140. Information Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (Burt) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • Soviet Leadership Uncertainties and U.S. Soviet Policy

Whether or not Andropov reappears in the next few weeks, the leadership context in Moscow will be different from what it was before the Revolution Day festivities he missed.2 At a minimum, he is politically weakened. At a maximum, a new leadership could be announced at an early Central Committee special plenum—conceivably the reason for Dobrynin’s trip to Moscow. This paper looks at the various leadership configurations which could emerge. And, in the knowledge that we cannot completely understand political developments within the Kremlin, we recommend a policy approach designed to get our message across to whomever is in power there.

The Political Cost of Physical Weakness

Andropov may return soon to public view, as Izvestiya editor Tolkunov and others have predicted. The snap Central Committee meeting Dobrynin and other CC members posted as ambassador abroad evidently have been called back for could provide the stage for his reemergence. Or it could register the emergence of a new leadership.

If Andropov is physically able, he has the political capacity to recoup some of the cost he has paid by visibly taking charge and imparting new vigor to the conduct of affairs. But by showing unmis[Page 484]takably that he is gravely ill, he has made it impossible to recoup the whole cost. Given the enormous inertia of the Soviet system, it takes a powerful and feared political leader to generate change among the thousands within the Soviet elite. Those thousands will now be hanging back, watching for the next leadership phase, before taking any risks.

Speeding Up the Succession Timetable

Renewed maneuvering for the succession is practically certain, if it has not already begun. Up to now, we have been projecting something like a two-stage succession. In the first stage, oldsters of the Brezhnev generation gathered around Andropov would be in charge for 3–5 years, and would gradually bring men in their 60’s and 50’s into the leadership. In the second stage, the younger people would take over. We need to revise that projection. Oldsters and “youngsters” are mixed together in leadership positions, as individuals with their own clienteles, right now. It is no longer clear that the younger generation will have to wait 3–5 years to take over completely.

The Players

When Brezhnev died a year ago, there were enough members of the Brezhnev generation available in the leadership for us to predict very substantial policy continuity. This is no longer so true. While Defense Minister Ustinov (75) and ex-Brezhnev protegé Chernenko (72) are still around, potentially strong candidates for the top spot now also include such “younger” figures as Romanov (60) and Gorbachev (52). As dark horses, in addition to Moscow party boss Grishin (69), we now have First Deputy Premier Aliyev (60). And, as a “possible” somewhere between generations, there is Ukrainian party boss Shcherbitskiy, at 65.

In terms of the system’s traditions, the inside tracks must go to the only three men beside Andropov who are party secretaries as well as full (voting) Politburo members: Chernenko, Gorbachev and Romanov. Each has a chance, but each also has liabilities as a contender for the top spot.

Gorbachev has been clearly favored by Andropov and has been steadily accumulating new portfolios. The fact that he has twenty political years ahead of him could be a positive asset after recent experience with a slowly declining Brezhnev and a sick Andropov. But the prospect of two whole decades of Gorbachev could also make his colleagues wary. He is junior in both age and experience, and his strong suit has been in agriculture rather than the key military-industrial management sector.

Romanov earned a good reputation in that sector in Leningrad, but has not been in Moscow long, and he brought with him a harmful reputation for roughness, naked ambition and shifting cadres around.

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Chernenko, finally, could be a relatively nonthreatening, temporary candidate, but he is ill, and has not succeeded in building a political base of his own, especially in the military-industrial apparat, from his starting point as Brezhnev’s bag-man and paper-pusher.

The dark horses also have liabilities as well as strengths. Given his base in the military and his competence, Ustinov is an attractive caretaker candidate. But although he is no more a career military man than Andropov was a career KGB man, picking Ustinov as head of the party could create the unwelcome appearance of another Jaruzelski-type military takeover of the party, this time in the “first country of socialism.” Furthermore, Ustinov’s health is not good. Neither is Grishin’s, and despite his strong Moscow base, Grishin is apparently not part of the “Andropov coalition.” Shcherbitskiy has not been strong enough to parlay his late support for Andropov in 1982 into the move from Kiev to Moscow which he has long sought; he remains a provincial. Aliyev has moved to Moscow, but his comparable switches over the years may have encouraged positive mistrust which counterbalances his recognized managerial abilities. In any case, his non-Slavic origin and reputation for ruthlessness are disabilities from the outset.

Thus, the data we have do not allow us to identify a frontrunner. Similarly, positive intelligence has not been—and will not be—much help in predicting personnel and policy outcomes in specific terms. Yet we must still try to shape a policy that fits whatever the Soviets serve up. We must therefore engage in some informed speculation, using the best data we have, on what is old and what is new on the Soviet leadership scene, and where we should be.

Two Possible Patterns

In general terms there are two different leadership patterns which could emerge.

1. An Amalgam of Old and New. We already are facing a composite leadership, with both the Brezhnev generation and the “younger” men influential, and a gradual transition taking place. This could continue for some years with or without Andropov. Ustinov and Gromyko provide ample experience and continuity in the national security/foreign affairs area even if Andropov leaves the scene.

2. A Clean Generational Break. It is also possible that the leadership will decide that it was a mistake to have chosen such an old and weak-from-the-start Andropov, especially after years of a declining Brezhnev. They may conclude that the Soviet Union has been seriously handicapped by a leader unable to play a vigorous role domestically or to travel and act strongly on the international scene. This could lead to selection of a younger General Secretary of the Party like Gorbachev or Romanov, perhaps constraining him initially by withholding the [Page 486] other two key titles—President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet and Chairman of the Defense Council. It is striking that none of the leading contenders in this next generation has any direct experience in the foreign and security affairs field. On the other hand they will inherit staffs in the Central Committee, General Staff, KGB and Foreign Ministry which are increasingly sophisticated and skilled in this area.

Under either of these scenarios, there is likely to be substantial continuity in Soviet policy over the next 6–12 months. With Andropov weakened or gone, there will be increased preoccupation with the internal struggle for power. Even if a “younger” leadership should emerge, their inexperience in foreign and national security affairs is likely to make them less confident and more cautious at least initially. They also may decide to wait until the U.S. elections before taking new initiatives or engaging in new adventures.

While we believe it is less likely, we cannot rule out a more activist approach. Andropov focussed heavily on the domestic scene because that was where his power base needed building and because the problems were greatest there. But the industrial and agricultural upturn in 1983 eases the internal situation somewhat. The external setbacks the Soviets have suffered recently, particularly INF deployments, could argue for greater leadership focus on national security and foreign affairs.

Moreover, the newer, younger contenders for the top slot will be tempted to put their own stamp on policy, to use their (relative) vigor to prove their prowess; and they may be less willing to let the USSR roll with punches at home and abroad. After all, they are less able politically to bear the discredit of fresh “defeat” on their watch than the better established oldsters they are competing with. In addition, there is evidence the voice and role of the Soviet military may be increasing.

Hence, we cannot say how the Soviets will act on given issues; what we can say is they will be more unpredictable than before.

The Role of U.S.-Soviet Relations

That is about the best we can do for now: it would probably be a mistake to carry informed speculation much farther. If the second pattern—the clean generational break—emerges, we will need to think our current policy approach through carefully, to see if there are significant new things we need to be doing. Even in that case, however, the tripartite policy of realism, strength and negotiation, which has been designed as a policy for all seasons, should equip us to deal effectively with the Soviets under any leadership that can now be realistically envisaged.

Provided we remember one thing: that U.S.-Soviet relations will be an issue in the internal struggle for succession within the Kremlin. [Page 487] It will cut in a variety of directions which we can neither discern nor predict when it comes to individuals. But it is certain that relations with us will be a critical foreign policy variable for everyone. Contenders will be tempted to take stands on the question of whether or not it is possible to do productive business with the United States. We cannot tell who the winners will be, but we can say that it is not in our interest that those who emerge victorious from the struggle do so on the basis of anti-American postures. Hence, although we cannot determine the outcome, we have the capacity to influence the struggle by adopting a posture that makes it harder to claim that the USSR cannot do business with us.

Getting our Message Across: Three Levels

To use that capacity, we need to act over the next 6–12 months on three levels:

Overall, with power more diffuse in Moscow and a proliferation of leadership candidates underway, we need to make our policy approach absolutely clear and consistent to the Soviet leadership. We will be even less certain than we were about whom we are dealing with, but whoever they are they must understand that we will sustain our strength and that we are prepared to negotiate with the USSR in earnest.

At this level, the best device for registering U.S. policy consistency with absolute clarity as the Soviets enter a more uncertain time would be a speech by the President devoted exclusively to U.S.-Soviet relations. The opening of the INF deployment winter, when Western publics will be susceptible to Soviet scare propaganda, is in any case an opportune moment for a forward-looking explanation of our own negotiating agenda. But until now, the idea of a Presidential speech has lacked a persuasive rationale within U.S.-Soviet relations (as distinguished from U.S. and Alliance politics). Andropov’s absence November 5 and 7 has filled that gap. We are working on a draft for your consideration.3

Diplomatically, we need to take steps to keep established channels of communication in good working order. To demonstrate that they are in fact in good order, there must be substance passing through them. We have already done a great deal to provide such substance in the arms control field. However, the Soviets themselves may well clog this channel for some time after initial INF deployments. In our [Page 488] own interest, we should be working to unclog it. But we will also need to explore ways to put more content into discussions of our other agenda areas: regional issues, human rights, bilateral topics.

Here I think you will have to take the lead. Increasing the pace and thickening the substance of your talks with Dobrynin is an obvious place to start. We should be giving Art Hartman as much to do as we can, but Dobrynin remains an indispensable vehicle, just as Gromyko remains an indispensable interlocutor at the Moscow end.

In fact, Andropov’s ailments make Gromyko and Ustinov more indispensable than ever, as long as they are there. They are fellow-members of the Brezhnev generation cohort, they are Andropov’s strongest supporters, and they constitute the rest of the national security “troika” whose clienteles have provided the basis for Andropov’s power. For that reason, it would also be helpful in this context for you to meet with Gromyko at Stockholm in January.

We should also be thinking about a visit by you to Moscow, either following on a Stockholm meeting or without it. For other men are now coming into the leadership picture too. More indispensable than ever for now, Gromyko is also one of those who will be leaving the scene in fairly short order. And for years many have seen Gromyko as more of a hindrance than a help to creative diplomacy. If you decide to go to Moscow to meet him, it will be important to make clear that you would also like to meet not only with Andropov but with others of his colleagues in the leadership. We need to get our message to a broader spectrum of people, even if we cannot predict who we will be dealing with in five years’ time.

In terms of contacts, we need to get our message across to more people in the Soviet elite outside the narrow group of top leaders and potential candidates. The Soviet political constituency is smaller than ours by far, but it still numbers in the thousands, and provides the clienteles that top leaders must have to gain and maintain power. As it rejuvenates, it will also become even more insular and more provincial than it is now. As a long-term project, we will need to think and act creatively about how to reach it with the American message. Improving and strengthening access through the radios is one obvious means that we are already working on. But expanding exchanges between the two countries—official and unofficial, professional and cultural—is another. Finally, the growing power of such regional bosses and ex-bosses as Leningrad’s Romanov, Kiev’s Shcherbitskiy and Baku’s Aliyev points to the importance of strengthening and expanding our presence outside Moscow.


This is not a prescription for public diplomacy. Public diplomacy will play a key role in our overall diplomacy vis-a-vis the Soviets in [Page 489] the upcoming period. But if we are to make our policy work with the vigor and effect required by increasing uncertainty in Moscow, we must go beyond public diplomacy, and put content into our approaches. As you have agreed, enriching our dialogue with the Soviets should be an important priority for us. And in his discussion with Larry and me last Monday, Dobrynin had it right as far as he went: dialogue yes, but not dialogue for dialogue; dialogue for understanding.4 But I would go further and say dialogue for results.

START is the obvious place to begin. Exploring tradeoffs and a mutually acceptable framework should be the centerpiece of your discussions with Dobrynin. But we should also be looking for ways to engage the Soviets on regional issues. That includes potential flashpoints where neither side wants confrontation but where confrontation is nevertheless a risk, and where we need to understand each other’s intentions better.

We do not need a new strategy for dealing with Moscow; we need to be more creative and active with the one we have.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, Box 1D, 1983—Soviet Union—November. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Simons and Palmer on November 16. Forwarded through Eagleburger. Simons initialed for Palmer. McKinley’s handwritten initials are at the top of the memorandum, indicating he saw it on November 22.
  2. The Embassy in Moscow reported: “Yuriy Andropov failed to take his place at the October Revolution Anniversary Assembly in the Kremlin on the evening on November 5. Beyond any shadow of a doubt an appearance at this most important of Soviet holidays is obligatory for a CPSU General Secretary—none has missed the event in at least the last two decades—and Andropov’s absence is unequivocal evidence that he is very seriously ill.” (Telegram 14010 from Moscow, November 5; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830650–0287) Another telegram reporting on the November 7 parade and events also noted his absence. (Telegram 14072 from Moscow, November 9; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830658–0646) A November 5 INR report also noted that Andropov had not appeared in public since his August 18 meeting with Senator Pell. (Telegram 318844 to USNATO, November 8; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830653–0631)
  3. After several weeks of effort and coordination with the NSC Staff, this culminated as Reagan’s January 16, 1984, speech on U.S.-Soviet relations. See Document 158. The address is also in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 182.
  4. There is no record of Eagleburger and Burt meeting with Dobrynin on Monday, November 7. However, Eagleburger did meet with Dobrynin on November 9 and prepared for Shultz, who was in Tokyo, a brief report found in a draft telegram that Eagleburger drafted on November 9. (Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S, Lawrence Eagleburger Files, 1967–1984, Lot 84D204, Chron, November, 1984)