257. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • U.S. Side

    • The Secretary
    • Deputy Secretary Whitehead
    • Ambassador Nitze
    • Ambassador Ridgway
    • S/P Director Solomon
    • DAS Simons
    • D. Zarechnak, Interpreter
  • Soviet Side

    • Deputy FM Bessmertnykh
    • Ambassador Dubinin
    • DCM Sokolov
    • First Secretary Churkin

After some informal banter, Bessmertnykh thanked the Secretary for the opportunity to see him, and he conveyed greetings from Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. He also hoped that Foreign Ministers Genscher and Howe had transmitted messages from the Soviet side.2

Secretary Shultz replied that they had indeed. He then indicated that he had received reports of Bessmertnykh’s meetings thus far and [Page 1050] about the general approach which was being taken. The U.S. side had no objection to this, but it puzzled the U.S. side, and him personally.

Bessmertnykh asked why this was so.

The Secretary replied that the U.S. side was curious about what the Soviet side was driving at. It would like to see a more constructive and easier relationship with the Soviet Union, and the President and he were working at that. We believe high-level meetings make a contribution to the relationship, but these meetings need to be prepared and they need to produce something. So we need to work at it. The Soviet side says the same things, but it has not been willing to work at this. For this reason, the U.S. side has been puzzled about Soviet thinking in this regard. For example, there is agreement that the NST talks are of fundamental importance, and yet the Soviet side waited until almost the end of the last round to give its counterproposal to the U.S. proposal which has been on the table for six months. The next round of these talks will begin only in mid-September. So what should be done? We would not want to sit until mid-September if we are thinking of a summit. The fact that the Soviet side waited so long has put us in a jam.

The Secretary continued that the U.S. side acknowledges the positive steps taken by the Soviet side with regard to family reunification, although they are proceeding slowly, as these things tend to go. But emigration from the USSR has practically stopped. Bessmertnykh, who had been here a long time, understood full well the importance of that subject in the U.S. and the impact which a lack of willingness to permit Jewish emigration would have on the reception of General Secretary Gorbachev or, for that matter, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. The U.S. would, of course, try to control these things, but there would be a bad atmosphere. Bessmertnykh would understand this, and, in addition to the timing of the Soviet counterproposals, these things form the basis of why Shultz was puzzled by the Soviet approach.

The Secretary repeated that he was very glad to see Bessmertnykh since Bessmertnykh understood and cared about the U.S.-Soviet relationship, and since Shultz could talk in an open and candid way with him. Shultz indicated that the U.S. would like to get an understanding during Bessmertnykh’s visit of where the relationship is and where we want it to go. Our own view is that we want to get meetings set up and use them as pressure points to get things done. This should be done today, and not five years from now. In many areas, such as space, there was a lot to learn. But areas such as INF, nuclear testing and START are quite well known by now, and even on space we can see the general outlines. This is the reason that the U.S. side is puzzled.

The Secretary continued that there are those who look at these things and tell him he is not getting the message the Soviets are sending. Shultz then asks these people—what is the message? They say the [Page 1051] Soviet message is that they want various fora, but no summit or other high-level meetings. These people suggest, for example, that the Soviets want the negotiators in Geneva just to go along, and, if they reach an agreement, simply announce it. In other words, they feel Moscow just wants to put the whole thing on a low level.

The Secretary continued that he did not think one could take the U.S.-Soviet relationship and treat it like the relationship between two small countries, which could be mad at or happy with each other, without troubling the world. This was not the case with our relationship.

The Secretary indicated that he assumed that Foreign Minister Shevardnadze would be coming to the UNGA. Was this true?

Bessmertnykh replied that it was.

The Secretary said that he assumed that if Shevardnadze came, he would not think it inappropriate to meet with the U.S. Secretary of State. Even in the tensest times, for example in Madrid at the height of strain over the Korean airliner, the Secretary had met with Gromyko. The meeting had been a tempestuous one, but it had been good to meet.3 Yet it did not seem to be possible to establish a date for the meeting with Shevardnadze. Shultz liked Shevardnadze a lot, thought that he was a good person to deal with, and that they had a good personal relationship. The Soviet side had indicated that Shevardnadze thought it would be good to meet in the U.S. before the UNGA, and the U.S. side had agreed. Shultz went to the White House and got a date for the President to meet with Shevardnadze, since he is the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union. The President did not see many Foreign Ministers, and left most of such meetings to the Secretary. But this was a different situation. He brought that back, but the Soviet reply was that they were not sure about such a meeting. Perhaps this did not puzzle Shultz’ colleagues, but it did puzzle Shultz.

The Secretary indicated that he had seen the latest Soviet proposals. The Soviet side had proposed to put together a strong team on NST and to deal with those subjects at a level of less detail than that of the negotiators in an effort to move things along. The U.S. thought this a good idea and was ready to put together a team to do that.

Going down the list of topics in our relationship, the issue of nuclear testing was now being discussed in Geneva and reflected what was covered broadly with Ambassador Dobrynin during his last meeting in the U.S. Discussions to review the bidding are proceeding in [Page 1052] Vienna and Stockholm and in the area of chemical warfare, and that was fine.

The Secretary was not quite clear about the Soviet proposal with regard to regional conflicts. When he and Shevardnadze talked about this in Geneva, Shevardnadze had taken a special interest in this. They had agreed the experts meetings were useful. They had gone better, in his appraisal, than the previous year, at least in the sense that they had been easier and the groups had developed a greater rapport. So, perhaps, they might be more fruitful as they go along. But Shevardnadze had indicated that these discussions would benefit if the Foreign Ministers interjected more political life into them. Shultz recalled Gorbachev’s intervention in Geneva during his discussions with the President about how the Foreign Ministers should meet more frequently. Shevardnadze had also felt this would provide more instruction to experts. He had proposed that one or two specific regions be selected prior to their meeting in an attempt to see what could be done to resolve those issues, rather than to discuss all of them. Perhaps the Soviet side might name a region, and then the U.S. side would name one, and the two sides would try to come to grips with finding common ground. The U.S. had said this would be fine.

The Secretary suggested that the U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs could handle the Soviet proposal on regional conflicts. This would be a level in between the current experts’ talks and the meeting of Ministers. However, the U.S. side was not too clear on the Soviet purpose, and was not in favor of a large number of talks without a clear aim. The U.S. side was willing to take a chance, to try and see, but the aim should be to make it a vehicle through which he and Shevardnadze could better discuss specific regional issues; in this case, such talks would be fruitful. Some regions are explosive. Southern Africa, for example, is in a state of tremendous turmoil. Afghanistan is puzzling, but may also be a worthwhile area of possibly fruitful discussion. And there may be other such areas.

The Secretary continued that he wished to make clear to Bessmertnykh,—and the Soviet Ambassador, as well as Dobrynin and Shevardnadze, had already heard this—that it is of great importance to the U.S., but also to the world at large, that our two countries, which have so much to offer and which can rain down such great destruction, should make progress in the area of nuclear arms, and above all on reducing their levels. Someone calculated that the fallout from the Chernobyl incident was such that one to three Chernobyls would equal the fallout of one Soviet or U.S. nuclear warhead—and we each have thousands of these warheads. People talked about “game plans” for nuclear war. This was ridiculous. There was no such thing as a first strike. The side making such a strike would itself perish from the [Page 1053] fallout. So we need to make progress, but we are spinning our wheels, and need to get some traction. For this reason The Secretary had expressed his concern. He realized that Bessmertnykh was here on a constructive mission, and he had read the reports, but he was still puzzled about how we would proceed.

Bessmertnykh replied that he much appreciated the Secretary’s candid and frank remarks, and in the same spirit, he wished to say that he was puzzled by the Secretary’s puzzlement. The Soviet side felt that it was doing all it could to move in Geneva and in other fora. It never tried to reduce the importance of political contacts, especially with regard to meetings of Ministers and of top leaders. Such meetings were “movers and pushers,” definitely one of the central parts of our relationship. Shevardnadze was very much in favor of this meeting, but, unfortunately, it could not take place due to certain circumstances. The Soviet side had been ready for such a meeting in May, had prepared thoroughly for it, but it had been postponed.

Bessmertnykh said that he would now like to confirm that the dates for Shevardnadze to come to Washington discussed by Shultz and the Soviet Ambassador were acceptable, i.e. September 19 and 20, including a meeting with the President as the U.S. side had suggested. This was now clear. The problem had not been the lack of willingness for such a meeting on the Soviet side, but rather scheduling difficulties, as Bessmertnykh had explained to Ambassador Hartman. Compared to previous such meetings, this would be one of the most critical, since it would discuss the summit situation, and the Ministers would report to their leaders, who would then decide what to do next. The series of working proposals which Bessmertnykh had brought were aimed at making Shultz’ meeting with Shevardnadze as productive as possible. Bessmertnykh agreed that if the meeting had taken place in May, perhaps the situation would have been different now. But we should not waste further time, but rather concentrate on things we have in common, as the basis for agreements and understandings. Presenting a list of things on which the sides did not agree would not be helpful.

The Secretary indicated agreement with this last statement and recalled that, in his first meeting with Foreign Minister Gromyko in 1982, they had agreed to look for areas of agreement between meetings.4 Two such areas had been nuclear non-proliferation and Southern Africa. With regard to the latter, the two sides had not gotten anywhere, but the area of non-proliferation had proved to be a fruitful one.

[Page 1054]

Bessmertnykh said that proved this was the right approach and the Soviet side was in favor of it. He was glad that even before the President’s reply to Gorbachev’s last letter the U.S. agreed to this approach, so that he could come to Washington. This was a good indicator, although not everything had been cleared up.

Bessmertnykh said the Soviet side was ready for a good meeting, and hoped the next summit would be even better than the previous one. But both sides needed to prepare for it.

Bessmertnykh indicated that, with regard to NST, he did not understand why such a message was addressed to the Soviet side, since the picture from the Soviet’s point of view was different. The Soviet side considered that one side was trying to move and the other side was going back to what existed before November. At the summit, the leaders of the two countries had agreed to speed up negotiations, and a reference to previous proposals was not a way of speeding them up. The Soviet side accepted the ideas about the space talks expressed by President Reagan during the last visit of Ambassador Dobrynin, namely, to seek something between the extreme positions of the two sides. Gorbachev had liked this idea, and the question now was whether the U.S. side was prepared to join in seeking partial solutions between the positions of the two sides in Geneva, even in the area of space. The Soviet side was prepared to discuss partial solutions as well. This was the gist of Soviet thinking.

Bessmertnykh realized that some parts of the sides’ positions would remain but we should look at the meeting between the Secretary and Shevardnadze to see if Gorbachev and the President could do something, not a treaty, but something practical to show the world we are moving.

The Secretary interjected that he wished to refer back to Dobrynin’s meeting with the President, where two points had been made: (1) it should be possible to work out something in INF; and (2) it should be possible to find something where progress would be possible in the area of nuclear testing, especially since Gorbachev has stressed that so much. Since Gorbachev does care so much about nuclear testing, the President agreed to a meeting which began on July 25. Useful moves on verification could lead us to ratification of the two treaties, and into a mode of looking at additional possibilities. This is what Dobrynin had said. He, Shultz, had said he thought this was not ambitious enough and that the two sides should aspire, perhaps taking the Soviet proposal on experts’ talks into account, as well as the next round of negotiations in September, to make the next round a hard-driving round, which could lay the basic structure of the summit, if there is to be one in 1986. The negotiators should be ready to get down to work. But START and the space talks are too complicated for reaching [Page 1055] full agreement, so we should try to do enough to create outlines which could then be discussed at the negotiations in 1987 to get something which would be an achievement as part of the Moscow summit that year. With all due respect to other important areas, we must not lose sight of START and space, which are of the greatest importance—are the big deal—at present.

As the Secretary began to discuss regional issues, Bessmertnykh indicated that he would like to speak on what the Secretary had just said. He recalled the Secretary’s conversation with Dobrynin during the latter’s meeting with the President. That conversation was reflected in Gorbachev’s letter. The Secretary said we had noticed. Therefore, Bessmertnykh went on, the Soviet side thought INF was an area where we should try an interim approach, although an agreement on radical cuts, i.e. no U.S. and Soviet missiles in Europe, was their preference.

The Secretary interjected that it would be better not to have any of these missiles anywhere in the world.

Bessmertnykh continued that the sides should try to arrive at a situation which was more fruitful with possibilities. In the area of nuclear testing, it was good that the two sides had found a formula to discuss both verification and a test ban. Each side was abiding by its interests and also was willing to talk about the things that interested the other side. This showed a desire to work, and the Soviet side appreciated that. Perhaps some result would come of it. He had heard what Shultz had said of possibilities with regard to the 1974 and 1976 Treaties. Of course, the world would look for the results with regard to space and START when Shultz would meet with Shevardnadze.

Bessmertnykh continued that, of course, the U.S. side was aware of the basic Soviet position with regard to prohibition of space strike weapons, but it was trying to find more practical solutions, such as strengthening the ABM Treaty. Since the U.S. had said its SDI work was being conducted within the framework of the ABM Treaty, it would seem the Treaty was something that the sides wished to keep. Hence, the proposal to strengthen the regime of that Treaty with regard to the time period within which it would be in force, i.e. the time-frame within which neither side could withdraw from it. As presently envisioned, each side could withdraw under extreme circumstances, where it felt that its national security interests were threatened. It seemed to him that neither side foresaw such an extreme situation. So the two sides should think about this. The second point was to define what was permitted and not permitted under the ABM Treaty. Appropriate proposals on this score had been made in Geneva. These could form the basis for political solutions.

The Secretary indicated that other possibilities which existed were agreement on ASAT and offensive space weapons, in which the Soviet [Page 1056] side had shown interest. The U.S. had tried hard to answer Gorbachev’s concern about “space-strike weapons” hitting targets on earth, and the President said that he would try to deal with this issue.

Bessmertnykh interjected that this was not the same thing as weapons of mass destruction. He continued that the question of regional conflicts had apparently caused some confusion. Secretary Shultz indicated that the U.S. side had tried to figure out what the Soviet side was striving for.

Bessmertnykh said the Soviet side did not depart from the understanding reached between the Secretary and Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to the effect that the Foreign Ministers would discuss regional situations. They might have even more to do after the talks the Soviets are proposing. Shevardnadze was ready to talk about one, two, three or four situations. Similarly, the group experts discussions should continue.

The Secretary quipped that perhaps the Ministers should straighten out what the regional talks had done.

Bessmertnykh continued that the two sides had looked at various aspects of regional conflicts, and both sides had said a great deal about them. The thing was to see if common positions could be found in this area, perhaps small ones. One such common position might be based on the fact that neither side would want to see an exacerbation of regional conflicts, or an increase in their number. The working group, therefore, should not be a substitute for the Ministerial meeting, but should try to prepare the meeting better.

The Secretary indicated that the U.S. delegation would be prepared to discuss the full range of areas of conflict to see what could be said, and would sort out the topics for discussion at the Ministerial meeting that would be the most fruitful. He asked if this was how the Soviets saw the main task.

Bessmertnykh indicated that this was an important point, but not the only one. If they simply reviewed areas of conflict, they would probably be repeating previous positions. The idea would be, without forgetting that problems exist, to find common points in a general way, perhaps some mechanisms which the sides would share. Perhaps they would not come up with anything, but at the summit there should be a passage about regional affairs.

The Secretary asked whether an example of such a common point might be the question of the use of chemical weapons in the Iran/Iraq war. Both the U.S. and the Soviet Union are against the proliferation of chemical weapons, and know they are being used in that war.

Bessmertnykh agreed that this was an example of more practical discussions, and the Soviet side could consider this and be prepared to work on it together. Perhaps something could be found here.

[Page 1057]

The Secretary indicated that since this group was envisioned to be something between an expert group and a Ministerial meeting, the U.S. side would nominate Undersecretary Armacost to head it, and it would have others from other parts of the U.S. Government, people who are representative and thoughtful.

Bessmertnykh replied that the Soviet side would then need to think of who would head up its delegation. They had thought it would be headed up by someone at a lower level, but would think about it.

Bessmertnykh noted the Secretary’s interest in Chernobyl, and said the Soviet side also feels that we should not play games.

The Secretary asked Bessmertnykh what he thought about how this preparatory meeting and its structure should become known. Should the two sides describe it, or should it ooze out to the press? Shultz would tell the President that the proposed dates had been accepted. This should be announced, or it would leak out anyway, and he would prefer to say it in the way in which the U.S. side wanted to. How should the sides plan to do this? If an important group went to Moscow, people would figure out what the trip was about.

Bessmertnykh said the substance of the talks should not be described.

The Secretary agreed absolutely. The delegation members should be taken “by the scruff of the neck” and told they could talk to no one about the substance of the talks except among themselves, to Shultz and to the President. But it would not be possible to conceal the fact that the talks were taking place.

Bessmertnykh said perhaps it would be better to announce the concept of a variety of meetings of experts taking place between the two sides in order to put into motion the Ministerial meeting.

The Secretary replied that perhaps Bessmertnykh and Ridgway could discuss the wording of such a statement, but it should be done carefully. We should be matter-of-fact about it, not to overstate its importance, and not to understate it.

Bessmertnykh said that perhaps we should mention only the dates and place of the next meeting.

The Secretary said he could see a brief statement to the effect that the Foreign Ministers would be meeting September 19 and 20 and that in preparing for that meeting, certain subjects would be discussed, to show that this would take place between now and mid-September without indicating when, where and by whom.

Bessmertnykh thought this was a good proposal and agreed to work on it, but repeated that perhaps the statement should only indicate the meeting of Ministers. He would have to get Shevardnadze’s approval for any statement.

[Page 1058]

The Secretary indicated that perhaps Bessmertnykh and Ridgway could try to work something out.

Bessmertnykh repeated that the major agreement was that the dates of the Ministerial meeting had been set.

Bessmertnykh then asked if Ambassador Dubinin wished to add anything.

Dubinin replied that he had just come from Moscow the day before, and had noticed a difference between temperatures in Moscow and Washington. In Moscow it was summer, but a few degrees less.

The Secretary interjected that he would be glad to loan Moscow some of our degrees.

Dubinin added that he did feel, however, that there was much in common with regard to the political temperature with respect to the meeting between Shultz and Shevardnadze. He had talked with Shevardnadze and other high Soviet officials. The Soviet Union and the U.S. share the viewpoint that they must work quickly to prepare for the Ministerial meeting. There is pressure not only from the point of view of the substance of the issues, but also from the point of view of time. Minister Shevardnadze sends Shultz his warmest regards and his wish to stress the urgency of the preparatory work. Dubinin also noted that Gorbachev was not in Moscow at the time of his visit, since the Soviet leader was traveling in the Soviet Far East at the time.

The Secretary remarked that the U.S. side had read the speech which Gorbachev had made there.5

Dubinin replied that Gorbachev was practically on the U.S. border, and had noted that there were only about seven kilometers between the U.S. and the USSR. It was also there that Gorbachev had given the first reaction of the Soviet side to President Reagan’s letter in response to Gorbachev’s letter of June 19. Dubinin indicated that the Soviet side had the full text of Gorbachev’s statement and could give it to the U.S.. The text calls for what Shultz had mentioned, i.e. activating serious preparatory work in order that the meeting between Shultz and Shevardnadze might be productive. The statement looks optimistically towards the future. This is what he wished to say on the basis of his last contacts with the Soviet leadership.

The Secretary replied that he appreciated this, and appreciated his relationship with Minister Shevardnadze. Turning to Bessmertnykh, [Page 1059] he indicated that the U.S. side would like to have a fruitful meeting with the Soviet Foreign Minister. Shultz’ definition of “fruitful” was not simply to announce a long list of things for the press. “Fruitful” meant that he could tell the President and Shevardnadze could tell Gorbachev that there was progress in view and that there could be useful work done beginning in September to produce a fruitful summit, that Shevardnadze would do certain things and that Shultz would do certain things, including having more meetings, perhaps also in Moscow. The main thing would not be to list five or ten areas of agreement for the press. Would Bessmertnykh agree?

Bessmertnykh indicated that he would, and that the best result would be to report to the leaders that there are possibilities, that they will not be wasted, that they will be used to improve the relationship.

The Secretary indicated that this was good.

Bessmertnykh said that Gorbachev had noted that months had been wasted. Maybe now we should try to find opportunities to improve our relationship. The Soviet side had had discussions with U.S. allies (France, Britain, West Germany) as well as with neutral nations and various leaders. The impression Gorbachev and Shevardnadze were left with was that everyone would like U.S.-Soviet relations to stabilize and to improve, and expect such a result to come out of the meeting.

The Secretary concluded by saying that he now felt better than at the beginning of the meeting. He felt better about what the Soviet side was thinking about, and thought that we should proceed as had been agreed. He did not wish to see his boss in a summit which was not well prepared. This was a formula for catastrophe.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, 4D, 1986 Soviet Union July. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Zarechnak; cleared by Davies and Pascoe. The meeting took place in Shultz’s office.
  2. In telegram 227380 to London, Moscow, and Oslo, July 19, the Department reported on Howe’s July 18 meeting with Shultz, noting: “Howe briefed Secretary Shultz on the July 14–15 Shevardnadze visit to London. The British had been impressed by Shevardnadze’s emphasis on substance rather than style on East-West security issues, and by his refreshing professionalism.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, N860007–0272) In telegram 236354 to Bonn, Moscow, and Berlin, July 29, the Department reported on a July 23 meeting between Shultz and Genscher in Washington, during which Genscher “briefed the Secretary on his July 20–22 visit to Moscow” and meetings with various Soviet officials, including Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860577–0172)
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. IV, Soviet Union, January 1983–March 1985, Documents 104106.
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. III, Soviet Union, January 1981–January 1983, Document 217.
  5. Three telegrams from Moscow reported on Gorbachev’s long July 28 address in Vladivostok: telegrams 12861, 12873, and 12835, all dated July 28. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D860575–0668, D860575–0785, and D860575–0153, respectively) Excerpts of the speech are printed in Documents on Disarmament, 1986, pp. 426–432.