47. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1



  • The Soviets and the Indian Ocean: Comment on NSSM 104, Particularly Section II of the Basic Study (pp. 6–13)2

Having participated in a number of Indian Ocean Studies during the last five years, I find the NSSM 104 study far and away the best. Although extremely brief in regard to Soviet activities and policies, it comes closer to what I would consider a reasonable view than the earlier efforts.

Since much of the work in the Government on Soviet “intentions” still suffers from what I believe to have been the flaws of the earlier Indian Ocean studies, I want briefly to identify these flaws.

In the first place, earlier studies saw Soviet activities as part of a coherent strategy or master plan of expansion. The NSSM 104 study (p. 6) explicitly concludes that Soviet policy is one of “opportunism rather than of grand design.” (Let me hasten to note that there is no necessary comfort in this conclusion: opportunism can be as dangerous as, and probably more unpredictable than design, grand or otherwise.)

Second, previous studies viewed Soviet decision-making as monolithic. They did not allow for conflicting views in Moscow and resulting compromises rather than maximal decisions. The present study does not deal with this aspect. It is of course a highly speculative one since [Page 148] evidence is extremely hard to come by. The issue however derives from one’s assumptions about the Soviet decision-making process and these, in turn, are an important ingredient for our own policy decisions.

Third, past studies did not deal with the problem of opportunity costs: given the known constraints on the Soviet budget, even the military one, what activities are the Soviets unable to undertake by maintaining various levels of naval presence and infrastructure in the Indian Ocean and what does this tell us about their priorities? The present NSSM says that the Soviets “evidently aspire to a greater role in world affairs and to project a greater presence in distant areas.” (p. 6) It does not, and probably is not the proper place to attempt a judgment in differentiating among various presences in various places at various times, or among sizes and intensities of presences in various places. Here again, some rigorous analysis could have significant bearing on our own decisions.

Fourth, past studies tended to equate the intentions they imputed to the Soviets with Soviet ability to convert them into reality. Such factors as susceptibility of riparian states, the effect of counter-measures by the US, UK, France, and others, the effect on Soviet decision-making of either setbacks or successes in the implementation of the imputed intentions etc. etc. were generally ignored. NSSM 104 is a distinct improvement, though only a beginning, on this score. Past studies also seemed to confer a near-magic significance on Soviet naval ships, even when present in tiny numbers and for short periods of time. NSSM 104 still does so to some extent. In fact, Soviet influence in the area resulted in the first place from the use of other devices, such as aid, political support, local Communist parties. There no doubt is some special weight that attaches to Soviet ships because of the novelty of their presence. But we should not add to it unnecessarily.

Fifth, related to the previous point, all past studies foresaw a growth in Soviet naval presence on more or less a straight line, based on the rate of growth thus far observable. NSSM 104 on the whole tends to accept this prognosis (pp. 8–10) but represents a substantial improvement over past efforts in noting factors which “militate against sustained deployment of larger forces in this area.” (p. 10)

Sixth, past studies on the whole agreed, as does NSSM 104, that the Soviets desire to avoid a confrontation with the US. Past studies, like NSSM 104, also attributed to them the goal of maintaining friendly relations with non-aligned nations in the area (p. 11). The earlier studies were, however, far more certain than NSSM 104 that beyond this goal (which, incidentally, also serves to restrain Soviet actions because of the sensitivity of many riparians to great power involvement in the area), the Soviets sought to establish over time paramount influence up to and including establishment of client states and the use of vital land facilities. NSSM 104 does allow, correctly in my view, for the strong [Page 149] likelihood that the Soviets will seek support facilities for their naval forces (probably in South Yemen) in order to extend their time on-station. But it avoids the more extravagant projections relating to the establishment of a network of air bases, rail heads, oil pipe-lines, supply dumps etc. etc. all around the periphery.

Seventh, related to the previous point, all studies assumed a Soviet desire at least to increase their prestige and influence, though the operational meaning of these terms is never adequately defined and no rigorous judgment is attempted of how this goal relates to and may be constrained by (1) the desire to avoid confrontation with us, (2) maintain friendly relations with non-aligned riparians and (3) the cost, in rubles, of doing so.

Eighth, NSSM 104, though again only very briefly, greatly improves on past studies in identifying certain operational uses of Soviet naval forces and, indeed, of the over-all Soviet presence in the area: to help a toppling government, to protect Soviet personnel (though only as a pretext), to strengthen certain regimes, neutralize others and weaken still others, to influence the outcome of a politically sensitive situation. (pp. 12–13). Another possible use that might have been considered is that of a stand-by force for use in pursuance of a UN resolution in the absence of other immediately available national forces in some fast-moving situation. The NSSM does well to consider deliberate “vigorous adventurism doubtful” (p. 12), although it fails to define this concept and to explain how, in some circumstances, “vigorous adventurism” would be distinguished from helping a toppling government, protecting Soviet personnel etc. etc. as mentioned above.

In some way, all these points relate to certain imponderables regarding Soviet behavior that have a bearing well beyond the Indian Ocean. Thus, we do not yet really know how, or understand why, the Soviet Union went in for a large overseas naval force when Khrushchev explicitly in 1956 mocked such a force and throughout his rule fought stout political battles against it as well as against conventional forces generally. Yet all the ships that now trouble us were bought while he was in power.

One answer might be that Khrushchev tried to deceive us, even to the point of emitting false Kremlinological signals about internal arguments over military posture. (For various reasons this seems unlikely.)

Another answer might be that Khrushchev never had the power to make his military policy, enunciated repeatedly between 1955 and at least 1961, stick. If Soviet military pressure groups were able to negate the decisions of as powerful a figure as Khrushchev was precisely during a portion of this period (1957–62), one must assume that they can do even better when the leadership is collective and hamstrung by a multitude of impediments to its capacity for decision-making.

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Another answer, not inconsistent with either of the above, might be that the USSR is subject to a dynamic impulse toward great power status with all the trappings appertaining thereto, including, specifically, a capacity to maintain a military presence all around the globe. Such impulses have of course propelled many other nations over the centuries; the Soviets may merely be late starters, in part, perhaps, in subconscious admission of the fact that their special kind of imperialism, i.e. the potency of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the role of the USSR as a model for others near and far, has lost momentum. Actually, in the Indian Ocean we may be seeing, on the part of the USSR as NSSM 104 suggests (p. 6), a combination of the emergence of a more traditional kind of imperialist behavior with the urge to contest the growth of Chinese influence. That influence stems in part from Peking’s appeal to radical forces. The Soviets while mustering what radicalism they can to meet the challenge seem on the whole inclined to utilize tools invented by Western capitalist states.

If the hypothesis is valid that what is happening in the Seven Seas is at least as much the result of impulse as design in Moscow, the danger of rash action by Soviet forces in distant places may in fact be greater than NSSM 104 suggests. For if the impulse is toward great power status and a place in the sun, there may easily develop a strong compulsion to demonstrate on some occasion that the USSR is not a giant with clay feet. There will be investments to protect (not the traditional capitalist kind, but investment in prestige, and foreign aid and in hardware that is supposed to be felt as well as heard and seen): and there may be strong temptations, especially when risks seem low, to intervene in one or another situation to prove the efficacy of Soviet power.

Moreover, and disturbingly, the Indian Ocean is not unique as an arena of Soviet great power display. The Caribbean is far closer to home and already contains one clear client subject, at least verbally, to Soviet protection.

It is considerations like these that lead me to a rather less relaxed conclusion than NSSM 104 not just about the Indian Ocean itself but about Soviet long-range military activities everywhere, including in our own front yard. I thus have no particular quarrel with the military options in the NSSM. But I don’t think we have begun to cope with the more general phenomenon of the Soviet Union’s emergence as an overseas power; a phenomenon all the more disturbing because it coincides with weakness in political leadership in Moscow and perhaps even with a more convulsive structural crisis in the Soviet system in which the tiny ruling “elite” may find resort to foreign adventurism a tempting defense against an alienated and frustrated society.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–176, National Security Study Memoranda, NSSM 104. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. Pages 6–13 of the December 3 NSSM 104 study, “Soviet and Friendly Naval Involvement in the Indian Ocean,” state that the Soviet Union, “want[s] to erode western influence, to exclude Chinese influence, and to have the countries in the Indian Ocean area look to them as the leading power. Strategically the Soviets would like to inhibit the U.S. from using the Indian Ocean as an operating area for ballistic missile submarines.” It then characterizes the Soviet approach as one of “cautious probing,” and states that “Soviet naval forces in the Indian Ocean area do not pose a direct military threat to any major U.S. interests.” It concludes that it was unlikely that the Soviet Union would directly challenge the U.S. desires to use its naval presence to “strengthen certain regimes, neutralize others, and weaken others,” as it would be “tempered by their own military limitations, by the negative reaction of the littoral states, and by a concern over being mired down in such an operation, and by moves by the U.S. to counter such opportunism.” (Ibid.) See also Document 46.