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

12552. For Assistant Secretary Eagleburger from Charge. Subject: Gromyko as an Interlocutor. Ref: State 237032.2

1. (Secret—Entire text).

2. The man: judging from his performance when meeting the Senators September 4,3 Gromyko is currently in good health and seems well rested from his vacation. He is as articulate as ever, and displays the quickness of reaction and mastery of facts for which he has long been noted. His approach is that of a consumate and pragmatic geopolitician; he rarely indulges in ideological discussion, and seems to have little patience for it. Despite the dour countenance he often displays in public, he has a sense of humor and a knack for wry jokes and homey but opposite similes to drive home his points. His mind-set is relatively closed, however, and he is not noted for seizing upon new ideas. On the contrary, he usually forces new facts into the mental pigeonholes formed years ago and is not easily swayed from his preconceptions. His basic instinct is to continue doggedly along the course which has been set, relying on persistence and consistency to wear his opponents down. He is, however, more realistic than (for example) a Suslov, knows the world outside the Soviet Union far better, and is more capable of doing geopolitical sums which reflect the actual situation. This means that, however closed his mind may be, he is more likely than many of his Politburo colleagues to adjust policy in accord with real or potential power factors.

3. His status: Gromyko has now been Foreign Minister for over 24 years, and his authority has steadily grown. Initially, he may have been little more than one of several foreign policy advisers with responsibility for execution of routine overt Soviet diplomacy. However, since his elevation to full Politburo status in 1973, his close working relationship with Brezhnev and his steady public exposure as a foreign policy spokesman second only to Brezhnev have given him an authority which [Page 245] may approach (but probably not match) that which Kissinger exercised in the U.S.G. during the Ford administration. I would presume that his influence is now probably at a historical peak, what with Brezhnev less active and less mentally agile, and with most Politburo members senior to him showing distinct signs of senility. Nevertheless, he does not make Soviet foreign policy on his own, and has competitors for influence in the upper councils. On matters affecting military policy, Ustinov’s influence would equal or exceed his. He probably has little patience for, and limited influence over, the ideological orientation of figures like Suslov and (probably) Ponomarev. The latter are probably more insistent on support to “national-liberation” movements and are capable of providing independent staffing for the Politburo on foreign policy questions through the Central Committee apparatus in which they are entrenched. They would draw on KGB reporting and classified analyses by institutes such as Arbatov’s, in addition to that provided by Gromyko’s ministry. This group (along of course with Andropov) probably exercises more sway over Soviet covert activities than does Gromyko. (Incidentally, Arbatov’s use of the Central Committee channel and his occasional direct access to Brezhnev probably mean that Gromyko—like Dobrynin—views him as an annoying kibitzer rather than an ally.) Having said the above, I would caution that the inner workings of the Politburo are still largely obscure to us, and Gromyko is an undeviating team player; if he is overruled, he will never give us signs of it. Unfortunately neither the Soviet press nor our Soviet contacts here feed us with tantalizing tidbits on policy disputes in the Politburo.

4. Tactics for the Bilateral: Gromyko’s principal objective will be to move the U.S. into negotiation of arms control issues, particularly SALT and TNF, without making concessions in other areas. He will hammer hard against linkage, as he did with the Senators. He will probably come on as the “wounded party,” with repetition of some of the themes he played to Cranston and Mathias: the U.S. illogically suspended the SALT process, the U.S. is an unreliable partner with changes in policy every four years, Soviet intentions are pure and it is the U.S. which is flexing its muscles dangerously, heightening tensions and fanning a war psychosis.

5. Such an approach has the obvious tactical aim of putting the Secretary on the defensive, in effect challenging him to “prove” U.S. good faith and reliability by moving toward the Soviet position that arms control should be negotiated without regard to other issues. Not all of it will be sham, however. Gromyko and the Soviet leadership are seriously concerned with their inability to get a long-term “fix” on U.S. policy; they genuinely find the major U.S. policy shifts that they experience every four years a perplexing and frustrating experience. [Page 246] They probably also honestly suspect that current U.S. policy aims at strategic superiority and have genuine doubts (which they are too cagey to admit) that they could match us in an all-out arms race.

6. Gromyko will be a master of his brief and will make every effort to channel the discussion into those areas of primary interest to the Soviets. Although he is capable of employing filibustering tactics (as he did with the Senators), I doubt that he would insult the Secretary with excessively long winded lectures. But he will bolster his presentation with frequent examples which cry out for refutation, and it would probably be a mistake to rise automatically to the bait, since this would in effect enable him to determine the agenda of the discussion.

7. I believe the Secretary can best cope with these tactics by insisting on a full discussion of the priority items on our agenda. If Gromyko chooses to play the “offended party” role, the Secretary should counter in kind with a clear exposition of those Soviet actions which have brought us to the current unsatisfactory relationship. (This should be done in any event, but the tone and context might be adjusted to the emotional level Gromyko chooses to adopt.)

8. One favorite Gromyko tactic is simply to ignore significant points raised by his interlocutor, and to talk about other things until time runs out. The Secretary should not let a sense of politeness deter him from returning repeatedly to points of interest to us if Gromyko proves evasive in responding to them.

9. As the Secretary’s agenda is worked out, it would be well to bear in mind that the Soviets will take it as a clear signal that any subject omitted is secondary to the ones raised, in our assessment of priorities. This does not mean that the Secretary must provide a definitive catalog of all our desiderata—which would be quite impossible in any case—but simply that if he does not talk about (for example) compliance issues or mention that we still expect more on Sverdlovsk, the Soviet inference will be that our concerns on these matters are not really very acute. For those subjects raised, the Soviets will be attentive to such matters as the length of time spent on them and the vigor of their presentation as direct clues to U.S. priorities. Perfunctory mention of a subject can be interpreted as signaling low priority since the presumption would be that it was read into the record merely to satisfy some interest group or coterie.

10. If any portion of the meeting is conducted one-on-one, the opportunity should be used to convey our most important points as directly and pointedly as elementary politeness permits. Gromyko, like most Russians, can take straight talk in private. Indeed, they prise it, and the signals given at such a meeting—should one be held—will be [Page 247] the most important he will bring back to Moscow with him (assuming Gromyko does not meet with the President).

11. His mood: though he never had the benefit of studying the Stanislavsky technique formally, Gromyko is a consummate actor, quite capable of adjusting his performance to what he deems the requirements of the moment. Therefore his underlying mood may well not show very clearly in the actual meetings. However, I am reasonably confident that his real mood will be one combining a deep sense of frustration and genuine concern about the future. The following elements will contribute to it:

—Soviet foreign policy has not been notably successful over the past three or four years, and Gromyko knows it. There must be serious questions in his mind whether the Soviets will be able to hold onto the foreign policy gains achieved through the mid-1970’s, or whether they will be forced onto the defensive.

—Though it is not his official concern, he will be aware of the serious economic and (potentially) political problems which face the USSR in the eighties which will limit Soviet capabilities to keep up with an unrestrained arms race without creating even deeper problems of economic development, morale, and possibly political disaffection.

—These general concerns will be heightened by two specific ones: Poland and the succession. Gromyko, like most Soviet leaders, doubtless realizes that Poland is the most portentious problem—for both foreign and domestic policy—the current leadership has faced in its long tenure. He probably also realizes that it is one which, whatever the Soviet Union does, is almost certain to damage the Soviet position in the long run. On the domestic side, he will be aware that Brezhnev’s parlous health could result in his death and thus bring about a succession struggle with very little notice. While he can not rationally entertain ambitions for the top position himself, he may face a challenge during any succession “debate” on grounds that Soviet foreign policy has been mismanaged. Certainly, one can make a convincing case on geopolitical grounds that, at the very least, Soviet priorities have been misplaced, and that risky foreign adventures have endangered vital Soviet interests in maintaining a tight hold on Eastern Europe, in avoiding a US-China alliance, and in preventing a resurgence of US strength. Unless Gromyko, in the inner councils, fought the decisions which have brought this situation about (and we have no reason to believe he did, though he may not have initiated them), he could sense personal vulnerability during a period of competition for the succession.

—Although I believe that Gromyko’s mood will be characterized more by frustration and concern for the future than by sanguine hopes for new Soviet foreign policy triumphs, he will of course not view the future as unrelievedly bleak. He is acutely aware of our problems with [Page 248] our Western Allies and doubtless understands that our alliances could be severely weakened—to certain Soviet benefit—if we fail to make a good-faith effort to negotiate on principal arms control issues. In specific areas, he doubtless sees opportunities for the future: in exploiting the Arab reaction to Israeli policies in order to undermine the U.S. position with the moderates in the region; in utilizing local disputes and internal weaknesses in the “Third World” to put the U.S. on the defensive; in playing the long game in Iran with the hope that, if the Tudeh can keep its head down during the current chaos, it may emerge as the most effective organized force when Khomeni and the mullahs have totally discredited themselves or killed themselves off. He will also be aware of U.S. domestic factors which may make it difficult for any U.S. administration to commit the full range of U.S. resources to our military capacity. The termination of the limited grain embargo, the dispute over MX basing, and—most of all—the recent drive to trim back early estimates of defense spending to permit a balanced budget in 1984, are doubtless read in Moscow as clear evidence that there are domestic political limits to the U.S. commitment to the competitive side of our relationship.

—In brief, Gromyko’s concern for the future will be real, but he will not view his country as so beset with difficulties that it is forced to a rapprochement with the U.S. whatever the cost. One key question in Gromyko’s mind will be determining what the cost of better relations really is. While we have made clear our dissatisfaction with Soviet policy in many areas, the Soviets probably have no clear fix on where our priorities lie. We have mentioned Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cuban activities, support for terrorism, compliance with existing arms control agreements, Poland, the SS–20’s and Soviet behavior in the Middle East at various times and in various contexts. All of these—and more, of course—are legitimate issues and must be dealt with. However, Gromyko and his colleagues are probably in a genuine quandary as to what it would take to start on the road toward a better relationship, and specifically, what it would take to rekindle our interest in SALT or SART. Clearly, yielding on all outstanding issues at the outset is not an acceptable price to them, and Gromyko will be alert as to any hints as to where we draw the bottom line on our initial desiderata. Though it is unnecessary and undesirable for the Secretary in effect to write off any important issues between us, some general indication of how Soviet responsiveness in these various areas might affect U.S. policy could provide [garble] to Gromyko which would be useful to us in applying leverage for more acceptable Soviet behavior.

—Aside from his desire to determine the price this administration is asking for better relations, Gromyko will be beset with some doubts about the longevity of current U.S. policies. Though the Soviets have [Page 249] their tactical and propaganda reasons for stressing the point, their complaints about the inconstancy of U.S. policies rest on a foundation of honest perception of wide and (for them) not always predictable swings in U.S. policy, coupled with what they regard as the repeated inability of successive U.S. Presidents to deliver on commitments. Therefore, in addition to trying to determine what the true intentions of the current administration are, Gromyko will also be making a judgment whether its policy is likely to persist over time or whether it is only a set of passing whims. In order to stress the deep roots in U.S. opinion which support our current approach to the USSR, the Secretary should leave no doubt in Gromyko’s mind that it is precisely Soviet actions which have engendered the current U.S. response, and that only a change in the pattern of those actions can prepare the ground for a more harmonious relationship, which inter alia would make arms reduction much easier.

12. Although Gromyko’s meetings with the Secretary will be critically important in providing clear indicators of the direction of our policy, we should recognize that the Soviets, like ourselves, will look more to actions than to words for clues about our policy. The words will have little effect unless they are seen to be backed by a capability and willingness to act, and this is as true as regards prospective negotiations as it is in respect to moves to strengthen deterrence. While I believe our overall tactical approach to the Soviets has been sound up to now, I feel strongly that—just as in the more limited TNF area—we must devise a credible two-track approach, combining a reasonable negotiating position linked to overall Soviet restraint with a strong deterrent capacity. Weakness in either of these tracks will tend in the long run to undermine our position in the other, since both our own public and those of our allies will expect us to offer alternatives to confrontation if their support is to be forthcoming when confrontations are forced upon us. Conversely, of course, our negotiating position would be weakened disasterously if we neglect our deterrent capacity. Most of our attention up to now seems to have been concentrated on rebuilding our capability for deterrence, and this is as it should be. But I would hope that the Secretary will be in a position when he confronts Gromyko to make clear that either track is a viable option for the U.S. and it is up to the Soviets to chose which they want.

13. One final note. As you are aware, in the past (save last year), Gromyko has usually met with the President during his annual trip to the U.S. for the GA. I do not know whether the question has come up with the Soviets in Washington, but on balance I can see a distinct advantage in the President offering him a meeting. Such a meeting would provide an opportunity for us to convey in the most authoritative manner our current views and also should put to rest for some [Page 250] time the propaganda effectiveness of Soviet complaints about the alleged U.S. unwillingness to enter into a real dialogue and negotiate differences.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]. Secret; Immediate; Nodis; Stadis.
  2. In telegram 237032 to Moscow, September 4, Eagleburger asked Matlock for his assessment of Gromyko “the man, his current status in the establishment, his overall tactics for the bilateral, and his mood” in anticipation of the UNGA bilateral meeting. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number])
  3. In telegram 12507 from Moscow, September 5, the Embassy reported on Gromyko’s meeting with a congressional delegation led by Senator Alan Cranston. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, N810007—0630)