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

12501. USINF USSCC USSTART. Subject: US-Soviet Relations After KAL—The View From the Kremlin.

1. (C—Entire text).

2. Summary: The KAL tragedy has produced some of the most hostile anti-US rhetoric to come out of the Soviet Union in the post-war era. Has it caused parallel changes in how the Soviet leadership views the administration and in its willingness to engage on issues of concern to us? While it is still early for definitive conclusions, we suspect not.

3. The limited steps taken by Moscow last summer toward a more positive agenda were of ambiguous significance at best. It seems unlikely that they would have led to major moves in areas of importance to us before the INF drama had played itself out. Even then, we suspect Andropov’s willingness to start a real dialogue with the President would have depended on other factors—primarily his assessment of the President’s reelection prospects. We doubt that KAL has changed this calculus in any fundamental way. We are—as Andropov’s September 28 statement made clear—in for a frigid fall and winter.2 But a Soviet reassessment and move toward engagement next spring cannot be ruled out. End summary.

After KAL—Questions

4. It has been a month since KAL went down in flames over the Sea of Japan. With Andropov’s speech September 28, Moscow’s transfer of KAL articles recovered since the tragedy, and the beginning of the end of international civil aviation sanctions against the Soviets, the time is ripe to assess where KAL has left US-Soviet relations, and where they may go from here. (We address the question of the leadership’s handling of the episode and the role of the Soviet military in a separate telegram).3

5. KAL was Andropov’s first foreign policy crisis. Moscow’s handling of the affair has been an unmitigated disaster from the standpoint [Page 419] of Soviet international interests. However “necessary” the Soviets cover-up of the shootdown may have been in domestic terms (and our sense is that the Soviet people have generally responded to the leadership’s appeals to their patriotism and innate suspicion of foreigners), it has cut the ground out from Soviet efforts to deal with such pressing issues as INF and put to rest any illusions that Soviet international behavior under the ostensibly sophisticated Andropov would be more benign than under his predecessors.

6. Soviet efforts to shift the blame for their atrocity on to us have not washed. But their failure to avoid responsibility for the incident has been accompanied by some of the most lurid rhetoric toward the United States, the administration, and the President personally that we have seen since the height of the cold war. Is this simply the lashing out of a desperate power caught in an act it cannot explain? Or has the incident and US handling of it really changed Kremlin perceptions of the President and his administration’s motivations, and with it the Soviet leadership’s willingness to do business with the US in the months ahead? In either case, what are the implications for the future course of US-Soviet relations? How one answers those questions depends very much on one’s analysis of the Soviet leadership’s view of the administration before August 31. There are at least two variants.

KAL as the Final Straw

7. The first way of interpreting the Kremlin’s view of the US before August 31 has been popularized by such well-connected but relatively low-level Soviet spokesmen as USA Institute Director Arbatov and columnist Aleksandr Bovin. In articles published in late 1982, both suggested that Moscow had in effect written off trying to do business with Washington during President Reagan’s term in office, especially after the President’s Orlando speech.4 They elaborated on this theme, seeking to portray the Soviet leadership as personally offended by the administration’s ideological bent, and determined to do nothing (e.g., accept a summit) which might make the President’s reelection more likely.

8. Proponents of such a view might argue (although we have not yet heard such sentiments here) that US handling of the KAL incident was in effect the straw which broke the camel’s back—an experience which confirmed the leadership’s worst fears as to the President’s motives, and which reinforced its determination to do everything possible to bring him down in 1984, no matter what the risk. They would view Andropov and his colleagues as backed into a corner in the wake [Page 420] of KAL, and left with no choice but to fight back. This would manifest itself in a tightening up of internal order, an accelerated arms program, a willingness to break off the INF talks after (or even before) deployment, stirring up the pot in regional hotspots, and more overt threats in Europe. The objective would be intimidation: to create a climate of fear and apprehension among US allies and the US electorate which would cripple the President at the polls in November.

Another View

9. We have tended to regard such a perception of the Soviet leadership’s stance toward the administration as self-serving, since it is what the Soviets want some of the fainter-hearted in Europe to think. But we see no signs that the dire scenario outlined above is upon us. That being said, there is no question that the leadership is united in its strong distaste for the President’s policy and its public enunciation, and were well before August 31. Their willingness to engage even to the limited degree they have since 1981 has been in spite of their feelings for the President, rather than because of them. There has doubtless been a strong predisposition to wait the President out.

10. We believe, however, that at least by the spring of this year, the Soviets were coming to the conclusion that this was not a viable option. By then, our efforts to restore military parity had the support of Congress and the public and had begun to have some effect; Williamsburg proved that the alliance was not about to come apart over INF and the Siberian pipeline;5 and our economy was beginning to turn up. President Reagan had begun to look like a two-term incumbent. Moscow’s positive response to his expression of concern about the Pentecostalists,6 and their subsequent hints of greater flexibility in START appeared to have been indicators of a dawning Soviet awareness that they could not afford to wait the President out on every issue. Additional signs were the warm treatment of Secretary Block,7 the willingness to discuss at least aspects of the President’s initiative on CBM’s in the communications field,8 readiness to resume negotiations [Page 421] on new consulates and on an exchanges agreement,9 and Soviet agreement on the Madrid final document.10

11. As of August 31, however, our guess is that this somewhat more positive Soviet approach was by no means universal or definitive. Summer press speculation on a rush to the summit by Andropov was premature. Many of the developments on which such speculation was based were ambiguous at best in terms of what they told us of Soviet motivations and objectives. Andropov’s tete-a-tetes with Harriman, Pell and Winpisinger,11 for example, were essentially end runs of the administration to important elements of the US electorate. Moscow’s acceptance of a new long term grains agreement served its interests as well as ours.12 The Soviets had backed out of their Madrid assurances on Shcharanskiy even before the ink was dry on the Madrid compromise.13 Rather than reflecting a decision to engage the administration in any meaningful way, these steps in many respects can be seen as tactical moves by the Kremlin for limited objectives, and from which Moscow could reap credit for the “good will” they displayed in the run-up to INF deployments. Then KAL changed the script.

12. Aside from the tenuousness of Soviet interest in early engagement with the administration prior to KAL is the fact that the timing was all wrong for such a move from Moscow’s standpoint. Even, as we think likely, if the Soviets were moving to the conclusion that they would ultimately have to do business with the President, they recognized that the immediate forecast was for a worsening, rather than an improvement, in bilateral atmospherics. INF loomed large, and Moscow clearly had a no-holds-barred offensive planned for the fall (Andropov’s August 29 Pravda interview was the opening salvo).14 If deployments nonetheless occurred (as we believe they had concluded they would), there would be a Soviet response. Only after that, and once Moscow had had time to see where things stood in terms of public dynamics in Europe, might the Soviets have been prepared to shift positions substantially on issues of concern to the administration. The [Page 422] stakes in Europe, and internal pressures to see the game through, would simply have been too high to make a move before this possible. Even then, given Moscow’s distaste for the President and preference for “lyuboy drugoy” (“anyone else”), the Soviets would have been unlikely to open up a serious dialogue with the administration unless the President looked a very strong bet to be reelected. Thus, even if KAL 007 had never strayed off course, it seems doubtful that there would have been any but cosmetic movement in US-Soviet relations before next spring.


13. What are the implications of such an assessment of Soviet motivations before August 31 for our policy toward Moscow in the year ahead?

14. The first is that we need to be careful in interpreting Soviet rhetoric. As we have noted, the KAL affair has been an unmitigated disaster for the Kremlin, and the Soviet leadership doubtless feels we exploited its predicament. We suspect there is a lot of behind-the-scene finger-pointing going on now, and a parallel need to demonstrate “toughness” toward the administration. Rhetoric is a natural outlet for such feelings, and, as Andropov’s statement made clear, it is likely to be unprecedented in its stridency. We are seeing more than simple spleen-venting, however. The Soviets hope that vituperative attacks on us and the kind of defensive saber-rattling we have seen lately will frighten our allies and others into pressuring us to back off and make concessions in INF. (This may be coupled with further Soviet INF initiatives; see para. 15 below.) We can take a lot of the steam out of such tactics by conveying a sense of strength, confidence and responsibility in our own statements. The President’s UNGA address was right on the mark.15

15. A second point is that the period ahead is going to be a sterile one in terms of the agenda we have been pressing on Moscow since 1981. Moscow’s natural inclination to wait the administration out has almost certainly been reinforced by the KAL affair. But if we have it right, there was little prospect of meaningful concessions any time soon in any case. In the months ahead, we would expect that:

—On human rights issues, prospects are bleaker than ever. The general tightening up we had seen even before KAL is likely to continue and may accelerate.

[Page 423]

—On regional issues, an area where we had made little progress even before August 31, we can expect no favors. We would be surprised, however, to see a more activist Soviet policy. Moscow’s relative quiescence in the developing world under Andropov has been more a function of real constraints at home and unfavorable circumstances abroad than a bow to our concerns. These factors remain as real now as they did a month ago.

—On arms control issues, we remain pessimistic that there will be serious Soviet moves this year, but we do expect an eleventh hour INF proposal—or even more than one—aimed at deferring—and thereby stopping—deployments. But we doubt such a gesture will amount to more than a propaganda ploy which, while it will complicate our plans, is unlikely to meet our needs. (Our belief that Moscow has not yet played out the skein of INF negotiating ploys leads us to the conclusion that the Soviets will not stage an early walk-out from Geneva; they will need a forum for the introduction of their new initiative(s).) A more serious approach in INF, we believe, is imaginable only after deployments have occurred despite Moscow’s best efforts, the Soviets have responded with “counter-measures,” and they have had time to assess the result. That, we would guess, is likely to take us at least through March 1984.

16. A final point is that KAL has not necessarily put paid to prospects for successful engagement with the Soviets between now and November 1984. Soviet rhetoric will continue to blow strong in the months ahead; it may even intensify as the INF issue enters its final phase. But, as veteran Soviet diplomat Lev Mendelevich reminded us last week, we should not underestimate Moscow’s capacity for changing course when it serves its interest. If Ronald Reagan looks vulnerable next spring, Yuri Andropov will do everything in his power to prevent his reelection, and the intransigence and rhetoric we will see this fall will simply be prelude to more of the same next year. If, on the other hand, we get safely past deployments; if we maintain alliance unity in the face of an inevitable Soviet response; and if our economy looks as strong next spring as it does now, Andropov is capable of drawing the logical conclusions. He will recognize that circumstances for finally coming to terms with the President will never be better, and he may not wish to lose the opportunity.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830570–0390. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information to USNATO, Tokyo, Beijing, London, Paris, Rome, Seoul, the Mission in Geneva, USUN, Bonn, and USDelMBFR Vienna.
  2. See Document 120.
  3. See Document 121.
  4. See Document 15.
  5. Reference is to the G–7 Economic Summit held in Williamsburg, Virginia, May 28–30; see footnote 5, Document 53, and footnote 3, Document 60. Documentation on the Siberian pipeline, is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. VII, Western Europe, 1981–1984.
  6. See Documents 34, 46, and 74.
  7. Secretary of Agriculture John Block went to the Soviet Union August 24–26 to sign the new 5-year grain agreement and “received a warm reception during his visit to Moscow.” (Telegram 10884 from Moscow, August 26; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D8300492–0700).
  8. See Documents 38, 42, and 44.
  9. See Document 54.
  10. At the CSCE meeting in Madrid, a Concluding Document was signed on September 9. The text is printed in the Department of State Bulletin, October 1983, pp. 53–60.
  11. Harriman met with Andropov on June 2. (Telegram 6967 from Moscow, June 3, and telegram 168467 to Moscow, June 17; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830315–0815 and D830345–0234 respectively) Senator Pell led a delegation to Moscow, meeting with Andropov on August 18; see Document 79. William W. Winpisinger was the International President of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
  12. See Document 76.
  13. See Document 75.
  14. See Document 82.
  15. Reagan addressed the 38th Session of the UN General Assembly on the morning of September 26. See footnote 6, Document 117 and footnote 3, Document 120.