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

17935. Subject: Soviet Attitudes on Conventional Arms Transfer Controls. Ref: State 293007.2

Summary and Introduction

The Embassy’s assessment of Soviet attitudes towards the Conventional Arms Transfers (CAT) talks is that the Russians will initially play a conservative, waiting game. We base this assessment on our evaluation of a variety of factors which we believe contribute to (A) an inhibition on the part of the Soviets to change their current policies in this area and (B) a desire to explore and assess parameters of U.S. intentions [Page 697]on CAT. As they have told us on several occasions, their line is that arms transfers result from the political situation in a given area and that political solutions to existing differences must first be devised before realistic programs designed to control arms transfers can be implemented. In one sense this “policy” amounts to avoiding a CAT control policy. Nevertheless, it does not represent a totally negative attitude toward all aspects of arms transfers controls and thus permits the Soviets to take positive, if selective, stands towards such controls should they choose to do so. We feel that the Soviets will speak favorably, but not very concretely, about the possibilities for CAT controls in this first round of what they undoubtedly believe will be a long series of negotiations. End summary and introduction.

1. Factors inhibiting change: for the Soviets there are several factors which will incline them toward great caution in the CAT talks. Among these are:

—Oft repeated Soviet “principled” commitment to promote the cause of revolutionary liberation movements and “progressive” states in the third world. In these areas, the Soviets rely proportionately more than the U.S. on arms transfers to establish influence. Unlike the West, the Soviets generally lack the capability to significantly project their influence through financial, commercial and cultural means, particularly in comparison with the U.S. The Soviets may therefore feel they have proportionately more to lose in terms of influence if there is a mutual reduction in arms transfers.

—Soviets would be concerned about the Chinese (A) filling the vacuum produced by Soviet reduction in arms transfers to national liberation movements or “progressive” states; (B) denouncing the Soviets for working with U.S. to seek “super power hegemony.”

—The transfer of Soviet weaponry, even though individual items are sometimes discounted (e.g., to Peru) or even free (e.g., to Cuba), is a reliable means of acquiring substantial foreign exchange. To the extent that Soviet oil exports may decline, the sale of weaponry would assume a larger importance in this regard.

—Moscow may suspect that the U.S. will be primarily interested in attempting to concentrate arms transfer limitations on those very hot spots that the Soviets find the most tempting, i.e., the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

2. Factors arguing for controls: we would list the following:

—The failure of past enormous cumulative outlays of military assistance to third world countries (e.g., Indonesia, Egypt, Somalia) to provide important and lasting political returns cannot but have had an impact on the Soviet leadership. This factor alone must have contributed to the Soviet decision to participate in exploratory talks with the U.S. Soviet concerns influencing caution or reluctance listed para 2 will, however, need to be satisfied somewhat if talks are to reach tangible levels of progress.

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—Soviet concern that unchecked arms transfers will in the long run contribute to the modernization of the armed forces of a potentially dangerous (and eventually menacing) adversary: China.

3. Prospects for the current talks: We believe the Soviets will approach the current talks with the utmost caution, much in the manner in which they have examined other arms control proposals which impact on central political-military policies and activities, e.g., CTB and SALT. These talks will, therefore, be more difficult for the Soviets than those which have only a peripheral impact on foreign policy, e.g. chemical weapons, Indian Ocean, ENMOD. This caution will be further reinforced by the fact that the Soviets, to the best of our knowledge, have not yet developed a cohesive public policy with respect to arms transfers. Our attempts to draw MFA officials and USA institute staffers into detailed discussions of possible arms transfers controls have been unsuccessful. Over the past eight months (since the March proposal for a working group on this subject),3 we have elicited nothing more from our Soviet interlocutors than a restatement of the Soviet policy as outlined in the first paragraph above and the comment that, since these talks are at U.S. initiative, it is up to the U.S. to take the first step. Moreover, recent indirect contacts with relevant Soviet officials have failed to produce any signs of a new policy consensus. Although Soviets will be primarily interested in exploring U.S. intentions in the talks, they will not want to be put in a tactical disadvantage of simply discussing U.S. proposals. Instead, they will probably attempt to move the discussions along lines more favorable to them without clearly indicating their objectives in the CAT area. They may repeat the few consistent Soviet reactions which we have heard on this subject:

—A critical review of the volume and character of U.S. arms sales and transfers;

—A charge that U.S. practices set the tone and provide the momentum for world-wide conventional arms transfers;

—a criticism of the role played by U.S. allies in supplementing U.S. transfers. (We should of course be aware of the arms transfer role of such Soviet surrogates as the GDR and Czechoslovakia.)

5. It is possible that the Soviets may attempt to move the conversations towards discussions focusing on initial measures which would impact much more severely on the U.S. and its allies. An example of this might be some type of recommendation that would limit transfers of arms to Latin America (less Cuba) or to China. Or Soviets could sug[Page 699]gest that limitations apply only to highly sophisticated weapons which they tend not to supply in any case. The Soviets may be willing to take the plunge and suggest a discussion of arms limitations in the Persian Gulf region. They have often, privately and publicly, expressed their serious concern over U.S. arms sales to Iran and Saudia Arabia (while ignoring, of course, their own sales to Iran, Iraq—and now Kuwait). The Gulf is intimately linked to the M.E., a region which the Soviets would be most wary of discussing. But they may feel that, on balance, any process which could lead to controls on U.S. sales to Iran and Saudi Arabia would be manageable in terms of their own relationship to Iraq.

6. The Middle East is, clearly, a special case. Soviet M.E. policy has been built around the goal of limiting the U.S. military presence and influence in this region, which lies on the Southern borders of the Soviet Union, of developing a buffer zone of countries well disposed toward the Soviet Union, and—at least in the short run—of increasing Soviet political and military influence in the region. Due to the importance of Moscow’s arms supply to the Arabs in implementing Soviet policy in this region, we believe it is unlikely that Moscow would be interested in any serious limitation on their own arms transfers to the M.E., tempting as the prospect of U.S. limitations might be.

7. There might, however, be a possibility of making formal the de facto qualitative self-limitation which the two super powers already practice in the region. Contributing to this possibility is the fact that formerly greedy customers such as Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and, probably Jordan, no longer will feed at the Soviet trough. Also, arms shipped to Libya and other radicals may now constitute a surfeit and therefore the Soviets may be less reluctant to see some limitations. In this connection we recall the comment made by Brezhnev in his March 21, 1977 TUC speech, to wit:

“We already said that in connection with a peace settlement in the Middle East the relevant states could study the question of facilitating an ending of the arms race in that area. In general, the problem of international arms trade seems to merit an exchange of views.”

Brezhnev’s choice of words seemed to leave open the possibility of engaging in M.E. arms limitation talks prior to the actual achievements of a comprehensive M.E. peace settlement. Even if our hypothesis is valid, however, Moscow would almost certainly link such talks to simultaneous, serious negotiations on M.E. peace in the Geneva context. Since the Soviet interpretation of the Cairo meeting4 is that the pros[Page 700]pects for Geneva have been seriously set back, we doubt that Brezhnev’s words will be given this favorable interpretation by the Soviet CAT Delegation now.

8. The fact that Ambassador Khlestov will be leading the Soviet team does not seem to us to indicate either rapid or dramatic movement by the Soviets towards presenting a detailed, specific draft declaration or other substantive proposal. Khlestov, while affable, able, patient (witness his years in MBFR), is a mechanic, not a policy innovator. He and his advisors will, we believe, be more interested in determining the U.S. position and in establishing a positive Soviet posture towards arms transfers controls without specifically commiting themselves to practical actions. Since, as we pointed out above, we believe the Soviets will look upon these talks as almost as important to their current policies as CTB and SALT, we think that they will prefer to wait for subsequent rounds before making any major moves.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770463–0539. Confidential; Immediate.
  2. On December 8, the Department of State had asked for the Embassy’s “assessment as to likely tactics Soviet Delegation” to the CAT talks. (Telegram 293007 to Moscow, December 8; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770456–1169)
  3. During a March 29 press conference in Moscow, Vance said that he and Gromyko had agreed to set up bilateral working groups to discuss numerous issues, including conventional arms transfers. The text of the press conference is in telegram 3034 from the Secretary’s Delegation in Moscow, March 29; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770108–0039.
  4. Reference is to a meeting originally scheduled for December 3 in Cairo that had been postponed at the Carter administration’s request. For more on this subject, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, January 1977–August 1978, Document 161.