234. Information Memorandum From the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Solomon) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • U.S.-Soviet Relations After Chernobyl

SUMMARY: The Soviets may genuinely believe that the United States is exploiting Chernobyl in a way that is inconsistent with the “spirit of Geneva.” The Soviets tend to think that U.S. Administrations which want to improve Soviet-American relations are obliged to discourage “anti-Soviet” sentiments in the West, even if doing so in effect means protecting the USSR from the consequences of its own blunders. We need to encourage change in this Soviet way of thinking by rebuffing Moscow’s efforts to wrangle new concessions from us before agreeing to the next summit. END SUMMARY.

What Gorbachev Wants from Us

While the United States officially offered sympathy and help to the USSR after Chernobyl and was restrained in its public criticisms of Soviet secrecy, many Soviet officials probably genuinely believe that the United States is trying to exploit this Soviet misfortune for political gain. In the Soviet view, the U.S. response to the disaster fits a pattern of other U.S. actions that are inconsistent with the “spirit of Geneva.” These include rejection of Gorbachev’s proposed moratorium on nuclear testing, the Black Sea incident, the forced reduction in the size of the Soviet UN mission, and our clashes with Libya.

Soviet complaints about these U.S. actions are in some measure propagandistic and are being made for tactical purposes. The Soviets often try to impose unilateral interpretations on international agreements and then accuse the other side of violating the letter or spirit of these agreements. Soviet charges that the United States is violating the “Geneva mandate” are thus predictable and not entirely sincere.

Nonetheless, there probably is an element of genuine bitterness in Soviet reactions to how the United States handled Chernobyl—both officially and in the private sector. Soviet assessments of the U.S. in this instance are conditioned by what the Soviets think should be appropriate U.S. behavior toward the USSR. Like other Soviet leaders, Gorbachev [Page 964] wants a relationship in which the United States treats the Soviet Union as a fully “equal” superpower, and demonstrates its commitment to equality by exercising a degree of deference toward Soviet interests and toward Gorbachev personally.

The General Secretary may not believe that the United States is conspiratorially undermining the “spirit of Geneva,” but he probably does believe that President Reagan has an obligation to shape American policy in such a way as to make the USSR—and Gorbachev personally—“look good” in the eyes of the world. This not only means refraining from actions such as the strike on Libya, but even protecting the USSR from the consequences of its own blunders such as Chernobyl.

Implications for U.S.-Soviet Relations

The curious side of Gorbachev’s behavior is not that he wants such a relationship, but that he persists in believing that by finding the right public relations formula, he can get it—without making real concessions or changing Soviet international behavior in any way. Instead, Gorbachev appears to have settled on an ambiguous strategy for dealing with the United States. On the one hand, he wants an ongoing process of dialogue and summitry with the United States, which he sees as essential to underlining the Soviet Union’s status as a superpower and stressing its essential role in solving world problems. For this reason, Gorbachev is reluctant to call off the next summit.

On the other hand, Gorbachev is extremely wary of heightening interactions with the United States in a way which would make the USSR appear to be the “junior” superpower, or at a time when he is vulnerable because of Soviet difficulties. For this reason, he wants to come to Washington only after he has convinced the world that the USSR is again on the move and that it can meet American political, economic and technological challenges.

To minimize prospects of being perceived as “number two” at the next summit, Gorbachev needs to chalk up domestic economic gains, reinforce the image of a cohesive Eastern bloc, and place the United States on the defensive with his testing moratorium and his overall disarmament campaign. Because Chernobyl undercuts all these objectives, it has probably made Gorbachev less willing to accelerate progress toward a second summit or to make arms control concessions that could be seen as evidence of weakness.

Soviet Tactics and Appropriate U.S. Responses

Gorbachev no doubt sees the Chernobyl setback as temporary; and the Soviets have already begun a campaign to recover lost ground and to place us on the defensive. By proposing cooperative measures to cope with Chernobyl-type disasters, such as strengthening the IAEA, [Page 965] they hope to portray themselves as part of the solution to a common problem and dilute Western charges that Soviet behavior is the problem. They will try to soften Western complaints about Soviet secrecy by hammering away on the incorrectness of some initial reports in the Western press. Above all, they will accuse the United States of having tried to exploit the crisis, while trying to drive wedges between us and our allies by downplaying equally strong European reactions to Chernobyl.

In responding to the Soviet counteroffensive, it is important for us to recognize that nothing we do will convince the Soviets of our good faith and dissuade them from attacking us. Soviet bitterness toward the United States is not the result of individual American acts, but is a byproduct of the Soviet leaders’ own inflated view of their power and importance. It also reflects their deep frustration with the fact that the world does not accord them the respect that they feel they deserve by virtue of their status as a nuclear superpower and their stewardship of the Marxist-Leninist faith. In Gorbachev’s case, the effects of ideology and tradition are reinforced by personality. Congressman Fascell and others who have met with him have been impressed by his self-confidence—some would say arrogance—and his total lack of doubt in the rightness of Soviet ideology or the superiority of the Soviet system.

We will likely have to deal with Gorbachev for many years to come, and our policy should be geared to disabusing him of the idea that he can pressure us into reconstructing U.S.-Soviet relations on his terms. To convey this message, we should respond very forcefully to Soviet efforts to co-opt the IAEA process and turn what should be an international review of Soviet actions into a Soviet-sponsored exercise designed to whitewash Soviet errors.

More importantly, we should rebuff Soviet attempts to use the Chernobyl disaster to extract concessions from us in advance of the summit. In his Chernobyl speech, Gorbachev again raised the prospect of a “testing summit” in a European capital or at Hiroshima. This suggests that he intends to continue wrangling with us over the timing of the next summit. The Soviets may even put out feelers about moving the Washington summit to a third capital, and may expect that we would be sympathetic to such a request in hopes of smoothing over the bad feelings generated by Libya and Chernobyl.

We need to resist Soviet feelers for this or other “positive” gestures. Chernobyl can play a useful role if it encourages Gorbachev to focus on the USSR’s internal weaknesses and to begin to perceive the incompatibility between them and the USSR’s external ambitions. But if we try to placate Gorbachev at a time when he is attacking us, we will send precisely the wrong signals. We will encourage him to believe that he can have a relationship with the United States largely on his [Page 966] terms and thereby undercut the prospects for change in Gorbachev’s attitude that would serve our interests and that we ought to be promoting.

To send Gorbachev the right signals, we should:

• Take a positive attitude toward improved cooperation on nuclear safety in the IAEA, but not allow our interest in cooperation to override the political aspects of Chernobyl. After all, it is the Soviets who are politicizing Chernobyl by attacking us.

• Strongly reiterate to the Soviets, in private, our expectation that a summit will take place in Washington in 1986. Faced with a stark choice between no summit and the one agreed to in Geneva, Gorbachev is more likely to opt for the latter.

• Make clear to our allies that we are not contemplating positive gestures toward the Soviets, which we believe would send the wrong signals at this time. If we fail to convey to the allies that we have a conscious game plan for dealing with Gorbachev, we will come under pressure from them to make such gestures.

  1. Source: Department of State, S/P, Memoranda/Correspondence from the Director of the Policy Planning Staff, Lot 89D149, 1986 May. Secret; Sensitive; Summit II. Drafted by VanOudenaren; cleared by Ledsky. A stamped notation reading “GPS” appears on the memorandum, indicating Shultz saw it.