107. Information Memorandum From the Chairman of the Policy Planning Council (Bosworth) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • KAL Affair’s Impact on US-Soviet Relations

Under Jeremy Azrael’s chairmanship, we have again assembled our “Red Team” of Soviet specialists. The attached paper is their analysis of the KAL affair’s likely impact on Soviet policy, especially on US-Soviet relations.


Paper Prepared by the “Red Team” of the Department of State2

Red Team Special Edition:
The KAL Affair’s Impact on US-Soviet Relations

Ten months after Leonid Brezhnev’s death, Yuri Andropov and the Soviet leadership face their most serious foreign policy crisis. The international outcry over the KAL shoot-down leaves Andropov and [Page 376] his colleagues with three major tasks: to limit the damage, to deflect the outrage, and to regain some initiative on broader East-West issues, especially arms control. Moscow’s unyielding initial approach to the incident may put those objectives still further out of reach. The Soviets’ principal challenge now is to find a way to put the issue behind them as soon as possible. They probably believe their best hope lies in making the issue US exploitation of the shoot-down rather than the shoot-down itself, in capitalizing on any West-West tensions that may emerge, and in using the incident to show that the dangers of East-West confrontation are very real.

Internal Decisionmaking

The initial decisions for dealing with the “intruding aircraft” were almost certainly governed by a combination of rigid standard operating procedures and the ingrained security-mindedness that created them. It is, and will probably remain, unclear who actually gave the order to destroy the aircraft, but even if was approved in Moscow it was probably not handled as a matter of high policy, or seen as an opportunity to put pressure on the West. It is still less likely that it reflected military dissatisfaction with Andropov, or an effort by the military to undermine his security and arms control policies.

Despite overall policy unity between the civilian and military hierarchies, the incident may prompt the political leadership to reexamine whether the military’s operational procedures autonomy is too great, particularly where international repercussions are possible. (A mere regimental officer is reportedly empowered to order an intruding military aircraft shot down.) Yet whatever its conclusions, and even if it appears that Soviet rules of engagement were breached, we should not expect the leadership to be willing to offer an outright apology. This would not only be a greater slap at the military than Andropov can probably afford; it would also be inconsistent with his own campaign of vigilance against foreign enemies and with a conviction that to do so would signal dangerous weakness. For these reasons, despite the international price that has been paid, the leadership will likely continue its counter-offensive on the issue of the downing itself, although with tactical adjustments as events dictate.

Assessing the Damage

Particularly if it remains unyielding, the leadership will soon have to consider the consequences of an atmosphere of growing US-Soviet confrontation that could engulf other East-West questions. Should it accept a broader breakdown of US-Soviet relations? If so, can it still advance its objectives in Western Europe—in particular, delaying if not blocking INF deployments? If not, how can it contain and compartmentalize the confrontation?

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Moscow’s answer will become evident in its approach to a series of coming events: Gromyko’s speech to the UNGA; his bilateral(s) with the Secretary; the substance of Soviet positions in the arms talks and even the extent of Soviet participation in them. The Soviets will have to react to the isolation represented by a spreading pilots’ boycott, and review its policy towards the ROK. In addition, they will have to react to a volatile Middle East situation and US demarches on the subject, evaluate their stand on particular human rights issues (especially Shcharanskiy), and so on.

Soviet decisions will depend on a still unfolding assessment of how much lasting damage has been done to the USSR’s international position. Naturally, if within two or three weeks it appears that the storm will soon blow over, Moscow’s policies—especially a renewed INF offensive—will emerge on former lines. At present, however, the high pitch of Western rhetoric is surely read by the Soviets as evidence that the US and allied governments expect less public pressure on them to produce tangible progress in East-West relations, especially to reach arms control agreements. The Reagan Administration’s very tentative shows of interest in doing business are seen to have receded to be replaced in all likelihood by a greater propensity to treat propagandistically issues that earlier they might have hoped would be confined to a low diplomatic key (e.g., arms control compliance and human rights). And, having earlier looked like a would-be peace candidate, the President is perhaps thought to be weighing the advantages of running for reelection on sharper, anti-Bolshevik themes.

Ordinarily, Moscow would be fully prepared to hunker down for the duration of a chill in East-West ties. Yet given the short time remaining before INF deployments, the increased Western freedom of action that accompanies the chill could very quickly have a significant political-military effect, above all in Europe. This is likely to strengthen the view that, even if a period of confrontation should be accepted on most other issues on the East-West agenda, much more active efforts will be needed soon to repair or at least limit the damage to Soviet negotiating credibility in arms control; without such efforts the Soviets will have still less hope of averting INF deployments, much less of producing a deal on terms acceptable to them.

This analysis is the more likely to be accepted by the leadership because it does not require that Soviet strategy change fundamentally. It will continue to seek exacerbated tensions within the Western alliance by trying both to arouse European fears, which are presumed to be higher than American, and to appear to meet European demands, which are thought to be lower. But given the weakness of the Soviet position, the same tactics employed to date may no longer seem adequate. As a result we are likely to see an intensification and acceleration [Page 378] of Soviet effort, both to demonstrate reasonableness and to suggest just how bad a deterioration in East-West relations could become. Gromyko’s speech in Madrid is a strong indication that the Soviets are moving in this direction.

INF and Other Arms Control Issues

The outline of intensified and accelerated Soviet efforts may be clear enough, but both the hard and soft sides of Soviet policy will present certain dilemmas for the leadership:

—While the rhetorical atmosphere is still hot, the Soviets are likely to fear that concessions they offer will be lost in the KAL din, or merely pocketed by the West. It is not their style to make concessions to improve the atmosphere, lest the real bargaining begin (and end) on disadvantageous terms. Despite this, Moscow will certainly attempt an early resuscitation, probably with embellishments, of the arms control initiatives already taken just before the KAL incident, i.e. the ASAT test moratorium, and Andropov’s SS–20 dismantling commitment. Beyond these proposals, more consideration will probably be given to accelerating whatever time-table of new offers had been devised for the fall. These may well include new suggestions in MBFR and an elaborate CDE proposal, to create the impression of possible progress across the board. Yet the heart of this campaign, if it is to have any chance of success, will remain INF. As a result, whatever incentives existed for putting forward a highly attractive new formula (perhaps a modified walk-in-the-woods offer) will also increase. All these initiatives can actually make direct use of the public’s sense that a confrontation is at hand: the Soviets will offer their initiatives, perhaps directly to European governments rather than to the US, as a contribution to calming the inflamed international situation.

—While stimulating hopes for a breakthrough in this area, the Soviet leadership may also want to review (and perhaps accelerate) measures already planned to increase European fears. The KAL crisis itself can be a basis for driving home the point that innocent bystanders, even allies, suffer when the US drives up East-West tension: hair-trigger responses, launch-on-warning procedures all become necessary—although dangerous—measures of self-defense. As a backdrop to this argument, Soviet counter-deployment threats may also become more explicit. Threats to cut off talks will also become more frequent (although this was likely even before the KAL incident). While recognizing the risk that an actual walk-out might only worsen their image in the West, the Soviets are also likely to consider the advantages of withdrawing dramatically (“more in sorrow than in anger”) from INF and/or START. If done early, this step could focus pressure on the US to take steps that would make the resumption of negotiation possible. [Page 379] Finally, to add to tensions, Moscow may launch an escalated counter-intelligence campaign—perhaps involving expulsions of Western (especially US) diplomats, discovery of “nests of spies”, etc.

The Rest of the Agenda

Even as it intensifies its traditional hard-and-soft tactics, Moscow is likely to protect itself by imposing certain limits on each arm of its policy.

—In seeking to intimidate, it will want to avoid authorizing operations that risk new incidents in which the Soviet Union would again be in the dock. What would otherwise be routine military procedures are likely to get much closer scrutiny; continuing submarine probes in Swedish waters, for example, may now seem more ill-advised.

—In projecting flexibility on arms control, the Soviets will continue to fear conveying an impression of overall weakness. On issues that involve their international legitimacy and reputation, where the KAL affair has been most damaging, they are likely to doubt that any symbolic concessions will restore their good name, such as it was. This will be especially true as well of issues on the US-Soviet bilateral agenda; the Soviets will not be disposed to make the concessions that could improve relations or produce agreement. For example, barring a Soviet decision that the US-Soviet downturn must be kept strictly limited, the release of Shcharanskiy will seem unnecessary, even pointless (all the more so since his case involves the domestically charged themes of spying and vigilance). If Moscow for a time expects bad relations to prevail, then it may even decide to get the worst over with (as it did in exiling Sakharov immediately after Afghanistan).

Finally, on the issues of geopolitical rivalry, the leadership’s objectives and risk calculations will remain largely unchanged, and their policies unadjusted in the wake of the KAL affair. While remaining extremely cautious in circumstances that carry the risk of direct confrontation with the US, they will be eager to show that the Soviet Union cannot be pushed around with impunity, and that US involvements are dangerous and costly, both for us and for those we convince to work with us. Yet these same considerations have obviously guided Moscow for some time, as the risks involved in the Syrian SA-5 deployments have shown. The extreme dangers created by Soviet policy in the Middle East are not lessened as a result of this incident, but they do not appear to be greater. In other areas, where they can trip us up without incurring greater risks of direct confrontation, the Soviets are less likely to cooperate with us, particularly on issues like a Namibia settlement where the success for us will inevitably be much larger than for them.

In sum, it is our judgment that in pressing to blame the US for the incident the Soviets will not make an active effort to limit the damage [Page 380] to the US-Soviet relationship wrought by the KAL affair, or even to isolate the incident within the broader US-Soviet agenda. Rather, Soviet strategy—as evidenced by Gromyko’s defiant stance at his meeting with the Secretary in Madrid3—will be one of toughing it out with Washington, while seeking to reinvigorate Moscow’s carrot-and-stick strategy vis-à-vis Western Europe. Any impulse Soviet leaders may feel toward taking the initiative to defuse the latest tensions through more accommodating policies on US-Soviet issues is likely to be outweighed by instinctive Russian defensiveness and a desire to avoid appearing weak when under siege, and by the view that nothing short of fundamental concessions of principle will elicit a positive U.S. response.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S, Special Handling Restrictions Memos, 1979–1983, Lot 96D262, ES Sensitive, September 1–8 1983. Secret; Sensitive. Forwarded through Eagleburger. Hill’s handwritten initials appear on the memorandum, indicating he saw it on September 8.
  2. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Sestanovich; cleared by Azrael, R. Baraz (INR/SEE), W. Courtney (PM), D. Johnson (P), and Vershbow.
  3. See Documents 104 and 105.