295. Paper Prepared by Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff1

The Daniloff Case: Insights into Soviet Psychology

Aside from providing another clear example of the way a totalitarian regime can act with reckless disregard for truth, justice and the rights of individuals, the Soviet decision to arrest Nick Daniloff, and the Soviet handling of the matter after his arrest illustrates some important differences in Soviet and Western attitudes on a number of fundamental issues.

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Soviet View of the Key Issues

1. The question of Daniloff’s guilt or innocence was fundamentally irrelevant to the Soviet decision to arrest him, and to their subsequent handling of the case—except in the sense that “evidence” of his “guilt” was useful for their public presentation. This is in diametric contrast to the American approach: Zakharov would not have been arrested—and could not have been successfully prosecuted—if he had not committed a criminal act.

2. Although it doubtless had some form of high-level political sanction, the Daniloff arrest was probably intended as a limited action, to achieve a limited goal of the KGB: to force the release of Zakharov. Although it doubtless also had secondary goals (to intimidate foreign journalists and Soviet citizens in contact with them), the first was probably controlling.

3. The apparent failure of the Soviet political leadership to anticipate the vigorous public reaction in the United States and Western Europe, illustrates a persistent Soviet inability to understand fully the Western mindset—and therefore to predict accurately the consequences of their actions.

4. The Soviet attempt to exact a precise parity of treatment between Zakharov and Daniloff illustrates their penchant for trying to create an apparent parallelism where none exists—when it is to their tactical advantage to do so. (We see the same phenomena when they claim that invasion of another country is only the pursuit of collective security—support for allies who have sought their assistance.)

5. One or both of two factors must be present to induce them to draw back, once they have started on a particular course:

(a) Realization that they stand to lose more than to gain from the perpetuation of the action; and/or

(b) Clear evidence that failure to resolve the problem can result in tangible damage to matters of greater importance to them.

6. If these factors are brought clearly into play at the beginning of the dispute, the Soviets are capable of cutting their losses rapidly before more damage is done. However, if the matter escalates and the prestige of the political leaders becomes involved, it is more difficult for them to extricate themselves, even if they realize their concrete interests are suffering.

7. The Soviets had no interest in Zakharov as an individual—they were motivated by KGB institutional interests and Soviet national interests as the political leadership sees them. For the U.S., on the other hand, Daniloff’s personal situation was a very important factor.

Implications for U.S. Tactics

These Soviet attitudes suggest that some tactics are likely to be more successful than others in dealing with disputes with the Soviets.

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1. It is important to find ways to make clear from the outset of a dispute what the costs may be to Soviet interests—particularly if we intend to react in a manner different from what the Soviets have experienced historically. Ideally, such information should be conveyed privately in the first instance, to avoid unnecessary or premature engagement of Soviet prestige.

2. While it is important to our public position (and for the record) to argue the facts of the case, we should not expect to resolve contentious issues by reasoned argument. The Soviets never really cared whether Daniloff was innocent or guilty. Therefore, while we needed to make clear to the public, and to the Soviet leadership, that we knew he was innocent, we had no real hope of solving the problem until we had given the Soviets concrete incentives to solve it.

3. A corollary of the second point is that we should always be careful to avoid giving undue weight to elements of no real importance to the Soviets. [2½ lines not declassified] This was of importance to the Soviets only to the degree it could be used to make their case credible to our public—or to employ as implicit blackmail on us, if they thought we feared “exposure.”

4. We should always be mindful of the bureaucratic implications in the Soviet Union of the actions we take. In Daniloff’s case, the KGB doubtless instigated the arrest. It was important to move against KGB assets in order to demonstrate that their own parochial interest would be the first to suffer—and thus give them incentive to help find a solution. The fact that we finally moved against Soviet intelligence assets in the U.S. was doubtless an important element—along with the Soviet desire to get the Summit back on track—that led to its resolution. It is possible that we could have resolved the issue more quickly if we had moved at the very outset against KGB assets—before the prestige of the leadership became too much involved. The analogy in the arms control area is to give the Soviet military concrete incentives to move in the direction we desire through our defense modernization programs.

5. In trying to resolve a confrontational situation with the Soviets, we must be prepared to take calculated and reasonable risks—and make sure the Soviets understand we are. For example, we should not have hesitated to move against Soviet intelligence installations in the United States from fear that the Soviets would retaliate against us in the Soviet Union. The fact was, they have many more assets to lose in the U.S. [less than 1 line not declassified] and retaliation was unlikely if they knew in advance that we would levy a disproportionate counter-retaliation on them. But even if retaliation on their part had been more probable than it was, it would have been a basic error to convey that we were fearful of that possibility. It would have been far better for them to get the impression that we would welcome the excuse to “cream” them, regardless of what happened to us.

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6. We should never take the Soviets seriously when they say “you can’t deal with us this way.” (Usually, such statements are very good evidence that we are dealing with them precisely in the most effective way.) Such statements are usually made when we tell them in advance that we will take certain concrete actions if they persist in a particular course of behavior. Their protests have some validity only in the sense that if threats or ultimata are made public, the Soviets usually find it impossible to meet them, because of their concern for face and prestige. This does not apply, however, to warnings issued privately, if they are credible.

7. Finally, our experience in the Daniloff case illustrates clearly the utility of confidentiality and direct, very candid communication, in solving such problems. It was not until we dealt with them confidentially that we worked out the solution. [4½ lines not declassified]

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Alton Keel Files, Subject File, Iceland Planning 10/04/1986–10/06/1986; NLR–281–1–47–2–5. Secret; Sensitive. Copies were sent to Bush and Regan. Although the paper is undated, in an October 4 covering memorandum forwarding the paper to Reagan, Poindexter wrote: “I believe the way the Soviets handled Daniloff’s arrest illustrates some important differences in Soviet and American psychology, and that these are relevant to our tactics in other negotiations with the Soviets. Therefore, I asked Jack Matlock to summarize these points. You may wish to take a look at Jack’s paper, which has some thoughts that will be useful to bear in mind as you prepare for your meeting with Gorbachev in Reykjavik.”