271. Memorandum of Conversation1


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


  • Afghanistan and US-Soviet Relations (U)

Bessmertnykh opened the conversation by insisting on the need to maintain channels of communication between us, a sentiment with which I readily agreed. (U)

It was particularly important for us to understand, he continued, the sour view of the US that is now widespread in the USSR, not only in official circles, but among the general populace as well. He said he was struck during his recent home leave by the fact that most people who specialize in foreign affairs were taken aback by the US “overreaction” to Afghanistan. We, of course, understood that there would be a strong [Page 780] response, said Bessmertnykh. That was unavoidable. But what surprised us was the vehemence of the response, the language used, and the willingness to throw away what had been built up painfully over almost a decade. (S)

This contrasts markedly with Soviet behavior in Vietnam in 1972, Bessmertnykh went on. When the Americans were blockading Haiphong2 and bombs were falling right next to Soviet ships, the USSR nevertheless went ahead with the first Moscow Summit3 and the signing of the basic agreements which led to the period of detente, a period which has now ended. There were those who counseled a cancellation of the 1972 Summit, but their advice was rejected. We had a sense of balance and knew what was important. It is that sense of balance which seems to us completely absent in the US reaction to Afghanistan. (S)

The situations are hardly comparable, I replied. The bombing of North Vietnam was in response to a major direct invasion of South Vietnam by mainline North Vietnamese divisions supplied by the USSR. That invasion was planned with the support and foreknowledge of Moscow. It is not the Soviet Union which deserves praise for entering a detente relationship with the US during the Vietnam war, I said, but rather the other way around. American soldiers were, after all, being killed and maimed by Soviet-supplied and Soviet-encouraged armies. Nevertheless, we were willing to conclude the basic arms control negotiations with the USSR which ushered in the period of detente. I pointed out that from 1964–1966 I had served in our Embassy in Moscow as the officer in the Political Section covering Soviet relations with Asia, and could personally attest to the fact that Soviet reaction to the war in Vietnam was far more offensive to my government and far more “unbalanced” than Washington’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Furthermore, I continued, I was surprised to hear him allude to Soviet behavior in Vietnam in the context of Afghanistan. Surely he was not proposing that the US model its behavior toward the conflict in Afghanistan on Soviet behavior in Vietnam? (S)

Such was not his intention, Bessmertnykh acknowledged with an icy smile. (S)

In fact, despite the extremely unhelpful Soviet attitude toward Vietnam, I said, both Presidents Johnson and Nixon clearly desired better relations with the Soviets and regarded this as a fundamental [Page 781] aim of US foreign policy. I could assure him personally, I continued, that President Carter had a deep commitment to detente, to improved US-Soviet relations, and to the establishment of viable, reciprocal, and mutually beneficial arms control agreements with the USSR. It was these very goals which had made the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan so disappointing and repugnant to us. (S)

The difference with previous administrations, Bessmertnykh rejoined, was that they placed US-Soviet relations at the center of American foreign policy. The great mistake that this administration had made was to reduce the focus on this vital subject. A supreme irony is the fact that Afghanistan clearly restored US-Soviet relations to the primacy it should have had all along for the Carter administration, and this was clearly shown in the President’s January 4 speech.4 (S)

In any case, Bessmertnykh said, many people in Moscow had given up on the idea of trying to establish good relations with the US. There are some, such as Gromyko and Korniyenko, who are genuinely in favor of restoring US-Soviet relations to an even keel. But such people only represent 20–30 percent of the policymakers. Those who maintain that there is no point in going on with such a policy represent 60–70 percent, and this includes not only foreign ministry officials, but people in the Central Committee as well. Many of my colleagues were really taken aback by the pointless nature of the American response, Bessmertnykh said. It is “a policy of pin pricks.” Nothing you have said or done will have any real influence over us. I hope nobody within the Administration believes that the efforts you have made can accomplish anything. Such is not the nature of the Russian people. In fact, your propagandists made a great mistake in announcing that the grain embargo would affect Soviet living standards. That kind of threat has a very bad effect among the Russians. We do not like to be menaced by foreigners. You have lived in Moscow and you know that Americans are not unpopular there. There is much good will still left over from the war. Even if the government would want to change the views of the Soviet people, it cannot do it. (S)

Another real irony is that despite the differences in our two systems the American government can have a profound effect on public opinion, which can change overnight, whereas my government cannot reshape the basic attitudes of the Soviet population, Bessmertnykh said. Nevertheless, I can assure you in all sincerity that both in Lithuania, where I spent my vacation, as well as in Moscow, quite ordinary people voiced their indignation to me about this American announcement. After all, a great many people in the USSR did not even [Page 782] know we were buying grain from you. They only learned about it when our press carried reports of your statement. Furthermore, we are not in the least concerned about your various economic measures against us. It has not exactly escaped our notice that your allies are crawling all over each other trying to replace the US for commercial benefit, he said. You have been reading our press and you must know the effect this has had. Before Afghanistan, both Dobrynin and I had some influence in toning down the way our journalists treated US affairs. But now they have full freedom to give vent to their bitterest feelings about the United States, Bessmertnykh said. (S)

I had indeed noticed the way our leaders have been treated recently in the Soviet press, I replied, and consider it most unfortunate. Personal attacks on the President or his close associates do not serve any useful purpose. I am not sure what your journalists think they are doing, but they should understand that personal slanders of the President cannot have a good effect on future US-Soviet relations, and this is not just a question of the next several months. (S)

I agree that some of our writers may have gone overboard about some Administration figures and that this really serves no purpose, Bessmertnykh replied. Nevertheless, you should understand that we follow what is said about us very closely, and it is difficult to restrain our journalists. We certainly understand and anticipate that we are dealing with an administration that will be here for another five years. It is our prediction that President Carter will be nominated and reelected, and our expectation that Dr. Brzezinski will be a part, an important part, of the new administration. Nevertheless, our feeling is that the rhetoric you have used about the USSR has exceeded what was really necessary. You have to understand that we are no longer living in the world of the 1950s and 1960s. At some point we will return to a detente relationship. It may be in two years, it may be four years from now, but we have to live together in this world. We have no choice about that. But it will never be the same as it was. It will have to be an entirely different track, Bessmertnykh said. (S)

Based on a close reading of your press and of what I know about Afghanistan, what is not clear to me, I responded, is whether you fully understand that the current low state of US-Soviet relations is entirely the fault of the USSR. It was, after all, the USSR which invaded Afghanistan and brought about the very dangerous situation which now faces both of us in Southwest Asia. (U)

Afghanistan is only the latest in a series of events, Bessmertnykh rejoined. Relations were on the way down beginning last summer and they have gotten steadily worse ever since then. We had absolutely no choice but to take the action we did in Afghanistan. It was a state along our borders. Our vital interests were involved. Hostile states were dis [Page 783] turbing our security. We have no intention of remaining in Afghanistan. We will get out. But we could not let the situation simply fall apart. (S)

You did not use your security needs to justify the invasion, I retorted. You did not say that this was a vital interest of the Soviet Union and therefore you had no choice but to invade Afghanistan. On the contrary, you said you were invited into Afghanistan by the legally constituted government and that you had every right to be there because you have a treaty with the Afghans. That kind of justification can apply anywhere in the world. And if the superpowers arrogate to themselves the right to use combat forces whenever they feel like it, then we will truly be living in a dangerous situation in the ’80s and ’90s. (S)

You say that Afghanistan involved your “vital interests,” I continued. But you do not explain why it involved your vital interests. The fact of the matter is that Soviet vital interests were far better served by the Daoud government, when Afghanistan was a true buffer state. The President has said that this is the most dangerous situation we have faced since the Second World War, and I am firmly convinced that this is an accurate statement. My hope is that the Soviet government will perceive the danger and that a reasonable solution will be worked out to resolve this problem. (S)

But your allies are not in accord with your assessment, Bessmertnykh interjected. They have said so publicly. More convincingly, they told this to us privately. Nevertheless, I agree with you that the problem of how to define vital interest is a real one. The heart of our problem is that we seem to disagree on that definition. We do not understand how an area halfway around the globe can be a “vital interest” to another country. (S)

I hope it is very clear, I stated, that the United States regards that area of the world as a vital interest. The State of the Union speech5 is not in the least ambiguous, and I would hope that there was clear understanding about this very important point in Moscow. (S)

Afghanistan was, of course, a buffer state in the past, Bessmertnykh said. We were perfectly comfortable with Daoud—and with the King, for that matter. But one could only seriously regard it as a buffer state when the United States had 40,000 servicemen in Iran, a country that is no longer the same. It has changed and changed for good. So Afghanistan is no longer a buffer state between us. You no longer control either Iran or Pakistan. It is Iran rather than Afghanistan that has perhaps become a buffer state. We are dealing with a changing area, and the United States always finds it difficult to accept change. (S)

[Page 784]

You state that the Daoud government was perfectly acceptable to you, I rejoined. Nevertheless, you felt it necessary to support those who had shot and killed Daoud and who had overthrown his government. Your response was to prop up the government of Daoud’s killers by increasing your military personnel and economic assistance tenfold, despite the fact that the new Afghan government was following policies which were highly unpopular and which eventually led to the current destabilizing crisis in the area. (S)

It is true that support for revolutionary movements is a fundamental aspect of our foreign policy, said Bessmertnykh. We have no choice in such situations. For better or worse, we feel we have to support revolutionary movements. “If anyone wants Soviet support, all they have to do is start a revolution.” (S)

While we might not like your various actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere, I replied, we nevertheless can accept that the USSR has a right to assist those governments and political forces with which it is sympathetic. This could even include military assistance. However, where one has to draw the line is armed combat. The introduction of Soviet combat troops, or even the introduction of the troops of Soviet surrogates, such as the Cubans or Vietnamese, creates situations which make a detente relationship between the superpowers impossible to maintain. Furthermore, it makes no sense to view the invasion of Afghanistan in isolation. In 1975 the USSR shipped a Cuban army to Angola. In 1977 and again in 1978, Soviet generals commanded Cuban troops in combat in Ethiopia. Then the Vietnamese attacked Cambodia. Finally, at the end of 1979, you invaded Afghanistan with Soviet troops—the first time in 30 years that Soviet troops have transgressed the boundaries you achieved as a result of World War II. This is not something which you could expect the United States or its allies to ignore. It sets a remarkably dangerous precedent and is an event to which we have to respond unambiguously, so that your government does not mistake the depth and gravity of our reaction or what our reaction will be if this type of behavior continues. (S)

The fact of the matter is, Bessmertnykh replied, that your allies see the situation entirely differently than you do. Not only do they not regard Afghanistan as endangering them in any way, they rather see it as an opportunity to derive commercial advantage in their dealing with us. Many people in Moscow are aware of this and are trying to take advantage of it. Dobrynin and I have worked very hard to build up US-Soviet trade, and now it will all go to the West Europeans and the Japanese. (S)

More important than trade, I said, is whether the Soviet Union thinks it has the right to introduce armed combat troops anywhere in the world to support “revolutionary movements” wherever they exist. [Page 785] We have the right to do whatever you do, Bessmertnykh replied. There has been a great change in the world. This is no longer the ’50s or ’60s, he repeated. And what has changed is that we have achieved military parity with you not only in the strategic field, but in conventional arms as well. You have your troops all over the world, half a million of them. You do not ask our permission to go into places like Korea. Your troops are there not only to defend that territory, but to prop up the local government. There is no reason for you to have any rights which we do not have. We must insist on equality. It is hard for you to adjust to this, but you must come to realize that it is a new fact of life. You have lived many years in my country and you understand very well that we are quite cautious. We do not undertake actions such as those in Afghanistan without fully realizing their implications. We moved only to protect our vital interests. We do not consider that Afghanistan is a precedent for future action. (S)

Although you say this, and might even believe it, I replied, there is no way that you can know for certain that what you are saying is the truth. Events have a way of becoming precedents which can ultimately surprise the people who triggered those same events. It is therefore essential that Afghanistan indeed not be a precedent for future Soviet actions. US-Soviet relations cannot stand future Afghanistans. We therefore must find a viable way to resolve this problem. The President suggested one such way when he indicated that the US is ready to support efforts by the international community to restore a neutral, non-aligned Afghan government that would be responsive to the wishes of the Afghan people. The essence of a settlement must therefore consist of prompt and complete Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, coupled with agreement by all interested parties that such a government be installed in Kabul. (S)

The key to a settlement must be the stopping of assistance to the rebel forces, Bessmertnykh countered. Once such assistance has ceased, we will be able to resolve this problem quickly and satisfactorily. (S)

The problem does not arise because of outside forces, I rejoined, but rather because of the Soviet invasion. A genuine national liberation movement exists within Afghanistan. In fact, it is not one movement but several, with roots in different regions within the country. Resistance arose through spontaneous combustion, not outside help, and Afghanistan was aflame before the world knew anything about it. There were 300,000 refugees in Pakistan less than a year ago. Today there are more than 600,000. These people left their country because they could not support the government which existed there. It is their determination to carry on the struggle which makes a long and bitter war inevitable unless some means is found of installing a government in Kabul which is to some degree responsive to their wishes. If your aim is to es [Page 786] tablish in Kabul a government that is completely under the thumb of Moscow, a government similar to the one that exists, for example, in Ulan Bator, then it is difficult to foresee anything other than great difficulty in Afghanistan itself and a downward spiral in US-Soviet relations. And if we are to avoid confrontations, it seems to me essential that we come to some agreement as to rules of superpower behavior in the coming decades. We have signed several agreements on mutual behavior, but the USSR does not seem to abide by such agreements. (S)

The people of Mongolia are very satisfied with the government they have. And you should know that the Soviet Union always abides by agreements which it signs, Bessmertnykh replied. (S)

At that point I read him the following from the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War:6

“The parties agree . . . to proceed from the premise that each party will refrain from the threat or use of force against the other party, against the allies of the other party, and against other countries in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security.”

Afghanistan is far away from you, and we do not think that what has happened there may endanger international peace and security, Bessmertnykh replied, smiling faintly. In any case, we have to live with each other and something will be worked out. But I do not see how anything can happen during 1980, since it will obviously take some time before we can resolve the Afghanistan question. And 1981 will also be a difficult year when agreements will be expiring. It may take two years, it may take longer, but I am confident that reasonable relations will eventually be restored between us, Bessmertnykh repeated. (S)

At that point I had another meeting to attend. We agreed once more on the importance of staying in touch with each other. (U)

COMMENT: Despite the hard edges, the conversation was entirely non-polemical in tone. Bessmertnykh’s performance was, as usual, smooth and affable. (U)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Presidential Advisory Board, Box 79, Sensitive X: 3/80. Secret. Sent for information to Vance and Turner under a March 28 covering memorandum. (Ibid.) The meeting took place at the Soviet Embassy.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, Document 136.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Documents 257, 259, 262, 263, 265, 271, 273, 276, 277, 281, 283, 284, 288, 290, 292, 293, 295, 299, and 300.
  4. See footnote 5, Document 252.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 260.
  6. For the text of the Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XV, Soviet Union, June 1972–August 1974, Document 122.