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

7232. Subject: U.S.-Soviet Talks on Conventional Arms Transfers. Ref: (A) State 80818,2 (B) Moscow 6771.3

1. The Embassy has the following comments and views on the coming CAT talks set for Helsinki May 4. Our observations of last December on the Soviet approach in the first round4 seem in general to remain valid for Helsinki. We continue to think that the cautious and conservative approach of the Soviets will remain unchanged.

2. The evidence seems to indicate that the Soviets consider the current stage of the talks to be only exploratory. To underline this they have pointedly suggested that the talks be referred to as consultations and not “working group” discussions. (Mendelevich on April 4 also questioned the use of the term “working group” for the CAT talks.) Furthermore, the thrust of Mendelevich’s remarks on April 4 showed that the Soviets still have doubts that U.S.-Soviet cooperation on CAT can be fruitful. He claimed that a final decision to continue with the talks cannot be made until after the conclusion of the next round. We would estimate, therefore, that although the Soviets will, as Mendelevich indicated, take the lead in Helsinki, they will not go so far as to elaborate a series of specific proposals.

3. Khlestov’s few substantive comments in December and Mendelevich’s remarks indicate that they will instead press hard on the question of those political principles which ought, in their view, to govern the transfer of arms. In this respect we see the “legal” approach of Khlestov as continuing with Mendelevich. He will likely argue that the “principles” are paramount and that they must be treated before deciding whether and how to control transfers. While this is very thin [Page 715]gruel for the coming session, Mendelevich is capable of spreading it over the four days of talks with questions and comments on the U.S. approach completing his contribution to the session. Clearly the Soviets are not in a great hurry to make progress, although they will make every effort to avoid appearing to be the brake on the talks.

4. Although the change to Mendelevich from Khlestov will certainly result in some minor changes in style and substance, we do not think that the basic approach will be greatly affected in this coming round. Mendelevich’s designation is probably the result of a combination of factors. First, the LOS session has just begun in Geneva and could be crucial to the success of a LOS agreement. Khlestov has been a senior Soviet participant in the LOS process since its inception. He headed previous Soviet LOS Delegations and as an MFA department chief he has chief responsibility for back-stopping the current round. Thus, substantively and bureaucratically his participation in the CAT talks at this time may be difficult.

5. Mendelevich, on the other hand, has no line responsibilities within MFA and his only other responsibility, the Indian Ocean talks, are not so pressing as to occupy him full time. Finally, MFA USA Department First Secretary Kuznetsov told us that the Soviet side does not consider that the CAT talks have reached the point where the treaty and legal expertise which Khlestov has can be fully utilized. This is another way of saying that the talks are too preliminary to warrant his taking time from his other duties to devote attention to CAT. Whether Khlestov will return to CAT at a later stage is a question, although Mendelevich would have US believe he will not, since on April 4 he characterized his duties in CAT as “permanent.”

6. Mendelevich has virtually assured US that he will continue to press the “legal” argumentation which Khlestov began last December. From the Soviet point of view such an approach is most advantageous because it focuses attention on the question of “who” has a “legitimate” need for arms and not “what” arms should or should not be supplied. Khlestov’s reference to “principles” in December clearly indicated that the “racist” and “aggressor” states should not be “legal” recipients and that states exercising “legitimate self-defense” and National Liberation Movements should be. Before moving on to the question of “what” should be supplied to these latter (i.e., the “technical” issue in the words of Mendelevich), the Soviets will wish to call into question the legitimacy of transfers to the former.

7. It is in this area that the Soviets will likely have their sharpest criticism (polemics are not Mendelevich’s style) of the U.S. for what Mendelevich referred to on April 4 as “undesirable transfers.” Israel (“aggressor”), South Africa (“racist”), Iran and Saudi Arabia (“arms in excess of self-defense needs”) are some of the “bad” examples of U.S. [Page 716]arms transfers which are likely to be singled out. (The use of U.S. supplied arms in Lebanon by Israel recently will be particularly attractive to them as a case in point.)

8. However, Khlestov seemed to indicate in December that a regional approach to arms transfers was not a proper topic for the discussions. Instead he thought the “main topic” was the question of a “general limitation of the international arms trade.” Since the logic of the Soviet position argues that the regional problems are only the reflection of the global “principles,” we think that they will try to stay away from a discussion of regional arms transfer restraint in favor of a more general discussion of universally applicable “principles.”

9. On what Mendelevich described as the “technical” level, it appears from what he said that the Soviets will not make a point of differences with the suggested approaches which the U.S. side outlined in the December round. Rather, Mendelevich said he would have “questions” about these approaches. The Soviet tactic might be to claim that since these are “technical” details, they deserve additional exposition, not debate, at this stage of the discussions. Such a posture, combined with a Soviet statement that they agree in principle that these U.S. suggestions are acceptable—although not all inclusive—would assist the Soviets in focusing the discussion on the “political, legal” issues as they see them.

10. In sum, we foresee a rather desultory round of talks, not dissimilar to the December session with the difference that in this one the Soviet side will be a more active participant.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780153–1117. Confidential; Priority; Exdis.
  2. In telegram 80818 to Moscow, March 29, the Department of State asked for an “Embassy assessment of what we might expect from the Soviet side” when the conventional arms transfers talks resumed in Helsinki in May. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780136–1095)
  3. In response to telegram 80818 to Moscow, March 29, the Embassy reported in telegram 6771, April 5, that Soviet Ambassador-at-Large L.I. Mendelevich “avoided specific comments” about the conventional arms transfers talks and stuck to “general observations of U.S. December presentation and Soviet presentation in May in Helsinki. He recognized that it is Soviet turn to give their views, and claimed his remarks in Helsinki will be more ‘political/legal’ and less ‘technical’ than U.S. December presentation.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780148–0001)
  4. See Document 283.