146. Information Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (Burt) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Eagleburger)1


  • Moscow Tea Leaves—The Role of the Military in Soviet Policy toward the U.S.

With their moves to create uncertainty over the future of East-West dialogue in not only INF but now START, MBFR and possibly CDE as well, the Soviets have chosen a tough approach as a way of stepping up European and American public anxieties and, ultimately, pressures for a weakening of particular U.S. policies. While this tactic tracks with the general line set down in Andropov’s September 28 statement,2 we also have indications that they have been conducting a general policy review on East-West relations over the past month.3

The problems inherent in speculation about Kremlin leadership dynamics behind such a decision are well-known; reliable information is simply too sketchy to allow for overly ambitious interpretation. Nonetheless—while reaffirming the familiar caveats that senior Soviet civil and military leaders share much the same experience and world-view and that their interaction takes place within a strong tradition of [Page 504] party control over the military—we would call your attention to several recent items which cumulatively suggest the possibility of an increasing (and perhaps parochially hawkish) voice for the senior Soviet military precisely at this time when major decisions vis-a-vis relations with the U.S. are being made.

—The spate of background-noise rumors that our Embassies in Moscow and Eastern Europe are picking up on the theme that, in the midst of uncertainties surrounding Andropov’s physical and political health,4 “the Soviet military now enjoys a degree of autonomy in the military sphere unprecedented in the post-war Soviet Union,” and that “its power is growing.” Yugoslavs and Romanians could be expected to highlight this danger, but we are now getting it from other East Europeans and Soviets as well. (On the other hand, we note that Bulgaria’s Zhivkov is taking pains to deny to recent U.S. visitors “that the military could have a decisive influence in any communist country”.)5 Such speculation about the military might well be considered as par for the course under the circumstances, but that does not mean there may not be some substance to it.

—The curious intimations in the Nitze-Kvitsinskiy contretemps which suggested not just Soviet clumsiness in attempting to embarrass us (or Nitze) with the Allies, but also some sort of disconnect or disagreement within Moscow.6 Nitze has suggested it was a failed bureaucratic end-run by part of the MFA around elements of the military establishment over the substance of the “Equal Reductions” ploy, though others seriously question this interpretation given the composition of those on the Soviet Delegation who reportedly were in the know on this.

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—An intriguing article by Fëdor Burlatskiy in the November 23 Literaturnaya Gazeta which, in the ostensible guise of recreating JFK’s Oval Office deliberations with the NSC during the Cuban Missile Crisis, takes great pains to make the point that “the most terrible thing there can be is to allow the military to take part in political decisions.” Burlatskiy, drawing an implicit parallel to the current INF situation, describes the problems of political leaders in curbing “military hawks” who were pressing for rash responses to the emplacement of threatening missiles in nearby Cuba. (Burlatskiy has had special ties with Andropov in the past, and in 1982 wrote a somewhat similar piece analyzing the political stagnation of Maoist China that was widely seen as an indictment of the Brezhnev system within the Soviet Union;7 he himself made sure that Westerners realized it was a parable about the USSR.)

There is, of course, a temptation to read too much into all of this. We do not intend to suggest any sudden shift in power nor dramatic divergence of policy view within Moscow. Whatever hints of sharp internal differences someone like Burlatskiy might coyly drop, we do not doubt that there continues to be a basic consensus within the Soviet leadership élite on the fundamentals of Soviet foreign and defense policy. Similarly, it is not that surprising that, after a decade during which the institutional influence of military professionals has been on the rise, the senior military should now be playing a central role when such national security matters as arms control are high on the agenda. Particular tales for foreign audiences of beleaguered “liberals” within the leadership, moreover, can have obvious and self-serving purposes.

Nonetheless, the evidence—tenuous but accumulating—is worthy of our note. That the Soviet military is a critical actor today in Soviet succession questions and decision-making is perhaps a truism; what the military’s precise effect on specific Soviet policy choices might be, however, remains quite unclear. Our very uncertainty in this regard, however, only underscores the special need for consistency and coherence in our own policies and statements during this difficult period.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S, Special Handling Restrictions Memos, 1979–1983, Lot 96D262, Super Sensitive December 1983. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Dunkerley on December 9; cleared by Simons, Palmer, Haass in substance, Kelly, and Baraz for information. An unknown hand initialed for Dunkerley. Hill’s handwritten initials appear on the memorandum, indicating he saw it on December 16. A stamped notation indicates Eagleburger saw the memorandum on December 19. He wrote in the margin: “Very good piece! LSE.”
  2. See Document 120.
  3. See Document 143.
  4. Andropov’s public appearances were greatly limited, which led to much speculation about his health. See footnote 2, Document 140. In telegram 14870 from Moscow, November 29, the Embassy relayed an unconfirmed report from a Soviet physician that Andropov was in “‘grave’ condition” and “cannot be expected to return to a full schedule or to remain in office for much more than a year.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830701–0028) For a subsequent report on Andropov’s condition, see Document 151.
  5. From December 10 to 12, a delegation led by Congressman Sam Gibbons (D–Florida) visited Bulgaria and met with various members of the leadership, including President Zhivkov. The main purpose of this visit was to explore possible openings in trade relations with Bulgaria. During the meeting, the following exchange occurred: “Congressman Conable said there was much uncertainty in the U.S. about who was in charge in Moscow. In view of Andropov’s evidently serious illness, many thought the Soviet military were in the saddle. Zhivkov denied that the military could have decisive policy influence in any Communist country.” They “had their tasks to fulfill, but they were under the control of the Communist Party.” (Telegram 4650 from Sofia, December 13; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830734–0166)
  6. Shultz and Dobrynin discussed this on November 18. See Document 137. Documents on this are also scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. V, European Security 1977–1983.
  7. Burlatsky’s Novy Mir article on China’s economic reforms as a possible example for the Soviet Union was discussed in telegram 5861 from Moscow, May 13, 1982. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D820251–0640)