179. Intelligence Memorandum Prepared in the Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency1

The Impact of Chernenko’s Succession on US-Soviet
Relations and Soviet Arms Control Policy


Past statements by Konstantin Chernenko, and his initial speeches as Party leader, suggest that he is personally inclined toward greater efforts to reduce tensions in US-Soviet relations and to promote negotiation of outstanding issues. In all likelihood, he sees such a policy as a necessary adjunct to the Soviet Union’s growing defense capabilities—which he also has been careful to support in recent days—in ensuring the security of the USSR. However, the continuing strong position of Foreign Minister Gromyko and Defense Minister Ustinov, who have clearly been playing a major role in foreign policy decisionmaking, and Chernenko’s lack of an independent power base seem to make it unlikely that dramatic new initiatives or abrupt shifts in policy toward the US are imminent. We believe that the coming weeks are more likely to bring further moderation of Soviet rhetoric, continued cooperation with the US on working-level issues, and possibly some tinkering with the foreign policies inherited from Andropov. [portion marking not declassified]

A major unresolved issue is when and under what conditions to resume arms control talks with the US. In the final weeks of the Andropov regime, the Soviets had hinted at a willingness to resume substantive exchanges in this field, while maintaining that new initiatives by the US were needed to break the deadlock. Chernenko’s accession is likely to give new impetus to this positive strain in Soviet policy, and to heighten Soviet watchfulness for any signals from Washington. [portion marking not declassified]

1. Chernenko was a vocal supporter of Brezhnev’s policy of improving relations with the US. In the later years of Brezhnev’s regime, Chernenko publicly defended that policy against those within the hierarchy who had begun attacking it following the downturn in relations after the invasion of Afghanistan. Although Chernenko’s responsibility during Andropov’s tenure was for ideology rather than foreign policy, his initial statements as General Secretary suggest that his inclinations have not changed. His accession speech alluded prominently to the [Page 626] theme of peaceful coexistence, avoided direct criticism of the US, and cited the need to settle international problems through “serious, equal and constructive talks.”2 His eulogy for Andropov struck a similar tone.3 [portion marking not declassified]

2. On the other hand, Chernenko has also taken pains since becoming General Secretary to underscore the need for maintaining a strong defense. In the past, he was a leading advocate of increased spending for production of consumer goods, and his initial speech as General Secretary suggests that he continues to be. He therefore probably considers it politically imperative as well to assure representatives of the defense sector, particularly Ustinov, that he is not a threat to their interests. Moreover, despite his apparent policy preference for providing greater incentives to the Soviet worker and consumer, his duties as General Secretary now confer upon him the heavy responsibility for seeing to the military defense of the homeland, whether or not he assumes chairmanship of the Defense Council. If he proceeds in the future on the basis of his past apparent preferences, he may attempt to convince the power elite over time that a less confrontational approach to bilateral relations and a broader, more constructive dialogue on outstanding issues is the natural complement to the defense effort in ensuring the security of the USSR. The extent to which he can achieve this will depend on the power sharing arrangements and compromises that went into his investiture—issues on which we now have no clear picture. [portion marking not declassified]

3. For now, Chernenko’s personal inclinations are unlikely to be the paramount influence on Soviet foreign policy. He lacks both an independent power base and experience in foreign policy commensurate with that of Gromyko and Ustinov. Therefore, they almost certainly will—at a minimum—remain key policymakers in that field, and in the recent past they were the principal Soviet spokesmen giving voice to the sharp downturn in US-Soviet relations. In December, Ustinov accused the US of seeking military superiority and charged that the deployment of new US missiles in Europe had wrecked the chances for reaching a mutually acceptable agreement at the INF talks. In his speech in Stockholm at the CDE last month, Gromyko said that statements by the US regarding its readiness to talk while continuing to deploy missiles were “verbal camouflage,” and that the USSR will not participate in talks that serve as a “cover for militarist plans.”4 His [Page 627] speech at Andropov’s funeral was notably sharper in tone than Chernenko’s.5 [portion marking not declassified]

4. Chernenko’s accession therefore is unlikely to produce any immediate initiatives or sharp shifts in Soviet policy. Instead, its effects are likely to appear gradually. Soviet rhetoric, which already had begun to moderate under Andropov, probably will become still less confrontational. Cooperation with the US on working-level issues, which had continued under Andropov, is likely to be maintained and could become more active. The new leader is likely to undertake an ongoing reexamination of the positions inherited from his predecessor and, where he feels reasonably confident of getting Politburo support, to adjust them to accord with his own views. As important as the US-Soviet relationship is to Moscow, however, the top priorities of the leadership now are almost certainly the working out of power balances within the Politburo and setting the course on domestic issues, where there has been conflict during the past year. For now, Chernenko’s past policy preferences will have to be tempered by his concern about his immediate political interests. [portion marking not declassified]

5. Conflicting statements by Soviet officials in recent weeks suggest that no final decision had been reached prior to Andropov’s death on when or under what conditions to resume arms control talks with the US. Some officials had continued to sound pessimistic, while others hinted that the Soviets were prepared to resume substantive exchanges. The latter usually alluded to the need for a positive signal from the US, and Soviet public statements maintained that a US initiative was essential for a resumption of the principal negotiations. [portion marking not declassified]

6. Under Chernenko, the Soviets almost certainly will continue sending positive signals, and these could even intensify. They are also likely to continue to maintain that the onus remains upon the US to take an initiative that would enable the major arms negotiations to resume. However, while Chernenko may be restricted by the views of Gromyko and Ustinov in exploring possible new approaches to an arms agreement, his own influence also will be felt—perhaps increasingly—as he brings the weight of his new position to bear. This could mean that any new US proposal would receive a more sympathetic hearing than would have been the case under Andropov. It does not mean that Soviet bargaining over any such proposals is likely to be less rigorous. [portion marking not declassified]

  1. Source: Reagan Library, System IV Intelligence Files, 1984, 400195. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. Prepared by [less than 1 line not declassified], Current Support Division, Office of Soviet Analysis. Poindexter noted on a routing slip: “Bud, This is the paper you asked CIA for. JP.” McFarlane wrote: “Many thanks.” On a separate routing slip, Kimmit wrote: “JP: Should this be shared with Matlock, Fortier and Lehman?” Poindexter replied “yes.”
  2. For the text of this speech on February 14, see the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXXVI, No. 7 (March 14, 1984) pp. 4–7.
  3. For the text, see the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXXVI, No. 7 (March 14, 1984) pp. 9–10.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 159.
  5. For the text of Gromyko’s speech at Andropov’s funeral, see the Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXXVI, No. 7 (March 14, 1984), pp. 10–11. An excerpt of his remarks was printed in the New York Times, February 15, 1984, p. A7.