134. Telegram From the Department of State to Secretary of State Kissinger in Aswan1

Tosec 420/56179. Subject: Analysis of Recent Soviet Behavior. Ref: Secto 187.2 For the Secretary from Sonnenfeldt and Hyland.

1. Our basic estimate is that collapse of Trade Bill, following unexpected backlash in the U.S. against Vladivostok, led to a review of Soviet policy and a limited shift to a less conciliatory posture in dealing with us. This has been reflected both in the stiffer tone of Soviet communications to us and in their positions in CSCE, SALT, the Middle East and Cyprus.

2. Since this period also coincided with Brezhnev’s long absence and Dobrynin’s return for an alleged policy review, we were inclined to speculate that a more extensive change and further hardening might be in store, perhaps associated with circumscribing of Brezhnev’s freedom of action and authority.

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3. In the past few weeks, however, we have not detected any particular pattern in Soviet moves and statements that would point to a major change beyond that initiated at the time of the Trade Bill. On each of the issues, the Soviets seem to be following tactics that were more or less predictable last winter, and that flow largely from nature of issues rather than concerted effort to shift to a new policy line.

4. On CSCE, the tone of the last letter3 is curt and hectoring; moreover, it ignores several other issues raised in our communication.4 On the other hand, at Vladivostok Brezhnev had already begun to intensify the effort to complete CSCE. This must now seem within reach, and he is determined to nail it down once and for all. The reasons are the obvious ones. The desultory discussions and prolonged haggling have robbed the conference of some of its value to the Soviets. With other schemes afoot, including WW II celebrations, meeting of European Communists, Brezhnev’s travels, etc., it is not surprising that Soviets (including Brezhnev personally) are increasingly irritated and frustrated by their inability to get a firm Western commitment. Also, Soviets must realize that as long as CSCE remains open, it is a hostage against their behavior elsewhere, including the Middle East.

5. We also feel that the Soviets are becoming more worried about Europe. The Soviets have never been as happy with SchmidtGenscher as with BrandtScheel. On top of that, CDU gains in FRG Land elections, and the critical impact of elections in Westphalia could at some point lead to CDU–CSU return to power. Given the CDU position on CSCE, and even on the interpretation of the Eastern treaties, the Soviets would naturally be worried about such a change in German governments. This concern would be greater in light of lessened weight of French influence over Bonn under Giscard, compared with the DeGaulle–Pompidou era.

6. In this connection return of Abrasimov as Ambassador to East Berlin may reflect a decision to maintain tighter controls over Berlin developments and over GDR–FRG relationship.

7. In addition, there is probably some dismay in Moscow over the “crisis of capitalism” and what it means; they must be encouraged by a weakening of the Western coalition, by divisiveness of energy issues, by the collapsing southern flank of NATO. At the same time they are also concerned that internal instabilities not lead to a return to 1930’s.

8. On SALT, we think that the negotiations in Geneva are about where we expected. The Soviets’ opening position was, of course, the old tactic of trying to squeeze out a few more gains than warranted by [Page 524] Vladivostok. Nevertheless, Soviets have also wanted us to table a draft and then to begin more systematic work. They will study our draft and probably send some new instructions.

9. Until then it is difficult to say how serious the differences may be, though of course we have anticipated that there will be major resistance on Backfire, ASM’s and intricate MIRV verification. The only new note in the last week was the apparent lack of urgency in Soviet comments which had been a theme at opening of negotiations. This may reflect less about SALT than about timing of Brezhnev visit.

10. Indeed, lack of precise timetable on the visit is becoming an interesting indicator in itself. (You will recall Gromyko’s stout refusal in Geneva to mention it in the communiqué.) Soviets seem to be holding back, and it may be that commitment on CSCE has become a precondition to setting a date for the visit. It thus may be that Soviets have relaxed in SALT on the grounds that they have longer period for bargaining. But this could change if a commitment is made on CSCE. (Note: There is in fact a good deal to recommend a late summer or autumn Brezhnev visit: (1) have time for SALT: (2) more incentive for Soviet restraint if CSCE ends by July; (3) scheduling problems.)

11. In the TTB talks, Soviets seem to be moving toward U.S. position, and taking position that talks should be finished soon. In effect, Morokhov has accepted “in principle” a low fission-yield limit on excavation PNE’s, a yield limit of 150 kt on contained PNE’s and the need for observers. Given the clear evidence that Morokhov conducts these negotiations on his own, it is doubtful that this development reflects a leadership decision on the technical specifics. It is likely, however, that Morokhov is operating under some overall political guidance to work seriously toward wrapping up the TTB/PNE issue by the time of the next summit.

12. In MBFR, we have rather good intelligence that Soviets are stalling pending CSCE. They anticipate the introduction of Option III, and are worried by the difficulties in handling it. Since Brezhnev is on record favoring an agreement in 1975, the Soviets may want to move later this year.

13. On other arms control security issues—environmental modification and chemical weapons—Soviets are behaving reasonably. They are not agitating against us on CW in Geneva, and want to wrap up the CCD rather quickly. Environmental warfare talks here in Washington also went about as expected; an agreement could probably be reached whenever a high-level decision is made.

14. On substance of CSCE, the Soviets are continuing to dribble out modest concessions.

15. In short, we can see that Soviets are clearly becoming more difficult to deal with but their position is not notably harder than it might [Page 525] have been had there been no setback on trade. They have a clear self-interest in preserving an element of détente in Europe and in pursuing SALT and in registering gains for Brezhnev’s peace program at 25th Party Congress. Hardening of Soviet policy, if it comes, therefore is more likely to be in reaction to significant deterioration in our position, or in response to developments in the Middle East, or on the Trade Bill. On the latter, the decline in emigration, and the more caustic comments by Alkhimov, suggest the Soviets may have greatly lowered their expectations for any serious movement.5 However, Alkhimov, in Izvestia, claims that you explained to his group the “measures” the administration was undertaking to fulfill our “pledges.” Moreover, when Alkhimov was here, he made clear Soviets will not default on obligatory July 1975 Lend-Lease installment or unravel business facilitation they have undertaken since 1972. We also note the alacrity with which the Soviets accepted the Robinson visit and pressed for Simon and the U.S. Senators to come. Soviets are thus not burning trade bridges, no doubt because they still consider them beneficial.

16. On the Middle East, the Soviets continue to be very critical about “partial solutions” and “one-man diplomacy,” but have avoided substantive comment on the Middle East negotiations. References to your role are, however, becoming more explicit and with clearly disapproving overtones. There are numerous assertions that the Western press is exaggerating the potential of the present round of talks, but there is no clear effort made to disrupt or derail them in Soviet commentary.

17. The Soviet public position remains essentially that enunciated by Brezhnev in his February 14 comments to Wilson (minus the criticism on “soporifics,” which has disappeared):

—Partial accords and separate agreements will not guarantee implementation of UN decisions or restore peace to the area. They are “useful” only as integral parts of a total Mid-East settlement.

—Resolution of the Palestinian question is a sine qua non and requires some form of Palestinian national administration on the West Bank. Most suitably the PLO should form it, in keeping with the Arab decision at Rabat.

—Speedy resumption of the Geneva Conference is the only way to ensure substained momentum toward an all-embracing solution.

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18. The focus of Soviet attention at the moment is unquestionably the Palestinian factor. Perhaps in this connection two Soviet fact-finding missions have just turned up in the area. Vinogradov arrived in Damascus Monday,6 and on the 11th was received by the Jordanian Prime Minister in Amman. Moscow did not announce the visit. The Egyptian Embassy in Amman reported that Vinogradov might “attempt to achieve a reconciliation between Jordan and the PLO” (sic). (This is a sensitive source.) More probably he is gathering facts for Gromyko to use if he meets you.

19. Simultaneously, a Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Organization delegation headed by Victor Kudryavtsev is in Damascus and Beirut, ostensibly to discuss Palestinian issues with the PLO. The AASO is normally the PLO’s host when the latter visits the USSR and a Soviet Parliamentary delegation was in Amman prior to Vinogradov’s arrival.

20. Thus, the Soviets may be seriously groping for an approach to the Palestinian issue—which they insist remains the crux of any successful defusing of the Middle East crisis. Evidently this is the one area where they see leeway for themselves regardless of the outcome of your trip. In any event, they appear to be acting on the assumption that (as one prominent Soviet commentator wrote last week) U.S. diplomacy does not intend to prompt Tel Aviv to embark on talks about the Palestinian issue, or take it upon itself to find a solution until at least 1977, after the U.S. elections, and as a result, there is already a trend toward freezing this key problem. The fact-finding missions suggest that Moscow is determined to block any inclinations toward such a freeze, and hopes to use the PLO as its instrument.

21. Soviet agitation, in public and behind the scenes with Makarios, is well known to you. In recent days, however, our impression is that Soviets have decided to go along with whatever scheme seems most likely to put them on majority side in New York. Obviously, formal role for Waldheim has appeal for Soviets, since it gives them at least indirect influence over talks. In any case, it is not our impression that Soviets have any clear line on the issues other than to maneuver to keep some influence in Athens, Ankara and Nicosia, and block a settlement arranged by you.

22. Developments in Southeast Asia have been virtually ignored in Soviet propaganda, and there is no sense of gloating. But Cambodian developments have probably caught Soviets off guard, and created a dilemma since they have maintained their Embassy in Phnom Penh. In this connection, we note surprise visit by Firyubin to Hanoi and Vientiane this week on what is probably mission to inform Soviet leadership [Page 527] what future holds for them. Obviously, Soviets will pay careful attention to Congressional outcome, if only as indicators of strength of executive and mood of this country. They cannot be pleased at prospect of return of Sihanouk, who told AFP today that China is Cambodia’s best friend.

23. In general, a degree of Soviet irritability with us is not surprising, in view of the buffeting their détente line has taken and particularly since they may be grappling with their own leadership problems. They are clearly trying to show that Brezhnev is operating normally again, and will continue to do so through the U.S. and CSCE summits. We have no new evidence of leadership instability but still think it likely that succession question has been opened and may have to be resolved before the Party Congress.

24. Our sense of present Soviet attitude is that they are watching us unusually closely and are particularly sensitive to any indication that we are not living up to past promises. Obviously, they are well served in dealing with us and the Congress by taking a stance of the injured party. But the top leaders surely have a genuine concern about whether the U.S. side can sustain a policy of détente.

25. We expect that over the coming weeks and, indeed, for the balance of the year, the Soviets will be probing us more sharply, and weighing more carefully their overall attitude toward us. Specifically, we should be prepared for: serious problems if we do not produce a CSCE summit by July; increased trouble-making on the Middle East, particularly on the PLO; perhaps mild pressures on Berlin issues; and growing pressure on the administration to show it is able, or at least willing, to produce a turnaround on trade legislation.

26. More basically, whatever the fluctuations in style and tone, we think it unlikely that the Soviets have changed their overall perception of their interests. Even if their more ambitious expectations concerning economic and technological cooperation have had to be lowered, they must know that a broadly positive relationship with us is essential. After all, their economic problem, China, Eastern Europe and the other factors that led to the decisions of 1971 have not significantly changed. This is not to say that they could not change: major blows to the U.S. position in Southeast Asia and the Eastern and Western Mediterranean, the likely disenchantment of China with us that this might entail, domestically immobilized U.S. administration, failure or frustration on CSCE, SALT, PNE’s and other negotiating projects with which Brezhnev is identified, economic disruption and hence political turbulence in the industrialized world (not to mention the outbreak of a new Middle East war)—all this and more could represent such fundamental change in the world environment that even the inert Soviet leaders would be bound to take notice to see what historic opportunities beckoned. This [Page 528] merely goes to show that U.S.-Soviet relations do not occur in a vacuum and that a “détente” that is in our interest cannot be isolated from the rest of our policies. For now, however, whatever the evidence of Soviet irritation and brittleness, we do not see a sea change in Soviet conduct.7

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 81D286, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 5, Soviet Union, January–March 1975. Secret; Nodis; Immediate. Drafted by Sonnenfeldt and Hyland and approved by Sonnenfeldt. Kissinger was in the Middle East March 8–23 conducting “shuttle diplomacy” in Egypt, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
  2. This reference is in error. In telegram Secto 178/428 (not Secto 187) from Jerusalem, March 12, Sisco passed the following instructions to Sonnenfeldt and Hyland: “Secretary would like your analysis of recent Soviet moves and your judgment as to whether these amount to a pattern. Secretary mentioned in particular: the tone of Soviet reply on CSCE; the absence of a reply to his offer to meet with Gromyko; their sending their Geneva PermRep Vinogradov around the Middle East without prior notice or discussion with us; and the reply on SALT. Believe you should also have a look at Soviet press treatment in general as well as in particular to the Middle East.” (Ibid.)
  3. See Document 135 and footnote 3 thereto.
  4. Document 133.
  5. On March 5, Izvestia published an interview with Vladimir S. Alkhimov, Soviet Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade, who had recently returned from a meeting in New York of the Executive Committee of the U.S.–USSR Trade and Economic Council. The Embassy in Moscow reported on the interview in telegram 2996, March 6. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files) For the condensed English text, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXVII, No. 9 (March 26, 1975), p. 7.
  6. March 10.
  7. In telegram Tosec 802/62810 to Kissinger in Jerusalem, March 20, Sonnenfeldt and Hyland stated that their previous assessment of Soviet-American relations “may have been somewhat optimistic. While we think our basic analysis is sound, we may underestimate the adverse impact of an accumulation of actual and potential problems and incidents, some of which have come to light even since we sent you our assessment.” The two men then cited a series of recent developments, including those related to Portugal, SALT, CSCE, and the Middle East. (National Archives, RG 59, Entry 5339, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 5, Soviet Union, January–March 1975)