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

15443. Subject: Soviet Decision To Shut Down US-Soviet Dialogue? Ref: A. Ottawa 08998, B. Moscow 015409.

1. (S—Entire text).

2. Summary: There is mounting evidence that the Soviets have recently undertaken a major review of their approach to US-Soviet relations between now and the US Presidential elections. One outcome of that review appears to have been a decision to do everything possible to create the impression that the US-Soviet dialogue has broken down and the relationship is worsening. In pursuit of that end, the Soviets appear willing to shut down or deemphasize channels of communication through use of which the US has in the past been able to demonstrate a continuing dialogue. This implies Gromyko may either refuse to meet with the Secretary in Stockholm, or use the meeting for a sharp attack on the administration. We should be prepared for either contingency. End summary.

3. Ref A’s report of Arbatov’s suggestion that a major Soviet review of East-West policy was underway at the time of the Pearson visit fits [Page 495] with a number of hints here that such a reassessment has recently been completed.2

—The first was Dobrynin’s return to Moscow on November 20, well in advance, it is now clear, of this year’s second Party Plenum, and in contrast to his usual practice of returning to the USSR closer to the year’s end holiday. We understand that Sokolov, one of the two Minister-Counselors in the Soviet Embassy, was also in Moscow during this period.

—A second was the disappearance shortly after Dobrynin’s return of USA Department Chief Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, ostensibly “on leave.” Bessmertnykh returned to work December 5, according to USA Department staffers.

—A third was USA Institute Director Georgiy Arbatov’s absence from Moscow during the same general period. Embassy officers working on arrangements for the recent Dartmouth Group visit to Moscow were told November 21 by the Institute’s Deputy Director that Arbatov was “out of town” and “unreachable.” We know Arbatov was in Tokyo as of November 16 and resurfaced in Moscow December 2.

4. It seems unlikely to us that so many of the Soviets’ top USA experts should be away from their posts by coincidence at so critical a moment in US-Soviet relations. We think it virtually certain that some kind of review has, in fact, taken place since the Bundestag vote and the introduction of the first components for US LRINF in Europe.3 Such high level examinations have occurred in the past at important junctures in East-West relations; we recall that Dobrynin was in Moscow for a similar session in December 1979—before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It is possible that the results of such a session could be released at the forthcoming CPSU Plenum.

5. Our guess is that the most recent review has been devoted to plotting Soviet strategy toward the US between now and the Presidential elections. As we reported Ref B, a US academic with excellent access has gained the strong impression during a recent visit that the outcome of the US elections had become the primary determinant of [Page 496] Soviet policy.4 While we have no way of knowing what decisions may have been taken during the review, we suspect we are already seeing its first results. These point to a decision to create the impression of a complete break-down in the US-Soviet dialogue.

—The first evidence of such an approach was Moscow’s breaking off of the INF talks, although that decision appears to have been made before any formal review.

—A second sign, which may well have been approved during the reassessment, was the Soviets’ terminating of the current START round without setting a resumption date.

—Moscow’s reluctance to schedule NPT talks for December seems of a piece with the START decision, and Soviet ambiguity about continuing the MBFR talks suggests a similar scenario may be contemplated in Vienna.

—Soviet authorities have meanwhile told a visiting US academic here that recent exchanges between the Secretary and Dobrynin in Washington seem designed simply to sustain the appearance of an on-going dialogue, while Washington stands pat on matters of substance.

—The Turkish Embassy here has informed us that during farewell calls last week by former Ambassador Halefoglu, Korniyenko made the same complaints about recent exchanges with Ambassador Hartman in Moscow.

6. These actions suggest a Soviet perception that the Reagan administration may be vulnerable in Europe and the US on the issue of its handling of the USSR, and a determination to do everything possible to fuel fears that the relationship is dangerously out of control. The Soviets presumably calculate that such tactics will reinvigorate peace movements on both sides of the Atlantic, lead to greater pressure on NATO governments to accept a pause in INF deployments, widen differences within NATO, and ultimately redound to the President’s disadvantage next November.

7. Such an approach, as we noted at the time, was foreshadowed in Andropov’s September 28 remarks on the US.5 Nor is there anything [Page 497] new in the tactic of charging the US with breaking off the bilateral dialogue; it was used after both Afghanistan and Poland. What is new is an apparent Soviet determination this time around to put on ice or degrade those channels through the use of which we have in the past been able to deny claims that we were not talking. In so doing, of course, the Soviets are running a risk that they themselves will be blamed for obstructing a dialogue. (Our own efforts will presumably be directed toward precisely this end.) They will also be constrained by a desire to avoid unduly alarming their own populace. Moscow appears to have concluded, however, that these risks are outweighed by the need to deny the administration any hope of pointing to on-going discussions as a means of calming domestic and European concerns over East-West tensions.

8. An early test of this hypothesis will, of course, come at the forthcoming Stockholm meeting. If the Soviets have in fact made a decision to portray the US-Soviet relationship as having broken down, Gromyko may well refuse to meet with Secretary Shultz. Even if he is prepared to meet, there will be a strong probability that his purpose will be to expose strains in the relationship. While Moscow may simply choose not to send Gromyko to Stockholm, our guess is that the event provides too effective a propaganda platform for him to pass up. Whichever scenario he follows, we should anticipate an effort to deny us any benefit from our willingness to meet.6

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830731–0263. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information to Bonn, London, Paris, USNATO, USUN, Brussels, Copenhagen, Ottawa, and Rome.
  2. In telegram 8998 from Ottawa, December 8, the Embassy reported: “the Soviets said they were undertaking a basic policy review on East-West relations over next two to three weeks; blamed the U.S. for the breakdown of INF; were pessimistic that any constructive dialogue was possible with the present administration; and even hinted they might not return to START.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830724–0759)
  3. The Bundestag vote was on November 22.
  4. In telegram 15409 from Moscow, December 10, the Embassy reported that an unnamed American academic said that “a significant shift has taken place in Soviet thinking and attitudes, especially towards the U.S., over the past six months. Where earlier Soviet decision-making was founded almost exclusively on pragmatism and reasoned calculation of Soviet interests, emotionalism and even irrationality are now entering into play. The academic perceives a growing paranoia among Soviet officials, and sees them literally obsessed by fear of war. He believes that the U.S. Presidential elections have become the central determining factor in Soviet foreign policy.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830728–0711) See also Matlock’s analysis in Document 144.
  5. See Document 120.
  6. Shultz and Gromyko met on January 18, 1984, in Stockholm. See Document 159.