism-Leninism. For these reasons, it might be useful, when the subject arises, for you to remind Brezhnev that China’s internal problems must be kept internal.

14. Berlin. The Soviet leaders might raise the Federal Environment Agency. They did not do so with me (nor, apparently, with Pompidou last week), which may mean they are backing off somewhat from the more bellicose statements we were getting at the working level a few weeks ago. We continue to believe that the Soviet failure to get some sort of three-power assurance that the FEA will not be followed by more such initiatives could lead to trouble on the access routes. Nevertheless, in view of the quieter current situation, it would seem to be best for us not to take the initiative in raising the issue here, even though the Germans would probably like you to do so.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 723, Country Files—Europe—USSR, Vol. XXX, August 1973–April 1974. Confidential; Priority; Nodis.
  2. Possibly a reference to the Department of Defense annual report to Congress on the U.S. military posture, released by Secretary of Defense Schlesinger on March 3. Schlesinger expressed his concern that the Soviet Union was trying to exploit the numerical advantage in missles it was granted in the Interim Agreement to gain diplomatic leverage over the United States. He believed the Soviets were striving to achieve equality in the number of MIRVed missles and he urged the United States to begin development of new weapons. See “Schlesinger Defends Pentagon Budget,” Washington Post, March 4, 1974, p. A2.
  3. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, was deported from the USSR in February 1974 and eventually found asylum in the United States.
  4. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a Russian poet.
  5. Presumably a reference to Grechko’s call for increased Soviet military power. See “Soviet Defense Chief Urges Military Buildup,” in Los Angeles Times, January 14, 1974, p. 2.
  6. Stoessel described his first meeting with Brezhnev on March 5 in telegram 3252 from Moscow, March 7. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)
  7. Vorontsov provided the following figures in a March 5 note to Scowcroft: “In 1973—33,5 thousand Jews left the Soviet Union for Israel and 645 for the U.S.—95% out of the total number of people, who applied, received permission to leave the U.S.S.R. for Israel and the U.S.” Vorontsov’s note continued: “In connection with the recent events in the Middle East, in October–December 1973 a number of applicants to leave for Israel has decreased by 28% in comparison with the same period in 1972. The Soviet authorities have received more than one thousand appeals from former Soviet citizens who left the U.S.S.R. for Israel, asking for permission to come back.” (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 69, Dobrynin/Kissinger, Vol. 22, January–April 1974)