230. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The US-Soviet Relationship


  • Alexander Bessmertnykh, Minister-Counselor of the Soviet Embassy
  • Marshall Brement, NSC Staff Member

The substantive part of the conversation began with a reference by me to Ustinov’s October 26 article in Pravda, in which he alleged that Secretary Brown had said that we were aiming for nuclear superiority. Neither I nor members of Secretary Brown’s staff were aware of any such statements, I pointed out, and I promised to send Bessmertnykh an authoritative pronouncement by the Secretary on this subject (see attached letter).2 (C)

Bessmertnykh replied that he was glad to have this clarification. This was especially the case in that the Soviets regard Harold Brown as one of the most moderate and balanced officials in the Carter Administration. One could not always say that about an American Secretary of Defense, he added. (C)

Bessmertnykh then said that he was thinking about the course of US-Soviet relations over the next two years and the prospects were deeply troubling. He had a growing feeling that many key people in Moscow were “giving up” on the US relationship and believed there was little or nothing which could be derived from it over the next several years, Bessmertnykh said. This was particularly true during an election period in the United States, when many irresponsible things are said. The mood in Moscow is therefore somber and disturbing. (C)

I did not feel that we were facing an inevitable downward spiral in US-Soviet relations, I replied. The ratification of SALT II would be useful in putting the relationship on a more even keel. It was true, however, that we will soon be in the midst of an election campaign in the US. If the Soviets played an unhelpful role in fostering or engendering destabilizing events, the various candidates of both Parties would probably vie with each other to condemn the USSR. But if we were en[Page 682]tering a period of relative calm and more inward orientation, then I saw no reason why we could not build, improve, and expand on the present relationship. The key was Soviet conduct. If Moscow demonstrated caution and prudence in the upcoming months, that would certainly be noted and understood by Washington. (C)

It is the concrete actions of the Carter Administration which bother us, Bessmertnykh rejoined. How can we help but take notice of a decision to add major new weapons systems to the NATO arsenal which can strike the territory of the Soviet Union and thereby destroy the balance which currently exists in the European theater? Furthermore, the US reaction to the Brezhnev East Berlin speech was very disappointing to us. The proposals put forward in that speech were intended to be constructive and realistic. They should be taken seriously and not be regarded as merely a propaganda ploy. It is very important that you respond to Brezhnev’s message of October 11,3 which elaborated on the speech. Failure to do so would be noted in Moscow with grave disappointment, Bessmertnykh said. (C)

We have read the speech and the letter very carefully, I replied. Since this is a NATO matter, however, we obviously have to consult with our allies before formulating a response. I pointed out that similar texts had gone to the various NATO members and that normal consultations would take some time. (C)

We should understand, Bessmertnykh said, that the proposed deployment of TNF by NATO has had a very bad effect in Moscow. It will allow NATO forces to strike against the Soviet homeland with less warning and will require a significant military response. More than any other recent development, this has affected the mood in Moscow. For the first time in his recollection, Bessmertnykh asserted, serious analysts of the American scene are thinking in terms of a possible first strike by the United States. This kind of thinking cannot help but color the entire atmosphere, he said. (C)

The degree of alarm you describe is puzzling to me, I rejoined. What has happened is that the Soviet Union is in the process of carrying out a major overhaul of its theater nuclear forces, by introducing two major weapons systems, the SS–20 and the Backfire bomber. This gives the Soviet side a far more effective, accurate and threatening strike capability. It would not be realistic to expect NATO to accept such a situation and not respond to it. In any case, the weapons being considered by the alliance will not be operational for several years. This will give us ample time to formulate a sound arms control agreement to deal with the TNF problem. (C)

[Page 683]

Furthermore, I continued, any Soviet analyst who is seriously thinking about the possibility of a first-strike assault by the United States has no understanding of the American scene. Historically, no country has ever made a surprise attack on another without specific territorial gains in mind. But a glance at a map of the US and its possessions in 1919 would reveal that, unlike many other states, we have not changed the extent of our territory by one square inch in the last 60 years. Furthermore, there is no extant political group in the United States itself, no matter how small or insignificant, that desires any changes in our boundaries. We have secure and firm borders, and we have a democratic system that depends on popular support. Surprise attack, by its very nature, requires an autocratic and highly centralized system of government. We have therefore never in our history launched a war, or even contemplated launching a war, with a surprise attack. It is inconceivable, I said, that we would ever make a first-strike attack against the USSR. Soviet analysts who seriously think of this as a possibility simply do not know this country. (C)

(At this point, Ambassador Dobrynin joined us briefly. We chatted for a few minutes, and he expressed the hope that our relations would not be frozen during the coming year. His appearance was obviously intended as a goodwill gesture.) (U)

Returning to the thread of our previous conversation, Bessmertnykh said that many people in Moscow have a poor understanding of the United States. The Embassy tries to explain what is going on, but often this is difficult. Many people, for example, had wrong ideas about the recent dispute over the so-called Soviet combat brigade in Cuba. (C)

From remarks which various Soviet officials had made about this matter, I said, I had the impression that this issue may indeed not be fully understood. I pointed out that Marshall Shulman had made a demarche to Bessmertnykh July 27,4 which stated that we would be seriously concerned about changes in Soviet or Cuban offensive capabilities in Cuba, and which mentioned reports we have had about organized Soviet combat units there. Had this demarche been responded to in a serious manner, the crisis atmosphere which surrounded this issue could have been avoided, I said. Furthermore, the Soviet side knew that both Secretary Vance and Secretary Brown in mid-July had denied to the Congress that we had specific knowledge about this brigade. This should have reinforced the seriousness of Shulman’s demarche. Soviet experts surely must understand that key Cabinet officers would never make such statements unless we were satisfied that they were accurate. (C)

[Page 684]

Clear and frank communication between us is very important, I continued. This was evident at the time of the Vlasova case.5 The Soviet side should reflect on what would have happened had our authorities not been vigilant enough to discover that Vlasova was already on an Aeroflot plane in New York and about to depart for Moscow without having made any statement to us. Had the Soviets gotten away with this crude maneuver, the story in the press would have been that the wife of a defector was forcibly spirited out of the country and sent back to the USSR against her will. This action, in contravention of our kidnapping laws, undertaken despite assurances to us that we would have a chance to speak with Vlasova, would have been cited as evidence that the Soviets cannot be trusted to keep an agreement. It would have impacted very badly on US-Soviet relations and have offered real ammunition to the enemies of SALT, who would have discoursed about Soviet untrustworthiness. (C)

To my surprise, Bessmertnykh responded by stating that the Vlasova affair had been completely mishandled by the Soviet side. The first thing the Embassy in Washington knew about the matter was when Vlasova was actually on the plane, he said. The UN Mission in New York was entirely responsible. “If I had been handling it”, Bessmertnykh said, “she would simply have had her interview and then left quietly.” The one thing about the Vlasova case, which continued to rankle, he said, is that in the letter to Brezhnev you said that you had received assurances from the Soviet side on three separate occasions that you would have an opportunity to talk with Vlasova. This was not true. We never gave you any such assurances. (C)

While misunderstandings are always possible, I replied, the Soviet side should understand that we would never make such a statement in a letter from the President unless we were completely satisfied about the accuracy of what we were saying.

In fact, I confessed that I was surprised when President Brezhnev raised what was essentially a minor matter, and one which the President could not possibly satisfy, in correspondence with the President. The Soviet side must realize that we are a nation of laws and that once it appeared a reasonable assumption that a law might have been violated, as was the case in this instance, even the President would be powerless to stop our law enforcement officials from ascertaining the facts of the case. (C)

Returning to the Cuban brigade crisis, Bessmertnykh said that one of the results of that incident is that many analysts in Moscow in retrospect regarded various American statements about Cuba, which were [Page 685] made in the period leading up to the crisis, as part of the efforts of anti-detente forces to manufacture an artificial state of tension and thereby imperil SALT. (C)

This would be completely wrong and a serious misreading of what happened, I retorted. In the first place, so-called anti-detente forces had nothing to do with the way that the crisis developed. More important, there is nothing at all artificial about our concern regarding Soviet and Cuban behavior. This concern is shared by every key American policymaker. Conversations at the highest levels at the Summit in Vienna should have made very clear to the Soviet side that the Soviet build-up of the offensive capabilities of the Cuban armed forces and Cuban adventurism in Africa, Yemen, the Caribbean and elsewhere are of deep concern to us. (C)

One of the real tragedies of this decade, I continued, is that the Soviet side chose to ship a Cuban army to Angola in 1975 to intervene in a civil war there. This took place at a time when no client or ally of either of us was engaged in armed conflict with the other. It irrevocably set the whole course of US-Soviet relations on a different path. The USSR must come to realize, I said, that what may appear like a cheap victory in Africa or elsewhere can turn out to be enormously expensive and can have unexpected ramifications several years after the victory has taken place and in areas far away from the original scene. (C)

We are not the masters of the Cubans that you think we are, Bessmertnykh said. They are an independent force. (C)

We can never accept the idea that you have no control over Havana, I replied. It may be true that you cannot tell Castro what to do in every case, but what is obvious is that you are in a firm position to tell him what he cannot do. After all, he can only get from Place A to Place B on Soviet ships and planes. Furthermore, in Ethiopia Cuban troops were actually operating under the command of Soviet officers. (C)

We can understand that you have principles and that you want to support those principles, I continued. Such support, it seems to us, can legitimately take the form of economic aid, training, or occasionally even military aid, but direct involvement in armed combat is not acceptable. Take the ouster of Idi Amin—an instance where Tanzanian troops went into Uganda and overthrew the constituted government of that state. This event has passed with scarcely a ripple on the center stage of our times. The reason is that the superpowers were not directly involved. In cases where they are involved, such as Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, their involvement has a disproportionate effect. We signed an agreement in 1972 that we would not take unilateral advantage of each other. It is this concept that must underlie detente and be its basis. How can we interpret actual[Page 686]combat in third countries as anything other than taking unilateral advantage of us? (C)

I understand what you are saying, Bessmertnykh said, but you also must grasp that detente is not the bible for us. You know what our bible is. Certain things are more important to us than other things. Even though we get no benefit from it—it is you, not we, who use Angolan oil—we still have to do it. We understand that it may be costly and that it may require sacrifice on our part, but nevertheless we must do it. (C)

In that case, I said, you must also grasp that the United States cannot ignore your actions in areas such as Cuba, where our vital interests are involved. Reciprocity has to be the basic key to sound relations between the superpowers and it should be obvious that sooner or later we will react to Soviet insensitivity to our interests by being insensitive to its interests. (C)

I understand what you are saying, Bessmertnykh repeated. We are, of course, concerned that you do not take actions which will cause us practical problems, but you should understand that we must support progressive forces throughout the world. We feel that it is our duty to do so, and no action of your Government will dissuade us from fulfilling our duty. (C)

The Soviet Union must equally understand, I rejoined, that a Soviet three-legged policy of detente, of arming itself to the teeth, and of adventurism in the Third World cannot be maintained indefinitely. Something has to give. The change in climate with regard to the USSR, both in the United States and in Western Europe, is a direct result of policies pursued by the Soviet Government. The resurgence of what Moscow likes to call “anti-detente forces” has been engendered by policies which Moscow itself is pursuing. (C)

You should not assume that we will change our policy, Bessmertnykh repeated. We have our aims in the world, and these will be carried out. Militarily, we only really worry about the United States. China is not a problem to us. The Gobi Desert is flat, he said, running his palm across the luncheon table. We could be in Peking in two days. Western Europe would be a matter of five minutes. (C)

It may take you two days to get to Peking, I retorted, but what would you do after you got there? Bessmertnykh laughed and said he had not fully thought out that matter. (C)

Realizing that he had gone farther than he intended, Bessmertnykh quickly backtracked, and emphasized that this conversation was meant to be frank and completely informal in nature. I replied that this was certainly my understanding. (U)

At this point, the luncheon ended. (U)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 82, USSR: 11/79. Confidential. The meeting took place at the Soviet Embassy. Sent under a November 8 covering memorandum from NSC staff secretary Christine Dodson to Vance, Brown, and Turner.
  2. Not found attached.
  3. See Document 229.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 217.
  5. See Documents 213, 215, and 218.