32. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • NSC Weekly Report #18

1. Opinions

The opinion piece this week is written by William Hyland of the NSC Staff. Hyland, as you know, went with Vance to both Moscow and Geneva and is probably this government’s top Soviet expert. He argues that we should be sensitive to the permanent problems confronting the Soviet Union and that we should not overestimate the significance of the temporary coolness in US-Soviet relations. It thus presents a somewhat different perspective than the one developed by Shulman2 and [Page 146] implies that a steady policy course by the United States would be most productive.

U.S.-Soviet Relations

It is risky to try to characterize Soviet-American relations at any given point. In August 1968 at the time of the Czech invasion,3 it would have seemed that there would be a sharp deterioration. In fact, there was little change. In 1972–73 optimistic projections were made, but by 1976 relations were stagnating.

Thus, it is misleading now to characterize relations as caught up in a “downward spiral.” The relationship is much more of a mix of transitory facts and more basic and permanent elements. Too much of the current analysis focuses on the transitory, while disregarding the permanent problems confronting the USSR.

First, the transitory factors:

—there seems little doubt that the Soviets made a positive judgment about the President [1 line not declassified] He was portrayed as changing the style but not the substance of his predecessors’ policy and generally inclined to do business with the Soviet Union. This analysis, [less than 1 line not declassified] was reflected in the conciliatory tone of Brezhnev’s speech at Tula on January 18. [6 lines not declassified]

Thus, we are dealing to some extent with a crisis of Soviet expectations. This may have been aggravated by the fact that Brezhnev personally put himself too far out in front—in conversations with Bill Simon and Averill Harriman,4 and in his public speeches. Since Brezhnev was already vulnerable, over President Ford’s abandonment of “detente,”5 he now may be exceptionally defensive about the failure of his relations with the Carter Administration to proceed along a smoother path.

But this is not a permanent state of affairs. Whatever criticism Brezhnev has had to endure, it has obviously not affected his power position. Nor has it necessarily affected his ability to adjust (and his visit to France represents a rehabilitation of “detente”).

Another temporary factor is the fate of the Soviet leadership. In retrospect, we know that the past few months have led to the downfall of Podgorny,6 and the consequent strengthening of Brezhnev’s position. [Page 147] What we cannot be sure of is how much this internal conflict may have shaped Soviet policy during the interim. Certainly, if Brezhnev was engaged in a struggle, he might have overreacted to current events. His behavior since the Central Committee meetings does not suggest a hardening of his foreign policy line.

The outcome seems to be a temporary confusion. Brezhnev is reaching out to various visitors—Genscher and Giscard—to establish a better understanding of Jimmy Carter. This is typical because Brezhnev tends to personalize relations. So, we can expect that this period, which could last for some time, will be followed by one in which the main features of Soviet policy will be more certain and fixed. And as this confusion is cleared up, it is worth remembering that the Soviets do not have a free hand. They are constrained by long term trends that affect any Soviet leader, be it Brezhnev or his successor.

First of all, there is the nightmare of Soviet policy: two front hostility.7 If the Soviets misjudged the Administration of Jimmy Carter, they also misjudged the Administration of Hua Kuo-feng. Their frustrations have been surfaced in a series of authoritative and harsh attacks on China. The Soviet note of mid-May was the most ominous threat since the crisis of 1969. This rather significant turn of events has received less attention in the West because of our preoccupation with SALT and other matters.

One is forced to conclude, however, that the Soviets now foresee a period of rising tensions with China. Thus, unless Brezhnev wants to justify hostility on two fronts, he is compelled to look for ways to soften the conflict with the West, including with the United States.

Second, there is the SALT problem and its alternative. Despite harsh words, the Soviets have in fact moved in their substantive position, if only slightly. The lapse of the present agreement is more of a symbol of failure for Brezhnev than for the United States. And, the consequences of a new round of competition cannot be all that attractive to Brezhnev. A cruise missile race without an agreement is not in the Soviet interest. Moreover, the United States is on the upswing of the curve with B–1, Trident I and II, MK–12A and cruise missiles. The Soviets are on a plateau filling out the deployment of five years ago.8

And there is the economic problem. While it is always dangerous to project Soviet restraint because of their economic dilemma, it may be [Page 148] true for the first time that long-term problems will impinge on foreign policy decisions. A CIA study still in the works suggests this.9

The problem of dissent is a difficult one. The Soviets have applied varying tactics to neutralize it, but it continues. The most significant change has been that what used to be an interesting phenomena for Soviet specialists has gradually emerged as an international issue. This is reflected in Solzhenitsyn’s stature throughout the world and awarding of a Nobel prize to Sakharov. The Soviets, always inordinately suspicious, may see the U.S. as engaged in a political offensive, but they are nevertheless caught up in the dilemma: to repress their dissidents actually aggravates the problem abroad. It is therefore an interesting fact, that despite some noisy propaganda, the Soviets have behaved very cautiously since the round of quick arrests in early February. Tactically, the Soviets may be seeking a period of quiet.

But the basic fact is that the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, has the power to greatly aggravate the Soviet dilemma. And it is this consciousness that, in the end, will bring Brezhnev back to a foreign policy of moderation.

Brezhnev also knows better than we do that the situation in Eastern Europe is not good, and that he may face an explosion in Poland. That possibility is the more likely if repression is intensified, but perhaps less likely if tensions seem to be receding.

One last factor that is the most difficult to take into account is Brezhnev’s personal situation. It is a reasonable guess that he wishes to end his career on a high point.10 The new constitution is a testament of sorts. Assuming the Presidency goes along with the same syndrome. But since he is associated with detente, and particularly with SALT, then it must be agonizing for him to contemplate that this status as a “peace champion” will elude him in his relations with the United States. He is a hardened old veteran, and could absorb this setback, but it is a good bet that he is obsessed with restoring “detente” by the 60th Bolshevik Anniversary this November.

In sum, many of the permanent factors seem to point to an eventual turn in Soviet policy back toward something resembling “detente”. Obviously, as pointed out by Marshal Shulman, the U.S. could inadvertently or deliberately forestall such a turn. But we have the capabilities, [Page 149] provided that we carefully monitor each major issue (SALT, CTB, Indian Ocean, CSCE, the Middle East, and human rights),11 to shape Soviet policy at a time of uncertainty. We still have most of the high cards.

[Omitted here is information on the Quadripartite Meeting on Conventional Arms Restraint.]

US–USSR Working Group on Proliferation

The first session of the US–USSR working group on proliferation was recently held in Washington. Morokhov,12 who led the Soviet delegation, had an hour long opening statement full of substance, including: (1) they agree, without reservation, to participate in our INFCE program (fuel cycle evaluation); (2) expansion of NPT membership should be our most important goal, and we should concentrate on Brazil, Argentina, Spain, South Africa, Israel and South Korea (we came back at them with Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam); (3) a proposal for a joint US–USSR statement signed “at the highest level” outlining nine points for a “universal non-proliferation regime.” In response to a point we raised, they said that they were reconsidering their position on signing the Treaty of Tlatelolco13 but that it was difficult for them. With regard to India, they agreed that the first step should be to get them to agree to full scope safeguards and they would exercise their influence in that direction. All in all, a very encouraging beginning to these exchanges.

Initial Soviet Views on Indian Ocean Arms Limitations.

In the first two meetings of the US–USSR working group on arms limitations, the Soviets focused their approach on three subjects:

—Elimination of “foreign” military bases, both the US bases and those of US allies; the Soviets stated that neither they nor their allies have bases. They do not, therefore, define Berbera as a base. The Soviets said that bases are “the key issue.”

—Reciprocal reduction of military activities—not only freezing the present level but decreasing it, as well as a total prohibition on nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines and on aircraft carriers.

—The definition of the area: the Soviets argued that a strict geographic definition is not proper because the US has permanent bases in adjacent areas while Soviet home ports are thousands of miles away.

[Page 150]

The Soviets also proposed an exchange of data on military presence, including specifically ship-days and ton-days; said the talks are bilateral but that the forces and bases of allied countries must be taken into account; and pointed out the importance of the Indian Ocean to Soviet interests as the only year-round sea route connecting the European to the Far Eastern USSR.

Brezhnev in Paris

You will soon be receiving from Cy a report on the conversations between Brezhnev and Giscard.14 Here is a report on his behavior in Paris.15 According to our embassy:

Brezhnev’s brusque personal behavior was reflected, in first instance, in frequent abrupt changes of visit’s protocol at his request. Tete-a-tete meetings which were foreseen were peremptorily transformed into large plenaries where Brezhnev was not at pains to give Giscard equal time. Similarly, Soviet agreement to sudden Brezhnev visit at City Hall to see Chirac was hardly gesture likely to please Giscard. Brusqueness also marked certain substantive exchanges. Finally, the curious manners of France’s latest guest were brought home to public by Brezhnev’s now widely publicized refusal to accept the second car—the Matra Rancho—which Giscard had given him because it was painted green! Brezhnev wanted it blue! Car was rushed back to factory and was repainted. This capriciousness made an impression.”

[Omitted here is information on West Bank attitudes.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Subject File, Box 41, Weekly Reports (to the President), 16–30: (6/77–9/77). Top Secret; Sensitive. Carter wrote, “Good. C” in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum.
  2. Reference is presumably to Shulman’s June 16 memorandum to Vice President Mondale, which outlines current trends in U.S.-Soviet bilateral relations. (Department of State, Office of Soviet Union Affairs, Dissidents and Political Prisoner Subject Files, 1974–1988, Lot 91D273, Box 9, Shcharanskiy, Anatoliy 1977)
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XVII, Eastern Europe, Documents 80 and 81.
  4. William Simon, Secretary of the Treasury from 1974 until 1976 and Averell Harriman, Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1943 until 1946. Simon had multiple conversations with Brezhnev including ones in April 1975 and November 1976; Harriman spoke with Brezhnev in September and December 1976.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXVIII, Part 1, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1973–1976, Document 69.
  6. Podgorny was forced out of his position as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet by Brezhnev, who replaced him in June 1977.
  7. Carter underlined “two front hostility.”
  8. Carter placed a parallel line next to the last two sentences of this paragraph.
  9. In the margin at the end of this paragraph, Carter wrote, “may be most important of all.” The July 1977 CIA study, entitled “Soviet Economic Problems and Prospects,” is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, International Economics, Tim Deal File, Box 10, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR): 3/76–8/77.
  10. Carter underlined the phrase “he wishes to end his career on a high point.”
  11. Carter underlined each of the items in parentheses.
  12. Igor Morokhov, Deputy First Chairman of the Soviet State Committee for Utilization of Atomic Energy.
  13. The Treaty of Tlatelolco came into force in April 1969 and prohibited nuclear weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  14. Not found.
  15. The complete text of telegram 18438 from Paris, June 22, is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770223–0699.