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

7851. Subject: May 8 Meeting With Shevardnadze. Ref: State 133017.2

1. (C) Entire text.

2. Introduction and summary: Ambassador received appointment with Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze late afternoon May 8 in connection with demarche on bilateral matters (reftel) and Ambassador’s May 10 departure for consultations. Demarche was requested on April 29. Shevardnadze was joined by Acting Chief USA Department Mikolchak; DCM accompanied Ambassador. Meeting lasted about 90 minutes.

3. Ambassador first raised Chernobyl accident, reiterating President’s sympathy and offer of assistance, and forcefully rebutting assertions of “orchestrated campaign” against USSR.3 Shevardnadze made the obligatory effort to defend Soviet public handling of incident and [Page 948] claimed criticism of Soviet Union, including that voiced by President Reagan, was difficult to comprehend.4

4. On bilateral relations, Ambassador drew upon talking points in reftel, emphasizing that restoration of the process of high-level dialogue was needed to stimulate resolution of key problems. Progress in at least one arms control area was most important, but required focus on something specific, as opposed to sweeping conceptions. Shevardnadze said Soviet Union was prepared for reasonable compromise and favored continuation of the dialogue at all levels. However, the current situation did not allow placing the question of a Foreign Ministers’ meeting on the agenda. This would take “a certain period of time.” End introduction and summary.

5. The Ambassador opened the meeting by reiterating the President’s expression of sympathy and offer of assistance regarding the Chernobyl accident. As a country that had experienced a recent nuclear accident, and believed in nuclear power, we knew the difficulty of bringing people to understand what had happened. We also knew the importance of providing as much information as possible about the present situation and measures to avert future accidents. The U.S. was prepared to play its full part in rendering assistance, both bilaterally and in appropriate international organizations.

6. The Ambassador wished to assure Shevardnadze there was no “orchestrated campaign” against the Soviet Union, as some Soviet commentators were claiming. This amounted to a most uninformed misreading of opinion beyond Soviet borders. If the Soviet leadership had been told this, it should find advisors who knew the actual situation in the external world. There existed great concern over atomic energy in the United States and other countries; the USG faced this problem every day, particularly in reaching agreement over the location of nuclear power facilities. We therefore were as interested as the Soviet Union in persuading people that accidents like the present one could be reasonably handled and that future accidents could be averted.

7. Shevardnadze responded that General Secretary Gorbachev had received the President’s message and had expressed gratitude for its contents. Many letters were being received, including from American scientists, public figures and others, and Shevardnadze wished to [Page 949] express thanks on behalf of the Soviet people. An American medical specialist and his colleagues were doing major work in saving lives; this was appreciated.

8. A tragedy of this sort could happen in any nuclear power station, in any country, Shevardnadze continued. Concern over the incident was completely understandable. But other aspects were difficult to explain. “Some” were attempting to make political capital and blacken the Soviet Union—whether organized or not, well, this was another matter. This effort was simply inhumane and immoral. The U.S. President’s public rebuke of the Soviet Government—that insufficient information was provided—was difficult to comprehend. Information was in fact given on a timely basis, but only when the special commission had developed the essential facts. Any attempt to hide the accident would have been impossible. So the President’s criticisms were not understood.

9. Shevardnadze added he had just come from a meeting (probably the Thursday Politburo meeting) with Gorbachev,5 who had asked Shevardnadze to once again thank the U.S. for its sympathy and offer of assistance.

10. The Ambassador said there had been really only one problem: The first announcement of the accident was made by the Swedish Government, not the Soviet Government. If the USSR had made the initial statement, and followed up with daily bulletins, people would have understood.

11. Shevardnadze replied that “serious people” knew such accidents were difficult to sort out. The USSR approached this question seriously and responsibly. Secondly, the Chernobyl accident was a very bitter practical, scientific and historical lesson. The cause was still not established. When the investigation is complete, the results will be made available to all governments so that such accidents can be prevented. Meanwhile, all attempts to blacken Soviet policy are doomed to fail.

12. A final lesson of Chernobyl, Shevardnadze said, was the “terrible” nature of atomic energy. If, under peaceful conditions, a great scientific and technical power like the USSR could not at first control the Chernobyl situation, a nuclear military exchange would surely be a grave catastrophe threatening the end of all mankind. The Soviet Union therefore was resolved to redouble its efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons, and to commence the process by a total ban on nuclear testing, peaceful as well as military.

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13. The Ambassador agreed that a tragedy like this provided impetus to do all possible to create more stability and avoid conflicts. Our leaders, on each side, were agreed on the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. Our immediate problem, which would be discussed when the Ambassador returned to Washington, was how to continue the dialogue unfortunately called off by the Soviet side.

14. At the November meeting in Geneva we had agreed to work on specific goals: a 50 percent cut in strategic systems, an interim INF agreement, and analysis of the problems of space defense. Negotiations were continuing, but political impetus was needed. Thus we were interested in high-level meetings leading to a 1986 summit in the United States. It was in our view also important for the ministers to review other aspects of the relationship. We would provide the Soviet side with a paper giving our detailed views on where the bilateral relationship stood and underscoring the importance of human rights. It was important that we make progress in our arms control field, and in the Ambassador’s view this was possible if we focused on something very specific; as opposed to sweeping but ill-defined goals.

14A. Meanwhile, we were disappointed that the Ministerial meeting had been put off. We at no time felt our actions in Libya had anything to do with the Soviet Union. Our actions stemmed from a very specific quarrel with Qadhafi.

15. Shevardnadze said it had not been easy to decide to call off his Washington trip. The Soviet side had prepared seriously and developed good, constructive proposals. Unfortunately, the actions of the administration did not allow the Soviet side to realize its plans.6

16. Shevardnadze asked that his words be understood correctly. He could not characterize U.S. action against Libya as other than unveiled aggression, a barbarous attack against a sovereign government with which the USSR had relations, friendly relations (Shevardnadze paused before adding “friendly”). So the first point was that the very fact of U.S. “punishment” against Libya for moral and political reasons prohibited his meeting with Secretary Shultz.

17. Secondly, U.S. actions of this sort were fraught with serious and even catastrophic consequences. The USSR had “hundreds” of specialists in Libya, including military specialists. Soviet ships and aircraft were in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas. Hence such actions could lead to uncontrolled situations having most catastrophic results. The U.S. side should keep these two aspects in mind, because they compelled the Soviet side to cancel the Ministerial meeting.

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18. The Soviet side favors continuing the dialogue, Shevardnadze went on. Our delegation just arrived in Geneva with instructions to reach agreement faithful to the “spirit of Geneva.” The Soviet side was ready for reasonable compromise even where none seemed possible. But the current situation did not allow us to place a Ministerial or summit meeting on the agenda. This would evidently require more time. The Soviet side would judge if USG expressions were followed by corresponding actions. A certain amount of time (“kakoye-to vremya”) was needed. “Today’s situation was unsuitable.” It was unfortunate that events had gone this way, but the Soviet side was in no way at fault.

19. The Ambassador noted that we would be patient. Regarding Libya, he did not think the Soviet Union would have acted differently if it possessed proof another government was planning violence against its citizens. We had shared our proof with our allies, and surely the Soviet side had noticed the actions recently taken in Western Europe against Libyan Missions there. Shevardnadze commented that the Soviet side knew of no such proof, but could not accept the use of U.S. military might against the Libyan people even if such proof existed.

20. The Ambassador said he would report the Foreign Minister’s remarks to the President and the Secretary, and hoped the time would soon come when the vital process of high-level dialogue could be resumed.

21. As the meeting concluded, Shevardnadze asked that his personal regards be conveyed to President and Mrs. Reagan as well as to Secretary and Mrs. Shultz.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, N860005–0359. Confidential; Immediate; Nodis.
  2. In telegram 133017 to Moscow, April 29, the Department forwarded the text of a démarche on bilateral issues. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, N860005–0176)
  3. See Documents 221 and 222.
  4. During his May 4 radio address, Reagan addressed the Chernobyl accident and stated: “The Soviets’ handling of this incident manifests a disregard for the legitimate concerns of people everywhere. A nuclear accident that results in contaminating a number of countries with radioactive material is not simply an internal matter. The Soviets owe the world an explanation.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book I, pp. 554–555) The issue of Chernobyl was raised again during his May 7 news conference in Tokyo. (Ibid., pp. 564–565)
  5. May 8.
  6. See Document 216.