104. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • LTG Colin Powell, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Robert M. Gates, Deputy Director of Central Intelligence
  • Fritz Ermarth, National Security Council Staff
  • Vladimir Kryuchkov, First Chief Directorate, KGB
  • Yuriy Dubinin, Soviet Ambassador
  • Interpreter

Ambassador Dubinin had called Powell to invite him to dinner to go over some additional details for the summit meeting. Powell called back to inform them Gates was coming only about 20–30 minutes before the dinner. When we met at the restaurant there was some awkwardness at the outset but as soon as we sat down at the table (Kryuchkov and Gates sitting side-by-side), Kryuchkov observed that this was an occasion of historic importance—that two such senior officials of the two intelligence services had never met. He noted that others of our services had met “under tables” in other places but that this was a first. Gates noted that it was the first time that two officials of the services had dined face to face in Moscow or in Washington, although each side certainly was intimately familiar with the daily lives of the other in the two capitals.

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Kryuchkov then said to Gates, “You speak Russian”. When Gates responded it had been many years ago, Kryuchkov said “we hear that you understand it”. Gates said that he would not trust his imperfect Russian for a conversation as important as this. The two spoke a little German and then relied on the interpreter the rest of the evening. Kryuchkov indicated that he spoke Hungarian as well as German.

The conversation was generally one of banter and debating points, punctuated by several serious discussions. Kryuchkov for example commented on the fact that General Powell was drinking vodka while he, Kryuchkov, was drinking scotch. When the waiter came around and Kryuchkov told the interpreter he wanted scotch, the interpreter started to order Johnny Walker Red and Kryuchkov quickly corrected him to order Chivas Regal. A few minutes later, when Kryuchkov made a comment that CIA knows about everything, Gates observed to him that he had known Kryuchkov would order Chivas before he ever opened his mouth. He initially took Gates seriously and then laughed.

Kryuchkov said a few things that indicated he was well aware of Gates’ background. Gates responded that while Ambassador Dubinin could occasionally watch him on television, Kryuchkov and his associates remained a considerable mystery in their personal lives. Kryuchkov responded that he found that hard to believe. He said that perhaps the dinner could be the opening of a different kind of glasnost. He then went on to comment that glasnost had reached such a level in the Soviet Union that it was beginning to rival the availability of information in the United States. Gates told him that was hardly the case and that we would begin to believe in glasnost when a Soviet version of Aviation Week began to be published with the kind of information the US magazine has.2 He indicated familiarity with the magazine, and Gates told him we knew they had many subscriptions. He laughed.

Gates told Kryuchkov that he must be able to run his service on a considerably smaller budget than CIA thanks to the assistance of the Western press and the US penchant for leaks. He said that was hardly the case. Gates said that, in the spirit of glasnost Kryuchkov had referred to, and that inasmuch as they had the opportunity to review many CIA assessments of their economy and military strength, perhaps they should begin to share such assessments in return. He responded that many CIA assessments are quite good but that some of them are not “entirely objective”.

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There then followed a discussion between Powell, Ermarth and Kryuchkov on perestroika, with Powell noting the difficulties of keeping such a process under control and Ermarth indicating the difficulties of economic reform in the absence of a money economy and particularly in light of the fact that military costs cannot really be calculated. Kryuchkov conceded most of these points, though noting that “one should not be too hard on the military”. In this connection he told Gates that he would share a “secret”—that perestroika was proceeding much more slowly than they had anticipated it would two years ago.3

During the course of the conversation Dubinin raised several matters relating to the summit with Powell and Kryuchkov freely jumped in to offer his own views. In fact when Powell indicated that one of the stumbling blocks was that the Soviets had not provided pictures of the SS–25s and SS–20s as promised, Kryuchkov said there must have been some misunderstanding and that providing such pictures was “impossible”. He spoke strongly not only on issues involving the arrangements for the visit but as in this case on substantive issues involving the treaty. He asked if the US always used the tactic of throwing up last minute obstacles. Gates said he had helped prepare six or so US-Soviet Summits, that both sides usually had last minute problems, and that somehow they always worked out.

Kryuchkov said that he had carefully read the Newsweek article on Director Webster.4 He said that he had been much impressed by Mr. Webster’s comments that CIA was not going to take a position on policy issues. He strongly endorsed that, saying that the special services had no business involving themselves on policy. He added that he had seen in the Newsweek story a quote from Mr. Webster to the effect that CIA still had good sources in the Soviet Union. He indicated that perhaps, in the spirit of glasnost, Gates would share a list of those people with him. Gates asked whether he would be willing to make an exchange of lists. He laughed. Kryuchkov asked that Gates pass his [Page 598] greetings on to Director Webster and that perhaps the latter should consider visiting the Soviet Union with the President for the 1988 summit, which he felt was most likely to occur.

At one point, Kryuchkov commented on the security arrangements for the visit and their desire for a successful, safe visit. Gates told him that Americans and our media were quite taken with the General Secretary and that he would be very warmly received—apart from demonstrators. He said they still worried about security. Gates said we always should worry about security for our leaders, that we knew only too well what a crazy person could do. In this context, Kryuchkov noted how warmly Nixon had been welcomed in Moscow in 1972, and observed that the applause for him would have been even warmer had he not been bombing Hanoi and Haiphong.

In the discussion of intelligence role in policy, Gates said that the policy decisions were made by people like General Powell. At that point Kryuchkov recalled a joke about the Czech General who operated under two rules. Rule one is that the General is always right and rule two is that when the General is wrong people should remember rule number one.

When Kryuchkov was asked his first impressions on visiting the United States, he commented on how powerful it seemed—that you could “feel the power”. Several times he referred to how rich and economically powerful the United States is. In this connection at one point he turned to Gates and said that he hoped that CIA was telling the US leadership that the Soviet Union was not a weak, poor country that could be pushed around. Gates assured Kryuchkov that we had a very good understanding of the strength of the Soviet Union and of its power. Gates reminded him of their history in terms of the large armies they had maintained in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries at a time when the West European kingdoms were just getting organized. Gates recalled their history of constant warfare as they expanded to the east and to the south and that he could be assured that we did not underestimate their power or their pride. We then had a discussion, in which Dubinin participated actively, about World War II. Gates recalled General Powell’s conversation with Marshal Akhromeyev about the seige of Leningrad and that one could not fail to be moved by the sacrifice and courage of the people of Leningrad—and one did not have to be Russian in listening to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in order to be moved.

In the discussion of Soviet history, Dubinin noted that whenever Russia had relaxed its vigilance whether during the time of the Mongols or in the 1930s, they had been invaded and paid a terrible price and that therefore they must not relax vigilance ever again. He refused to be drawn into a discussion with Ermarth over Stalin’s responsibility for the German invasion.

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In the context of Kryuchkov’s reference to cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union during World War II, Gates said, expressing his personal opinion, that he felt it was a special responsibility of the two intelligence services to ensure that movement toward a more constructive and mutually beneficial relationship should be based on complete realism. Gates quoted Gorbachev’s comments to Secretary Shultz some time ago that intelligence was valuable because it reduced the danger of miscalculation out of ignorance and contributed to stability and understanding. He added that there are, in fact, very deep differences between the two countries and that their gigantic arsenals did not simply appear out of nowhere but are a manifestation of deep distrust and even fear on the part of both sides. Gates said that the detente of the 1970s had been a false start. There had been a great deal of unwarranted optimism that surrounded the 1972 summit and the period that followed and yet the deep differences between the countries came to the fore as problems associated with human rights, the Third World and strategic forces quickly dissipated the warm feelings of the early 70s.

Gates continued that if we were to have a more enduring relationship in which the purposes of peace and lessening tensions were served—more than a passing bit of sunshine—it had to be based on a realistic assessment of the deep differences between the sides and a willingness to confront those problems, that we not confuse rhetoric and reality. Only thus could a lasting relaxation of tensions take place. While Kryuchkov seemed to take these comments on board, his only response was to pick up on Gates’ reference to human rights, to object to its being raised, and to say that there had been unwarranted interference in the 1970s. Gates said that Kryuchkov misunderstood. While human rights is an issue of continuing concern to us and a real problem between the two countries, Gates had recalled it simply as being one of the factors that helped destroy detente in the early 1970s. He reminded Kryuchkov of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. There then followed a discussion about whether the law was still in effect and Kryuchkov asking what had become of Mr. Vanik.

There was considerable discussion of Afghanistan. Kryuchkov confirmed that they wanted to get out of Afghanistan but had to find some kind of a political solution in order to do so. He expressed particular concern about the possibility of a rise to power in Afghanistan of another fundamentalist Islamic state. He noted that neither the Soviet Union nor the United States needed a second fundamentalist state like Iran. He observed in passing that the United States seemed to be fully occupied trying to deal with just one fundamentalist Islamic state. Ermarth noted that in contrast to Iran, if the Soviet Union left Afghanistan they would confront very much the kind of Afghanistan that [Page 600] existed before they invaded—that is, a fragmented, weak state that posed no danger to anyone. Gates said they had the additional advantage in comparison to our experience in that there was no Cam Ranh Bay in Afghanistan.

Kryuchkov invited Gates to come to the Soviet Union on several occasions through the dinner. The first time was in connection with Gates’ comment about human rights when he said that Gates should come and see for himself and indicated that he was quite serious. The second was in connection with a discussion of technology transfer, and about our respective embassies. We had been talking about economic relations and technology transfer, during which Gates had commented on our concerns over Soviet use of advanced western technology for military purposes. Kryuchkov asked if we could draw a firm distinction between technology for civilian and for military purposes. We acknowledged that in many instances that was quite difficult. Ermarth noted the COCOM process and the effort to try and make distinctions in that forum. In this context, Gates noted that technology transfer probably could come in the other direction in some areas if our new embassy building was any indication. Kryuchkov laughed at that and indicated there was “no problem” with our embassy in Moscow. He said that we were being too modest about our own technical capabilities and that Gates should come to Moscow to look not only at our embassy but also look at what they had taken out of their embassy here in Washington.

At the end of the conversation when Gates said that perhaps he would visit after he retired from CIA, he responded “If you wait, I certainly will be gone”. He urged Gates to come sooner and said that he could “give you a visa tomorrow”.

Commenting on his visit to Washington, he noted that he had gone to the Kennedy Center to see a Polish conductor. He said that the theater scene in Washington is “very pale” compared to the forty or more theaters in Moscow. He noted that there are never tickets available to those theaters in Moscow, but, of course, “I can always get tickets”. Gates said CIA had no such influence in the US, and added that CIA is forbidden by law to be active within the United States. Kryuchkov responded very firmly, “that is not quite so”.

We had a discussion on who had responsibility for monitoring American compliance with arms control treaties in the Soviet Union, Kryuchkov indicated it was the KGB’s responsibility to draw together information about American activities but that there was nothing comparable to our National Security Council that would draw together the views of the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs as well as the intelligence services.

At one point during the dinner, Gates told Kryuchkov that because he had shared a secret, Gates would share one with him. He said that [Page 601] CIA had been told by the State Department that the General Secretary would like to have tapes of the Moscow evening news so that he could see how his visit is being handled on Soviet television. Gates indicated that there is only one place that can do that and that Kryuchkov should tell the General Secretary those tapes are a gift from CIA to him in the hope of a successful summit. He thanked Gates and then added, “That is probably the only thing you are doing,” presumably he meant to help make the summit a success. Dubinin was genuinely surprised at Gates’ information, indicating they had been told the tapes were being provided by “a friendly television station”. Gates said that is not altogether untrue, but that this would remain our secret.

The Soviets were clearly having a problem keeping under control the number of members of Congress being invited to the embassy to meet with Gorbachev and they discussed with Powell certain people who wanted to be invited but were being told no. Powell indicated he would help in anyway he could. Gates commented that they would have to rely on his discretion to keep secret the fact that the Soviet side and the American Administration were colluding together against the Congress in this way. At that point Kryuchkov rather deftly made some reference to Gates’ personal relationship with the Congress. Gates responded that it was “wonderful”.

As we left the dinner, Gates told Kryuchkov that it had been a very interesting conversation and that he hoped it would not be harmful to either of their careers.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Ermarth Files, US-Soviet Summit November-December 1987 (12). Confidential. Printed from a December 7 draft copy. The conversation took place at the Maison Blanche restaurant.
  2. Aviation Week and Space Technology, a weekly magazine with a long-standing reputation for publishing stories based on classified information and confidential sources with the U.S. military services.
  3. In an undated attached note to Gates, Ermarth indicated that the memorandum of conversation “looks good and thorough.” However, he added that the following passage should be included at this point: “Referencing the Yeltsin affair, Ermarth wondered whether we were seeing some political backsliding in Moscow. Kryuchkov replied by saying that Yeltsin had simply turned out to be inadequate to his job, seeking to impose reform from above in the old ways. Did we think, asked Kryuchkov, that Yeltsin was some kind of democrat? Ermarth replied that Yeltsin probably had both strong and weak points, but that informed Americans were concerned about something else, namely the way the party boyars pounced on Yeltsin when he went down. This was reminiscent of something rather frightening in Soviet politics. Kryuchkov responded rather thoughtfully that he understood this point, adding that he found this conversation useful because it gave him insight into the American mentality.”
  4. Reference is to Russell Watson and Richard Sandza, “Cleaning Up the Mess,” Newsweek, October 12, 1987, p. 24.