246. Briefing Memorandum From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Saunders) to Secretary of State Kissinger 1

The Soviet Position on Angola

Since Soviet activities toward Angola will come up during your Moscow visit, we have reviewed Soviet commentary and clandestine reports since last November to see what insight they might add on the evolution of Moscow’s Angolan policy in that period and on what you might meet there on this issue. It is, of course, too soon for this analysis to take account of Soviet reaction to your press conference statement of January 14.2

In sum, Moscow’s treatment of the Angolan question has undergone some change since Angolan independence, but this seems more a shift in tactics in response to the developing situation than any moderation of the basic Soviet objective of assuring an MPLA “victory.” The Soviets seem unlikely to do anything that would undermine the MPLA’s position.

The tactical adjustment in Moscow’s posture seems to reflect several elements in the situation:

—the MPLA’s improved military position and its growing international prestige;

—the desire to develop as wide support as possible from the OAU and its components for the Soviet-backed cause in Angola; and

—the reluctance to damage Soviet-US relations any more than necessary, particularly in view of your coming visit.

Indeed, as the situation on the ground becomes more favorable to the MPLA, the Soviets will be increasingly able to sound “flexible” or to grant some of our demands—on “coalition” government or even some kinds of outside military assistance, for example—without jeopardizing their clients’ pre-eminent position.

In regard to what you may wish to try to accomplish in Moscow, therefore, the current Soviet view as seen from the material we have would appear to allow for a possible US-Soviet compromise statement including a generalized ambiguous call for an end to foreign intervention and a future government composed of the MPLA and other Ango[Page 911]lan factions. We doubt, however, that any specific reference to either FNLA or UNITA would be possible. We see no evidence of give in the Soviets’ opposition to a cease-fire proposal or to any formula that would bind the USSR and its clients to observe a general arms embargo.

The Evidence

A reading of the Soviet Notes of November 28 and December 18,3 the authoritative Pravda “Observer” article of January 34 and other major press commentary, as well as clandestine reporting, indicates that the Soviet position has evolved somewhat, although Moscow’s goal of an MPLA “victory” and its opposition to a cease-fire remain unchanged.

Initially, Moscow denied any involvement in the Angolan war. It continues to deny its naval deployments in the area. Slowly, however, the Soviets begrudgingly acknowledged the existence of a Soviet role and then began to hint that the scope of the Soviet involvement was linked to the level of intervention by others. In commentary open to various interpretations, Moscow has now raised the possibility that it might be willing to reduce the scope of its involvement if others did so also.

On the composition of a future Angolan government, Moscow first insisted flatly that the MPLA-formed regime was the “legitimate government” and excluded any kind of a coalition. More recently, while Moscow still abjures formal participation by the FNLA and UNITA per se, it has implied that it could endorse a more broadly based regime, expanded to include “other patriotic forces” under an “MPLA umbrella.” Private statements in the last few days have carefully nurtured this possibility.

The Rationale

In Angola itself, MPLA success in achieving breakthroughs in the North and in stalling opposition advances on other fronts has improved Luanda’s military position. The Soviets probably now calculate that the MPLA’s position is fairly secure. Barring unforeseen reverses, its drive for primacy within Angola seems likely to become steadily more convincing.

Like ourselves, however, the Soviets probably foresee no early end to the fighting in Angola. Moscow thus probably believes that its objectives can be attained, or best promoted, by assuring a posture of public “reasonableness.” It probably calculates that a rigid posture leading to [Page 912] prolongation or further escalation of the war holds uncertainties of a widened conflict, with potential risks to broader Soviet foreign policy interests, including its relations with African states and the US.

In the African context, a policy of seeming accommodation also promises potential advantages. Moscow’s current posture may lead to an easing of tensions between Moscow and several important African states over Angola, e.g., Zaire and Zambia.

In the long term, the Soviets may also see advantages if they can engage the US in negotiations over South Africa’s involvement. A practical demonstration that South Africa is an American client, subject to US dictates in the Angolan situation, may well be seen in Moscow as offering considerable potential for further complicating US relations with black Africa. In this Moscow may count on using Cuban withdrawal as a bargaining chip.

The potential effect of Angolan events on US-Soviet relations undoubtedly troubles the Kremlin. We believe that when the Politburo decided to go into Angola in a big way, it saw an opportunity to fatten its African portfolio at minimal risk, given the Portuguese imbroglio and a post-Vietnam US preoccupied with internal dissension. The leadership was surely taken aback by US reaction, and various policy courses must have been discussed. However, aside from one rather curious clandestine report from a Soviet source alleging serious division in November over Angolan policy and ending with what could be construed as a plea for a vigorous international challenge to it, we have no good evidence of a leadership split over Angola. On the other hand, there is no reason to doubt that US reaction has caused and is causing second thoughts.

The Politburo does not want any further deterioration in its détente relationship with the US. Brezhnev especially does not want a confrontation if, as we believe is true, he plans to make détente the centerpiece in his accountability report to the 25th CPSU Congress five weeks hence.

In Brief

Soviet statements on Angola read within these parameters suggest that Brezhnev and his colleagues hope to be able to have, if not the best, then certainly not the worst of both worlds by adopting a policy of seeming reasonableness. Vis-à-vis the US, Brezhnev probably calculates that the Soviets’ declared “flexibility” will at least minimize the damage to our relationship and at the same time limit the nature of any US actions. By engaging us in discussions, as has been hinted, they would buy time for the MPLA to consolidate and further its gains. The trend in Soviet commentaries on the modalities of settlement raises the possibility that they may now even seriously consider agreement on a suitably [Page 913] nuanced US-Soviet statement which Moscow would calculate as allowing the US to save face. The only real limits to Soviet accommodation in such a statement, given their optimistic assessment of the local scene despite the outcome of OAU deliberations, are the necessity not to undermine MPLA morale and the need not to open themselves to the charge of failing to support a “national liberation movement” on the eve of its apparent success.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 81D286, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 4, Angola. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by James F. Collins and Paul K. Cook in INR/RSE; draft concurred in by Mark J. Garrison in EUR/SOV. Forwarded through Sonnenfeldt.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 244.
  3. Documents 222 and 230.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 236.