85. Informal Notes on a Meeting Between Secretary of State Vance and Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin1

1. Dobrynin came in at his request for the purpose of delivering a letter from Brezhnev to the President.2 He presented the Russian text and an unofficial translation prepared in the Soviet Embassy. (He commented as he did so that he was doing our work for us, and that we did not generally prepare a Russian translation of our letters to Brezhnev.)

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2. The Brezhnev letter is a reply to the President’s letter of January ,3 and matches the President’s letter in its blunt tone, and round-up coverage of a number of issues. However, it is in line with recent Brezhnev speeches that express concern about the state of US-Soviet relations and a desire to seek an improvement. It probably was written before the Brezhnev speeches of last week, and lacks the upbeat suggestion of steps to infuse a new dynamism in the relationship.

The letter expresses disappointment at the lack of progress in the SALT negotiations since the Gromyko visit to Washington last September, and protests what he sees as our use of domestic opposition to SALT to gain bargaining advantages.

On the neutron bomb, the letter also expresses disappointment with the President’s reply, and repeats the concern that the neutron bomb would lower the nuclear threshold.

He remonstrates US linkage of arms control negotiations with other issues, particularly the Horn, and repeats that Soviet objectives in the Horn are limited to helping Ethiopia resist Somali aggression.

On the Middle East, the letter responds by saying that it is the US, not the SU, that has departed from the common approach agreed upon in the joint statement of October 1, and has encouraged separate negotiations between Egypt and Israel. Other Arab states will not participate even if these bilateral negotiations succeed, he says, and therefore only a comprehensive settlement at Geneva can resolve the situation.

3. The Secretary asked if Dobrynin had a report on the Assad conversations in Moscow. Dobrynin said he had not yet received the information, but would hope to be able to convey a report shortly.

4. ASAT. The Secretary informed Dobrynin that the US is prepared to begin discussions on this subject in April at Geneva, and covered the other points set forth in the agreed talking points.

Dobrynin replied that, as Brezhnev had said in a previous letter, the ASAT discussions should cover not only the satellite versus satellite problem, but also the shuttle system versus satellite situation.

5. Sparkman Letter on Compliance. The Secretary then conveyed to Dobrynin excerpts from a statement made 2/28 by Senator Sparkman, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in putting into the Congressional Record the paper prepared by the State Department on the record of compliance with the SALT I agreement. Dobrynin replied with satisfaction to Sparkman’s statement absolving the Soviet Union of the charge of cheating on the agreement.

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6. Matzoh Packages. The Secretary raised with Dobrynin the question of the Soviet postal ban against the shipment of matzohs for the Passover, and said a repeal of the ban would be welcomed here. If this were not possible, at least it would help if the Soviet authorities would make a sufficient quantity of flour available for matzoh production by the Jewish communities in the larger cities.

Dobrynin at first replied with a diversion about how many dissidents, most of them Jews, received certificates from abroad which enabled them to purchase whiskey at the dollar shops. When he was brought back to the matzoh issue, he suggested that Toon should raise the matter in Moscow. He then added more seriously that when relations were good, such small issues could be more easily resolved, but when relations were bad, people in Moscow tended to respond by asking why they should accommodate us.

7. SALT. In a brief exchange, Dobrynin expressed concern about reports that the US did not intend to proceed with the Treaty and its ratification this year. He said the Soviet side had made all the concessions since the Washington meeting, but there had not been a corresponding action on the US side, and reports, including a conversation with Senator Cranston,4 indicated that ratification was not likely this year. The Secretary replied that it was the President’s intention to proceed expeditiously with the negotiation of the Treaty (which could be possible by the end of May), and to send it to the Senate for ratification soon thereafter. Dobrynin commented that it would depend upon whether the President chose to exert his leadership strongly on this issue. The Secretary said he would do so.

8. Horn. Dobrynin made a side comment expressing regret that in the State Department’s statement on 2/25 [27],5 responding positively to the Brezhnev speeches, the effect was spoiled by appending a warning on the Horn.

In the subsequent discussion of the Horn, Dobrynin asked: “What else could we do? We have transmitted assurances from the Ethiopians and the Cubans that they will not invade Somali territory.” He also asked: “Why are the Somalis so resisting the idea of withdrawing from the Ogaden?”

The Secretary pointed out that the large number of Cubans transported to Ethiopia and participating in combat was troubling to many Americans. To this, Dobrynin answered by comparing the situation in Ethiopia with the situation in Angola, where nothing had prevented [Page 291] the US from entering into a relationship with the MPLA when the SU did so. He also made the point that the Soviet Union broke with Somalia not to achieve military/strategic advantage, but because the Somalis wanted to launch an aggressive attack. Anyway, he added, it made no sense to cry alarm, as many people in this country did, about the danger of Soviet forces cutting the oil line of communications. “How could we do it?” he asked. “This would clearly be an act of war and, in case of war, such actions would be dwarfed in significance.” The concept of lines of communication, as through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, he argued, were anachronisms in the present period.

The discussion then turned to the US supply of weapons to Iran and Saudi Arabia which, Dobrynin said, was a matter of concerned discussion even up to the Politburo level. The Secretary referred to Soviet shipment of weapons to Iraq as a source of concern to Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Dobrynin argued these concerns were not proportionate to Iraq’s capabilities.

  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 3, CV–Dobrynin, 2/28/78. Secret. Drafted by Shulman on March 1.
  2. See Document 84.
  3. Omission is in the original. Carter’s January 25 letter is Document 77.
  4. Senator Alan Cranston (D-California).
  5. The text of press release 95 of February 27 is printed in Department of State Bulletin, April 1978, p. 43.