173. Memorandum From William Stearman of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


  • Impact of Andropov’s Death on Soviet Policy

I see only minor modifications of Soviet foreign and domestic policy this year as a result of Andropov’s death.

The current chill in U.S.-Soviet relations will probably continue, but the new leadership may want to reassure the Soviet people by somewhat dampening fears of a U.S.-Soviet clash which have been systematically generated for the past few years. Stopping, or at least slowing U.S. INF deployments in Western Europe will remain a high, if not the highest, priority of Soviet foreign policy. Tactics in pursuit of this objective may change, but not because of a change in leadership.

The relatively modest domestic reforms initiated under Andropov will probably continue, but perhaps implemented with less draconic measures. For example, we may, for the time being, not see any more Soviet officials executed for taking bribes.2

The continuity we will probably see in Soviet foreign and domestic policy would be explained by a general satisfaction of the majority of the Politburo with current policies. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a Soviet leadership in transition is not necessarily inhibited from making substantial policy changes. For example, soon after Stalin’s death in 1953, the new leadership initiated dramatic (by Soviet standards) changes in both foreign and domestic policy which continued through the transition period until Khrushchev completely took over in 1957. For example, the Austrian State Treaty was agreed to in 1955—early [Page 614] in Khrushchev’s ascent to power. These post-Stalin changes were dictated by a deep concern about Stalin’s foreign and domestic policies. I do not see a similar concern in today’s Politburo.

I hesitate to speculate about the make-up of the new Soviet leadership, but I would guess that Gromyko and Ustinov will continue to wield considerable influence—insuring a continuity in foreign and defense policies. The selection of Chernenko as Chairman of the Funeral Commission is, of course, interesting. As you recall, Andropov was selected for this honor after Brezhnev’s death; however, I see a more collective leadership, for the time being, with Andropov’s successor probably moving more slowly to positions of real power than did Andropov, but who knows?

At this point, I see little realistic opportunity for us to influence the new leadership one way or the other. Strictly in the context of U.S.-Soviet relations (and disregarding other possible considerations), I would recommend that, for the time being, our attitude towards the new leadership be one of watchful reserve while keeping open lines of communication with the Kremlin.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Country File, Europe and Soviet Union, USSR (02/04/84–02/11/84). Confidential. Sent for information. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates McFarlane saw it.
  2. Andropov started a campaign to eradicate corruption and bribery during his short tenure as General Secretary. Stearman was likely referring to the case of Yuri K. Sokolov, a well-connected Moscow grocer, who was arrested on bribery charges and sentenced to death in November 1983. On November 28, the Embassy reported that “the severity of the sentence is no doubt intended to underscore Andropov’s continued determination to make examples of the most egregious offenders regardless of their connections and presumed untouchability.” (Telegram 14802 from Moscow, November 28, 1983; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D830698–0865) Sokolov’s sentence was evidently carried out under Chernenko in July 1984. (Seth Mydans, “Ex-Supplier of Moscow’s Epicures Reported Executed for Corruption,” New York Times, July 17, 1984, p. A6)