39. Memorandum Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Department of State1


Despite six month’s trying, the Soviets have as yet failed to come to grips with the Carter administration. Their perplexity centers on what [Page 167] they see as a dichotomy between administration policies and actions. For Moscow, the main issue is whether the US adheres to the detente formulas which shaped relations over the preceding five-year period—acceptance of parity, moderation of differences, etc.—or whether the US’s numerous foreign policy initiatives, especially in the realm of arms control and human rights, signify a new set of priorities, with the US attempting to impose its view of these issues on the Soviets.

Whether or not the Soviets have now concluded that the latter actually is the case, their suspicions and doubts about Carter policies explain to a large extent the defensive—and relatively stand-pat—positions they have adopted during this period. With progress in SALT their measure of the political temperature, they consistently blame Washington for the present deterioration in relations and, conversely, look to Washington to reverse the trend. Yet they may still anticipate a turning point ahead; the virtual cessation of personal criticism of the President following his Charleston speech seemed such a signal;2 it has not, however, been matched as yet by any restraint in criticism of administration policies.

Officials Claim Perplexity

How far and how fast the Soviets originally expected to move with the Carter administration is open to question, but there is no doubt as to their dismay and disappointment over the record of the administration’s first six months in US–USSR relations. Private observations on the President by Soviet officialdom, though few and generally modulated, have reflected perplexity or puzzlement, mainly about his stand on human rights, which according to the Soviets, does not betoken a forthcoming attitude toward the Soviet Union.

—In an unusually frank statement, Politburo candidate member Solomentsev told a visiting Canadian official in June that the Soviet leaders gave President Carter the benefit of the doubt the first few months but could not understand how it was possible for a President of the United States after only a few weeks in office to try to humiliate the Soviet government by receiving Bukovskiy in the White House.3 How, Solomentsev asked rhetorically, could Carter reconcile his statements about wanting good relations with the USSR with his “constant interference” in Soviet internal affairs? The Soviets, he said, wanted to trust the President but could not because he was using human rights as a “weapon” to attack the USSR.

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—Without directly mentioning the President, Politburo member Romanov reportedly also mentioned to a visiting West European that the US SALT proposals were “the greatest display of cynicism imaginable” because they traded on European nuclear vulnerability while guaranteeing the US immunity.

—At a Bastille Day reception in Moscow, senior Soviet military officers complained about the administration and one contrasted President Carter unfavorably with his last four predecessors, saying the President did not seem to want to strengthen ties with the Soviet Union.

—A Soviet Foreign Ministry official complained to a visiting American that President Carter is not prepared to deal with the Soviets as equals and termed his stance on human rights as “a well-thought-out, well-planned campaign of psychological warfare, as a special instrument to be employed in the struggle against the socialist countries.”

Early Hopes and Doubts in Perspective

The Soviets apparently calculated initially that the President would move quickly to revive detente momentum which they viewed as having slowed to a virtual standstill during the US election campaign. To this end, Brezhnev on the eve of the inauguration volunteered assurance to the new President that the Soviets would not put him to a “test of nerves.” In his January 18 speech at Tula, Brezhnev expressed the mood of the moment when he said: “We are prepared jointly with the new administration in the United States to accomplish a new major advance in relations between our two countries.”

Nonetheless, Soviet apprehensions about the new administration were evident. President Podgorny told Ambassador Toon two days before the inauguration that while he was hopeful the President would move quickly to strengthen ties with the Soviet Union, he and his colleagues were somewhat disturbed at the “negative noises” of the election campaign. He made clear “negative noises” meant how much influence proponents of a harder policy toward the Soviet Union would have on the new President. Pravda January 15, for example, had accused President Ford in his last days in office of yielding to pressures from the military-industrial complex in approving higher military spending and in trying to saddle the new administration with this policy. Similar wariness was reflected in Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn (signed to press January 19) which warned that toughness, “haggling stubbornly” or exerting pressure on the Soviet Union “to obtain the maximum from it” was an approach without prospects, and that “any attempts to exert pressure and to test our country’s will and the stability of its positions on particular questions will be resolutely rebuffed.”

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Moreover, Brezhnev’s Tula speech, besides offering an olive branch, identified some sore points in the new relationship:

—“adding new questions to those that are currently being discussed in SALT”;

—“attempting to teach us how to live according to rules that are incompatible with socialist democracy, with socialist law and order.”

Assurances of cordiality notwithstanding, it was clear the Kremlin anticipated difficulties even before the SALT negotiations resumed and before human rights took on an entirely unexpected (for the Soviets) aspect outside the CSCE context.

SALT: A Consistent Public Stance

Actual Soviet expectations about the prospects for achieving a SALT II agreement expeditiously with the new administration may have been less optimistic than the media or Soviet spokesmen generally implied. Brezhnev had placed SALT at the head of his list of priorities in relations with the US in the Tula call for an agreement “on the basis that we had reached in Vladivostok . . . in the nearest future.” These two caveats—on the basis of Vladivostok, and in the nearest future—were also stressed in the media. The Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn piece noted that “the Soviet Union is ready to go even further in the fields of strategic arms limitation but it is first necessary to implement what was agreed in Vladivostok.” And Izvestiya January 21 made the identical point.

Thus, the arguments following the Vance visit in March had already been aired,4 at least in their essential outlines, weeks beforehand; from Moscow’s viewpoint, the US had clearly been put on notice long before March about the basic Soviet position.

In any event, the guarded optimism expressed about SALT in January cooled considerably during February and March. USA Institute head Arbatov, a chief advocate of Soviet-US rapprochement, warned in Pravda February 5 of a US “psychosis” about a Soviet military threat, denied the Soviets were seeking more than strategic parity, and stressed the negative consequences of failure to achieve an agreement before expiration of the interim accord in October 1977.

A few days later, February 9, on Moscow TV, Arbatov worried more specifically about the cruise missile as:

“a weapons system on its way which is very dangerous from the point of destabilizing the situation, not to mention that it will be a new [Page 170] factor in the arms race, and will lead to political consequences such as a deterioration of the international situation.”

By mid-March, against the background of the swelling human rights dispute, the Soviets were airing in greater detail the problems they foresaw for the upcoming negotiations on SALT with Secretary Vance, whose late March visit they had announced without fanfare early in the month. Pravda March 13 observed that the President’s statement of March 9 allowing for deferral of cruise missile limits from the new agreement was “a certain departure from the previous US stand,” saw a contradiction in US words about “mutual trust” and the “hullabaloo” it had raised on human rights, and interpreted the latter as an attempt to exert pressure on the Soviet Union and “bargain for concessions,” implicitly on SALT.

Brezhnev’s March 21 trade unions speech threw an early pall of pessimism over prospects for the Vance meeting. Avoiding substantive comments on SALT (he referred only to the 1974 agreements, not to Vladivostok), Brezhnev observed that the new administration’s first two months in power did not “seem to show a striving to overcome” the stagnation in relations with the Soviet Union. And in his stark warning that the USSR would “not tolerate interference in our internal affairs by anyone and under any pretext—a normal development of relations on such a basis is of course unthinkable,” he expressed the prevailing mood of irritation in Moscow toward the administration.

Watershed in March

Secretary Vance’s trip to Moscow marked something of a watershed in US-Soviet relations. Up to that point, the Soviets, despite evident misgivings and doubts, at least appeared to be acting on the assumption that an agreement before October was in prospect. Their attitude toward the Carter administration, while soured compared to January, was still relatively punctilious. And they gave the impression that while it was up to the US to take the initiative to improve relations, they themselves would be responsive, or at least not totally unresponsive.

Gromyko’s unprecedented press conference of March 31 at the conclusion of the talks with the Secretary revealed a far greater chasm in the relationship than the Soviets had disclosed publicly up to that point. Obviously peeved at the White House statement on the talks5 “even before the Secretary returned to Washington,” Gromyko sought to set aright what he called “distortions” of the Soviet position. Gro[Page 171]myko ranged over the whole gamut of disarmament questions, but focused his animus on US motives and intentions in offering the USSR alternative SALT packages which it supposedly knew could only be rejected. He charged, in essence, that the US was trying unilaterally to revise agreed Vladivostok formulas; equating the cruise missile with the “non-strategic” Backfire bomber and then claiming that the cruise missile had not been covered at Vladivostok; and attempting to gain strategic advantage for itself by proposing limits on ICBM’s, an area of Soviet strength.

Gromyko, to be sure, did not close the door to future bargaining but warned pointedly that any change in the basic Vladivostok framework—an obvious reference to the US proposal for significant reductions—would reopen the whole question of the US Forward Base System in Europe. His statements suggested, however, that the Soviets had concluded the new administration was out for tactical leverage in its approach and indicated their response would be to hunker down. “The more attempts there are to play a game in this matter, to tread on the foot of the partner,” he declared, “the more difficulties there will be.”

Gromyko’s arguments set the stage for a spate of public statements on SALT and relations with the US. Pravda’s lengthy April 14 editorial argued Gromyko’s main contentions even more pointedly, denying they were merely an excuse to gain time to study the American proposals because of their “drastic character.” Pravda also charged that if the US, as some contended, knew its proposals were not going to be accepted, then they were made “only to create a pretext for talking about Soviet intransigence.”

Subsequent commentators, in “clarifying” and justifying the Soviet position, took a multifaceted approach, which, however, seemed to grow increasingly defensive as time went on. They:

—intensified attacks on the specifics of the US proposals, stressing the need to observe the “main parameters” of Vladivostok (but subsequently hinting at flexibility on certain points);

—publicized various long-standing Soviet initiatives on other disarmament issues;

—stressed “equality and equal security” and US “realism” as requirements for any agreement; and

—attacked US military spending and new arms programs.

But they also began to give increasing weight to the President’s domestic problems, picturing him as under heavy pressure from the military-industrial complex and its supporters in Congress. In effect, they gradually began blaming the March SALT results on these forces, and on Senator Jackson in particular, who purportedly had “a great, if [Page 172] not a decisive” voice in formulating the US package and in advising the administration to “take a hard line.”

As the date for the next Vance-Gromyko meeting in Geneva approached, the coverage took on a more optimistic cast. A Pravda May 7 editorial, apparently aimed at countering impressions abroad that rejection of the US March proposals implied a Soviet unwillingness to consider substantial arms reductions, argued the USSR had always been the prime mover in international disarmament endeavors. And as the Soviet-US SALT delegations resumed talks, media and spokesmen once again began to stress Soviet willingness to seek agreement, pledging that the USSR would respond to a “realistic attitude” on the part of the US.

When Gromyko and Vance met in Geneva May 18–20 the atmosphere was definitely less charged. The signing ceremony for the agreement on the use of outer space for peaceful purposes was cordial, and the “Joint Report” issued May 206 spoke of a “businesslike” forum. Following the meeting, TASS reported Secretary Vance’s statement that “full agreement” had been reached on the general framework for a SALT II accord even though substantial differences remained to be negotiated. The Soviet press also underscored the Joint Report’s conclusion that the talks had achieved “progress” on a general framework for further talks.

But Gromyko, while acknowledging “some progress” on “certain problems,” made the point in leaving Geneva that “this does not mean a solution of the main questions is close in sight. . . . The conclusion of the work of drafting the agreement is still a long way off.”

In keeping with Gromyko’s thrust, Moscow then continued to play up alleged US obstinacy on SALT affairs, and minimized prospects for quick progress. Soviet media accused the President of “skating around” SALT in his May 24 speech at Notre Dame,7 contrasting his tone with Brezhnev’s somber evaluation to French TV May 29: “The positions have drawn closer to a certain degree. . . yet it must be said frankly that there has been no serious progress so far because of the unconstructive line pursued by the US.” This line, Brezhnev said, did not promote the conclusion of an agreement.

Brezhnev also privately told the French in late June of his concern over the way the SALT negotiations were going, and after his trip to France stated flatly that “no progress” had been achieved. He capped [Page 173] this off with a letter to President Carter July 5 [June 30],8 replying to one of the President’s in June, throwing cold water on a summit unless there were some agreements to sign, a line Arbatov reiterated to US officials in early August.

Meanwhile, attacks against US military programs proliferated, ranging from accusations that US foreign policy was being militarized to charges that the US was using the stalemate in SALT to advance new weapons development and using the latter in turn to pressure the USSR. The President’s July 1 announcement of his decision on the B–1 bomber/cruise missile evidently caught the Soviets by surprise; in response they downgraded the B–1, one of their prime targets in the past, to a propaganda ploy, and concentrated instead on the cruise missile. US statements on the neutron bomb then replaced the cruise missile as a prime propaganda target, and the TASS statement of July 30 on that subject signaled another mass media/communist-front campaign against the US.

Moscow’s record of public adamancy on SALT remained unaffected by the President’s July 21 speech in Charleston; Arbatov in his August 3 Pravda unofficial response to that speech merely reiterated basic Soviet arguments. The regime at that point had, however, still not given an official response to the President’s overture.

Criticism of President Carter

While the Soviets traditionally give a new US President a honeymoon period before resuming the inevitable attacks on US policies, President Carter’s emphasis on human rights quickly diverted Moscow from its customary approach. The sharpest and most direct criticism of the President has invariably been pegged to some element of his stance on human rights. Although the media ignored the issue in reporting the President’s inaugural address, it was barely a month before the administration was accused of playing an ill-intentioned role in its human rights “campaign.” The President’s letter to Andrei Sakharov 9 struck a particularly sensitive nerve, and although the Soviets did not publicize it domestically they in effect answered the President officially with the February 17 letter by Deputy Prosecutor General Gusev to the New York Times 10 warning against outside interference in Soviet domestic affairs. The March Vance visit and its aftermath briefly distracted attention from the theme, but in mid-April Soviet media linked the administration’s decision to expand Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty activities [Page 174] directly to its actions on human rights. And on April 9, TASS director general Zamyatin and CPSU Central Committee International Department head Zagladin11 described the Carter human rights position to TV audiences as an “acute anti-Soviet campaign,” Zagladin charging that support for dissidents was in effect the same as encouraging “appeals for the overthrow of the existing system in the Soviet Union.”

The “First Hundred Days” served as the occasion for other unflattering comments as well. One commentator May 18 claimed the President was still conducting an election campaign instead of solving problems—this time with his eye on 1980—and sarcastically chided him by name for delivering “moralistic homilies” to the American people. Another equally negative assessment observed that in 15 weeks the “administration” had not managed to accomplish anything substantial.

The President’s report to the Congressional CSCE Commission in June generated a torrent of criticism.12 TASS veteran Kornilov, in perhaps the sharpest language to date, charged the President with using the “most absurd and wild concoctions” from “reactionary bourgeois propaganda” in the report and “openly” encouraging a “malicious” publicity campaign over alleged Soviet violations of the Helsinki agreements.

Brezhnev’s Le Monde interview of mid-June was evidently meant in part to answer the President’s CSCE report, as well as to warn that the then convening Belgrade preparatory meeting on CSCE would be difficult if the US persisted in its human rights stand. Brezhnev did not mention the President by name but left no doubt as to his target when he said “the ideological struggle should not grow into psychological war” and warned that if it did, the dispute might “develop into a catastrophe in which . . . along with millions of people their concepts will perish as well.”

Perhaps in deference to private US complaints, and in any event under cover of a shift of media emphasis to US military policy, the personal association of the President with critiques of US policy subsequently began to diminish gradually. Six-month assessments by such veteran propagandists as Valentin Zorin and Yuriy Kornilov, while critical of the administration, were more moderate in tone than earlier pieces by these same critics, and not noticeably focused on the President personally. As on the occasion of the 100-day benchmark, however, their conclusions both in the domestic and foreign policy spheres were largely negative.

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Reporting on President Carter’s July 21 Charleston speech was virtually free of personal criticism. Almost simultaneously, a New Times editorial asserted that in the current difficult phase of US-Soviet relations the correct policy is “not to dramatize this but to display reserve and patience”;13 New Times was optimistic that Washington would eventually return to a “constructive” line. Arbatov’s August 3 Pravda piece, while critical of policies (but not the President), reflected the same upbeat theme.

Other Bilateral Activities

The decline in the general atmosphere did not have an immediately measurable impact on day-to-day US-Soviet bilateral contacts, which in general continued to move along established patterns. On the whole the Soviets seemed eager to build up further the network of activities under the various bilateral agreements, some of which are now in their fifth year or going into a renewal phase. In response to US demands for greater reciprocity, the Soviets were cooperative in some areas; in others they pleaded bureaucratic difficulties or continued their less-than-forthcoming positions.

Since January, agreements have been reached on further cooperation in manned space flight and in the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes; the bilateral science and technology agreement14 has been renewed for another five-year period; and an accord reached on correcting certain imbalances favoring the USSR in the maritime shipping field. The Soviets also showed some flexibility on certain civil air matters long under negotiation, and assigned a top civil air ministry official as their permanent representative in the US, signifying interest in solution of other issues. The two sides also reached agreement on beginning construction of the Washington-Moscow embassy complexes, and several of the working groups established by the Vance-Gromyko meeting got underway, that on the Indian Ocean completing its first round successfully in June.

On the long-standing trade/MFN/credits stalemate, the Soviets have scaled down, if not written off, expectations for any improvement in the foreseeable future. They had evidently originally anticipated the Carter administration would bring Congress around to rescinding the 1974 restrictions, but that hope has now been all but abandoned. The trade issue is no longer a bellwether of the relationship with the US, although the Soviets continue at every opportunity to stress the need for normalization in this area.

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81D109, Box 12, US-Soviet Relations, 1977. Secret. Prepared by Isabel Kulski and approved by Martha Mautner, both of INR. In the upper right corner of the first page, an unknown hand wrote, “Advance copy from INR, 8/77.”
  2. Carter delivered a speech in Charleston, South Carolina on July 21. See Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book II, pp. 1309–1315.
  3. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the President met with Bukovskiy on March 1 from 3:30 to 3:37 p.m. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials)
  4. For the disagreements regarding SALT after Vance’s March visit, see Documents 24 and 26.
  5. For information regarding Gromyko’s press conference, see footnote 4, Document 27. Carter’s remarks about SALT and the negotiations, March 30, 1977, are in Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, pp. 538–544.
  6. The Geneva meetings specifically addressed SALT issues. A copy of the May 20 “Joint Report” was not found.
  7. The text of Carter’s May 22 Notre Dame commencement speech is in Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, pp. 954–962.
  8. See Document 35.
  9. See Document 5.
  10. The letter is described in Sergei I. Gusev, “Moscow, On Sakharov,” The New York Times, February 23, 1977, p. 19.
  11. Leonid Mitrofanovich Zamyatin and Vadim Zagladin.
  12. Not found.
  13. Not found.
  14. See footnote 2, Document 36.