50. Memorandum From Richard Pipes of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Allen)1


  • Derek Leebaert’s Meeting with Arbatov

Derek Leebaert dropped by this afternoon and left this fuller version of his talk with Arbatov.2 It reinforces my feeling that Arbatov is deeply frustrated by his inability to communicate with U.S. Government officials, which is his stock in trade, while his arch-rival Dobrynin has contacts. He pretends to speak for the Soviet Government whereas he really speaks on his own behalf. His advice to Leebaert to use KGB channels in the Soviet Embassy rather than Dobrynin’s is amusing. So is his uncertainty whether you are quite as hard-line as I. (C)


Report Prepared by Derek Leebaert3

This is a rough draft report of specific conversation in Moscow with G. Arbatov. A detailed essay that covers the entire trip is now being prepared.

[Page 130]

This is a report of a two hour talk with Georgy Arbatov on Friday 17 April. 12:00 through 2:00 had originally been set aside for a second one-on-one conversation with Bogdanov. We had spent approximately four and half hours the preceeding Wednesday talking together.

After delivering a morning lecture at the USA Institute on the 17th, I was told by Bogdanov that something “extremely important” would take place instead. He and I then went into Arbatov’s office. I had been told on my arrival (Tuesday 14th April) that I “might” meet the Institute director later in my eight day visit. By 17 April I was told that Arbatov had been back for 3 days.

The details of the conversation with Arbatov are related below. There were no more than six one-sentence interjections by Bogdanov during these two hours; he was nervous and fidgety throughout. Arbatov stressed from the beginning that I was the first visitor with Administration contacts and a Republican identification to visit the Soviet Union since the inauguration. He said that he knew that I was visiting the Institute in a private capacity and that I was not a part of the Administration. Nevertheless, he emphasized strongly this part of “being the first” and of being representative of both a new sort of policy-maker in Washington and of a new foreign policy perspective. He said that he understood that I knew his son from the United States and that I would be seeing him in Moscow.

The discussion followed with only one interruption for tea to be delivered. After Bogdanov and I left the office together, he took me aside in the hallway and again said how “extremely important” the conversation with Arbatov had been. He said that he would explain why in his office in an hour and forty-five minutes later when I returned from my lunch with Sergey Plekhanov (head of general studies of U.S. domestic politics).

Arbatov’s themes concerned the potential consequences of what the highest Soviet officials see as undiluted personal insults, irresponsible new U.S. political actors, and the termination of all channels of communication. The Soviet leadership, he argued, cannot bear this indefinitely. What many of them perceive is entirely new U.S. political/military direction of which intemperate statements from Washington are only a small part. Major Soviet foreign policy decisions have to be made, and their formulations cannot help but be affected by this nearly unprecedented U.S.-Soviet environment.

He emphasized that this was not time to quarrel over the bureaucratic politics of how influential his Institute may be or what personal policy influence he has on the highest leadership. The problem is that the leadership is under great pressure to reply forcefully. It is not simply that the leadership is running out of patience (there are reserves left), but rather that Moscow is far less unitary than Washington thinks [Page 131] and that the pressures are increasing. They need a signal—any at all—that there are possibilities of working with the new Administration. They need some light.

A signal is needed because of those already conveyed by Moscow. Does Washington not understand the Percy visit or the 26th Party Congress speech, he asked. It would have been far easier for Brezhnev to make a strident “tighten the belt” speech in February. The Secretary could have been more popular had he done this because such a speech would have both addressed foreign policy and would have helped explain the domestic problems that were acknowledged frankly. Arbatov apparently advised him not to reply in kind because Brezhnev would be playing into the hands of those people in Washington with whom the Soviet Union cannot do business. There are some people who one cannot deal with and will stab you in the back. Allen, Weinberger, Pipes, Perle (responsible for the worst of the Jackson policies), and Lehman were cited as examples although Arbatov acknowledged that he was uncertain whether the first two were as close-minded as the others.

He said that the leadership obviously recognizes that there have been U.S. officials with whom it could deal. Kissinger and Hyland were mentioned and he asked about the influence of Sonnenfeldt. But the criticism of the new U.S. security policy officials continued. He said that he told the leadership that he had never seen such a low intellectual level in Washington. There is an obvious understanding that U.S. leaders have to pay off political debts by giving people positions but this was going too far (although some extremists had admittedly been excluded). But how long can the current situation continue, and what will be the results? What would happen if the Yom Kippur War occurred today? He said that he had a real fear of the consequences at this moment of any confrontation in the third world.

The foreign policy of the Soviet Union like all states is made in day to day decisions which this environment is affecting. Moreover, he repeated, there are pressures for less restraint. (When asked to be specific he spoke of replies in kind, that SALT could not just lie, and that decisions would have to be made.) At what he called the most basic level, Arbatov showed a file of supposedly indignant letters he had received from readers because of his moderate writings in Pravda. He still says that he believes that the Administration has not yet reached any policy, although this is an optimistic view. But what will happen in the meantime? There are people in the Soviet Union who are talking about fascist influences in Washington.

The lack of U.S.-Soviet communication resulting from the current climate arose throughout. He spoke of an obvious recognition of new political actors “such as you” as opposed to the others that the Soviet [Page 132] Union had been dealing with. He had chosen not to communicate with them until recently (the Kintner discussion in December had some positive results) and now there are no formal or informal contacts with the Administration. They were surprised by comments from Weinberger, but hope that Meese and Bush who do not yet seem to have such views will be influential. All channels have been cut off, and this includes not even going to Geneva. The absence of a U.S. Ambassador was noted and that, after all, it is the United States that chooses to deal with Dobrynin because he is so competent. With some few exceptions, the U.S. Ambassadors have not been valuable or very bright. What is happening with Scowcroft?

Random points were included in the conversation either as illustrations or as asides. They included: The U.S. is going to lift the grain embargo anyway (although Arbatov would tell the leadership to make it clear that they could get along without it); the Soviet Union got along well for sixteen years without U.S. diplomatic relations and could do without them now; the stridency of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were noted, and he said that Voice of America is important; Arbatov would like to advise the Soviet leaders to let the U.S. proceed with TNF because it will tear the Alliance apart; any recent stridency from Tass is blamed on inadequate night editing of the wire reports; and the danger of combining U.S. weapon developments with the existing rhetoric. And the cheap public diplomacy of the parking garage space and of the visa extension are minor events that were seen as public humiliations of the Soviet Union.

Arbatov presented the common view of an encircled Soviet Union facing not only the U.S. but two of its nuclear allies as well as another ally with an army that is better than that of the U.S. TNF was addressed briefly and reference was made to the moratorium proposal. It was implied that once talks started and Soviet deployments had halted, the U.S. could then begin introducing some of its own weaponry without Soviet resumption. But it was reemphasized that they could do more with defense, by pleas for national sacrifice as they have done in the past.

There is considerable anxiety that Soviet signals and the difficulties of restraint are not seen in Washington because people are preoccupied with other concerns, are simply too inexperienced, or already have closed minds on how to proceed.

Arbatov asked that the contents of this discussion be relayed to the highest U.S. officials (Meese and Bush were implied) and not just turned over to Allen and Pipes. (Haig was not stressed, and it seemed that Arbatov was uncertain about his influence and tenure.) Arbatov said that “we do not want to use Dobrynin for this” and that there are no ways to communicate. I was asked to reply through Soviet diplo[Page 133]matic pouch about the response to this discussion. I was asked to do this as soon as possible and that no one would need to know of such a communication.

Two hours later I met with Bogdanov in his office. He said that Arbatov had met with Secretary Brezhnev that morning and that Brezhnev had been personally reading Arbatov’s cables from the U.S. Bogdanov reemphasized the “extreme importance of what just happened” (e.g. the talk with Arbatov), saying that it was by far the most important point of the visit. He said that official channels with the U.S. cannot be used for this.

Bogdanov said that after the lunch he and I had two days previously, he had spoken with several important people in the government. He said that it is the highest level of the Soviet government that knows of this first quasi-official visit and of presumed contacts with the Administration. He made it explicit that the highest level wanted to establish a channel of communication, and that this is more important than ever. He said that they cannot use the Soviet embassy for this and that a reply is hoped for through pouch.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Meese Files, Box CFOA 160, USSR—1981 (General). Confidential. Sent for information. Telegram 12 from the FBI Director to the White House Situation Room, May 5, relayed Leebaert’s report on his meeting with Arbatov to the FBI. At the time of the Arbatov encounter, Leebaert was serving as managing editor of International Security. (Ibid.)
  2. On May 6, Pipes sent Leebaert’s FBI report (see footnote 1) to Allen under cover of a memorandum in which he wrote: “That Arbatov should have felt it necessary to use as a conduit a young man without official connections with the Reagan Administration suggests the degree of nervousness in Moscow over the refusal of this Administration to negotiate for the sake of negotiating. Arbatov’s downgrading of Dobrynin’s talks with Haig is indicative of his long-standing dislike for the Soviet Ambassador in Washington and his frustration at having been cut off from his usual channels of communications in the United States to Dobrynin’s advantage. Noteworthy too is Arbatov’s focusing on Meese. I believe he (and others in Moscow) are desperately trying to arrange an end-run around you and the NSC Staff to get directly at the President. This bears watching.” (Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC: Country File, USSR (05/01/1981–05/06/1981)
  3. No classification marking.