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

3989. Subj: (C) Ambassador’s Discussion With Arbatov on Afghanistan and US-Soviet Relations.

1. (S-entire text.)

2. Summary: I had a lengthy discussion yesterday with USA Institute Director Arbatov, who provided no fresh insights into how the Afghan problem might be solved other than to stress that the Soviets would never accept an outcome which made it appear that they were being “punished.” He said the Soviets were convinced that the US had been providing significant support to the Afghan insurgents, but he also described the excesses of the Amin regime as one reason for the Soviet action. He thought stability could be brought about within a few months if outside interference stopped. In blaming the US for the deterioration in Soviet/American relations, Arbatov said, that after almost all the other aspects of the detente relationship had been dismantled SALT II was left in an exposed position and therefore was also vulnerable. He was not optimistic that a relationship could be rebuilt on arms control alone, though he agreed on the urgency of getting the SALT process started again. While he had no specific suggestions on how this might be done, he mentioned the possibility of a Vance/Gromyko meeting in Vienna as a desirable beginning. End summary.

3. Mr. Arbatov came to lunch at Spaso House March 10 with his associate Mr. Zhurkin.2 The Acting DCM and I represented the American side. Lunch started on an exchange of pleasantries. I had met Zhurkin at an Airlie House conference which I attended with Marshall Shulman, so the atmosphere was easy and relaxed. Shortly after sitting down at the table, we began to get into matters of substance. I mentioned that we were trying to find means of changing the present very low level of Soviet-American relations and getting the relationship back on track, moving ahead, and improving again. Arbatov expressed the same general sentiments and indicated his clear understanding that if we stayed in the present mode very long, an uncontrolled arms race in the future would be impossible to avoid. He said he thought our relations could not remain even in their present very bad state for long. If they did not improve soon, they would get much worse. And “many [Page 767] people here in town” he said, are beginning to have doubts about the prospects.

4. We talked about perceptions and throughout the luncheon there was an interesting theme expressed again and again by Arbatov, which I shall characterize by a few examples. In response to Arbatov’s mention of Soviet concern about our increasing conventional weapons budget, I mentioned the inexorable increase of Soviet weapons budgets year in and year out. Arbatov said even if you added all of the budgets of the Warsaw Pact countries and his own, the amount of expenditure actually made was less than that made by NATO and the US. This seems like a doubtful statement to me, but he made it. In speaking of the SS–20/Pershing II situation, he mentioned that for years the Soviet Union was on the receiving end of superior weapons deployed by NATO countries and that it was only with the deployment of the SS–20 that this inequity was being attended to. He stressed, however, that with the deployment of the Pershing II, all of the Soviet western cities were for the first time at risk from our missiles based in Europe. He, like most Soviets who argue this point, seem to forget that Western European capitals have for a long time been under the threat of USSR medium range missiles. But the fact that this is a new situation for his western cities is indisputable. He mentioned that U.S. forward based systems could reach his western cities but the warning time was relatively long, whereas the warning time on the Pershing II’s would be extremely short relative to the warning of strategic missiles from the U.S. All Soviets that I have talked with absolutely forget Western capitals when they begin this argument. He also mentioned his concern about cruise missiles and the FRG which is not a new idea.

5. On Afghanistan, I made very strongly the argument that the Soviet press was blaming the whole problem upon the US upsetting the internal situation in Afghanistan and that we had specifically stated that we had not been interfering and had done so many times, most recently in President Carter’s letter to Tito, from which I quoted. Arbatov’s answer to this was, “I am not disputing your word, but perhaps the Agency has been misinforming the State Department.” He said his government was convinced that the US is in fact training and sending in Afghans from Pakistan to disrupt the internal situation. He said that about three million Afghanis moved back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan seasonally with their flocks and that the infiltration of 200,000 armed Afghans would be relatively simple to be hidden in this migration—though he added that he had no information that this was actually happening.

6. While he stressed the role of outside interference, by the US and also by China and Pakistan, Arbatov discussed the internal situation in Afghanistan as well as a reason for the Soviet action. He said the So [Page 768] viets had gotten along very well with the King3 and with Daoud and then talked about the excesses of Amin, whom he compared with his namesake Idi Amin. He said that the elimination of the Amin regime, while in the Soviet interest, was also somewhat in the American interest because they were attempting to remove a bloody tyrant, installing a more generally popular regime, and bringing stability to the region.

7. As for how long it might take to bring about the stability they were seeking, Arbatov thought maybe only a few months—provided outside interference stopped. He did not dispute my point that the Brezhnev formula seemed like a non-starter, since it was impossible for us to pledge to stop doing something we are not doing. He did not seem much interested in talking about other formulas for getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan, although he thought the idea of having Mrs. Ghandi4 and a group of nonaligned nations or others work together to find some way to guarantee the Pak/Afghan border was an idea worth exploring.

8. The main point we made repeatedly with regard to an Afghan settlement was that the US seemed intent on “punishing” the Soviet Union and that they would not under any circumstances accept a solution that made them look punished. He said that when the US was willing to cease making Afghanistan a pure propaganda issue the matter could be treated seriously.

9. We talked in general about the state of US/Soviet relations, and Arbatov spent a good deal of time characterizing the things that made the Soviets decide after Vienna that the Carter administration was not going to follow through on SALT II. Among the things he mentioned were the Cuban brigade issue, human rights, the decision to go for a five percent increase in defense spending, and the refusal to accept the Brezhnev offer for negotiations on theater nuclear forces.

10. Arbatov seemed pessimistic about the prospects for getting the arms control dialogue started again in the near future, though he of course placed all the blame on our side. He said that arms control was only one part of the overall detente relationship and claimed that we had dismantled most other aspects of the relationship. He spoke of our excluding the Soviets from the Middle East peace process, trying to use trade as a weapon to interfere in Soviet internal affairs, and using SALT II as a vehicle for actually increasing our defense spending rather than as a step toward disarmament. All that was left was SALT II, and in its exposed position it also fell victim to what he saw as the anti-Soviet [Page 769] trends in the US. He thus was not certain that we could pick up SALT in isolation as a means of rebuilding relations.

11. Despite this pessimism, Arbatov stressed the need for firm agreement between the US and the Soviet Union to begin trying to work the relationship back together. He repeated what he had said in his Pravda article—that the Soviets did not expect us to approve of the “assistance” they were giving Afghanistan but hoped that when the dust settled things might begin to get back on the track. He referred to the possibility of a meeting between Secretary Vance and Gromyko at the anniversary of the signing of the Austrian State Treaty as one possibility for the resumption of a dialogue, though he did not offer any specific suggestions as to what might be on the agenda for such a meeting.

12. All in all, the luncheon which took over two hours was a quiet, unemotional exchange of views with each side claiming to understand the other but with no constructive suggestion on the part of Arbatov or Zhurkin toward a solution to break the impasse. The two points that came through most clearly were that the Soviets will not abide by an indication that they are being punished, and two, that a Vance-Gromyko meeting might be desirable as a departure point for a new relationship.

13. However, since there is no movement in the Soviet position here, I am not hopeful that we as yet have any signal of a direction for sensible movement in the future.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 83, USSR: 3/1–19/80. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room.
  2. Vitaly Zhurkin.
  3. Mohammed Zahir Shah.
  4. Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India.