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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 36: Record of Conversation between Aleksandr Yakovlev and Henry Kissinger, January 16, 1989

Aleksandr Yakovlev
Traduction de Svetlana Savranskaya

Texte intégral

1The following series of documents from the Kremlin’s talks with Henry Kissinger in Moscow provide the first primary-source evidence ever published on one of the most controversial subplots in the narrative of the end of the Cold War. The former U.S. secretary of state, largely excluded from official roles during the Reagan years, volunteers himself to the incoming Bush administration in December 1988 as an intermediary with Gorbachev, with the idea of proposing a cooperative superpower effort to maintain stability in Europe. The documents suggest there is interest in both Washington and Moscow, but to the outside world this would look like the Yalta division of Europe all over again—a great power condominium to decide everyone else’s fate. By March 1989, Secretary of State James Baker would leak the Kissinger initiative and disavow it, shrewdly limiting the political damage for the president.

2In this set of notes written by Yakovlev’s aides, Kissinger begins by trying to convince Yakovlev of his closeness to Bush, then quickly moves to a warning about the potential for “unpredictability” in Europe “[i]f the balance of military forces on the continent shifts drastically.” Kissinger continues, according to the Russian notes: “G. Bush, as president, would be willing to work on ensuring conditions in which a political evolution could be possible but a political explosion would not be allowed.” Otherwise, Kissinger warns, German nationalism would rise, and U.S. troops would therefore need to stay in Europe because “[we] need a guarantee against the adventurism of Europeans themselves.” Kissinger alerts Yakovlev not to expect rapid movement on Washington’s part, because “the incoming President will need some time to grasp in detail all the discussions on military-political questions that are going on now in the United States.” Yakovlev may well be asking himself at this point what Bush had been doing for eight years as vice president.


3I received H. Kissinger upon his request.

4At the start of the conversation, H. Kissinger made a statement about his closeness to the new president of the USA, George Bush, and to the people comprising his inner circle. At the present time, he said, in this circle Bush, Baker, Sununu, and Scowcroft are actively debating perspectives on Soviet-American relations. The general goal set by G. Bush comes down to the following: that in “four years we should be able to demonstrate a new quality in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.” For this purpose it is necessary to make a more decisive turn toward the most essential, substantive issues of relations between the two states, mainly the political ones.

5I do not believe, said H. Kissinger, in the reliability of relations that are built only on personal contacts between the top leaders. Stable relations can only be built on the basis of the long-term interests of each side. In this connection, the coming U.S. administration is currently taking an inventory of U.S. interests for the future, and is developing a philosophy of its own foreign policy course, and so [the administration] is ready to accept relevant ideas from the Soviet side.

6The long-term and principal interests of both the USA and the USSR require them to turn to the political side of their relationship. “The top leaders should not be preoccupied with counting warheads or confidence-building measures,” said H. Kissinger. “This is the business of experts.” The top leadership should mainly consider the political issues on which the content and the reliability of future relations will depend.

7In H. Kissinger’s opinion, those initiatives and proposals that have been presented up till now, even if they are 100 percent implemented, “will only touch the outer surface of Soviet-American relations, and will not engage them substantively.” The key issue is precisely about how genuinely to engage the political essence of the relationship. H. Kissinger reiterated this idea numerous times in the course of the conversation.

8In the United States, continued H. Kissinger, presently “a very serious discussion is taking place about political relations” between the USSR and the USA in perspective. “You are leaving Afghanistan,” he said, “but other conflicts remain, for example in Angola and Nicaragua. Even in Afghanistan, the conflict will persist after your withdrawal.”

9But even the future of Europe carries within itself the potential for unpredictability. If the balance of military forces on the continent shifts drastically, “a very complicated situation might emerge.” “G. Bush, as president, would be willing to work on ensuring conditions in which a political evolution could be possible but a political explosion would not be allowed.”

10Developing this theme, H. Kissinger said that if in the future something were to happen in Europe that would lead to “active Soviet military involvement” in some form—especially after conventional weapons have been reduced, nuclear weapons abolished, and the image of the USSR as an enemy removed—Germans in the FRG would feel as if they had been betrayed by the Americans. The growth of nationalism in both parts of Germany “will hurt us Americans in the next five years, but in 50 years it will hurt you.” The countries of Eastern Europe are now entering a [stage] of “special evolution.” As a result, after a period of time, Europe could become explosive once again, “and if that were to happen, 98 percent of Americans would say that the Soviet Union had envisioned all that from the very beginning.”

11It is impossible to stop history, as Kissinger summed up this part of his deliberations, but “it is possible to stop its explosions, to increase collective security before such explosions occur, and to discuss the emerging political problems.” In Afghanistan, “we want you to withdraw, but we do not want to create problems for your security or any kind of difficulties for you. We accept the fact that your country has legitimate security interests there. But we have the same situation and same legitimate security interests in Nicaragua.” We have to turn to a discussion of political problems—some of this could become part of official agreements as a result, and some can become a part of our mutual understanding.

12We consider it our problem, continued H. Kissinger, that the United States has no tradition of foreign policy that would be genuinely based on a consciously understood national interest. Instead, we are thrashing about under the influence of emotions and ideological predilections. In the USSR, as I see it, you have a different problem: “you have never lived in balance with your neighbors. Either they invaded Russia, or Russia ensured its security by expanding its territory.”

13In our view, said H. Kissinger, the USA and the USSR will have to learn to live in balance with each other. “We should not be trying to reform you, and you [should] agree to live in conditions of relative and not absolute security. I do not believe that you have any plans for world revolution, and the Soviet Union does not have capabilities for that either.”

14Neither the USSR nor the USA needs a mutual confrontation. Any mutual conflict would weaken both sides and would not strengthen either one. It would only benefit third countries, “which are developing quickly even without it.” “We discussed this in detail in G. Bush’s inner circle,” stated H. Kissinger, “and we believe that to create a serious balance we need a dialogue, some form of deliberation on essentially political relations. Then all the other issues, such as arms control or economic relations, will move much faster.”

15Developing the idea of the substance of such a political dialogue in response to a question, H. Kissinger spoke in a preliminary fashion about the possibility of separating issues of political evolution, which is impossible to stop, from those of security as such in the process of this kind of dialogue, in order to try to combine the continuation of political evolution with preservation of the status quo in the sphere of security. Without putting obstacles in the natural course of political evolution, but also without trying to energize it in an artificial way, without making efforts to suppress it, and while taking into account the legitimate interests of each side. The coming U.S. administration would be ready to discuss all these questions in a confidential manner. Scowcroft could serve as its representative.

16H. Kissinger spoke very decisively against a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe: “We need a guarantee against the adventurism of Europeans themselves. In the case of a complete withdrawal of our armed forces from Europe, it would be politically more difficult for us to bring them back than it would be for the Soviet Union, if there were such a need.”

17Responding to the question in which areas he would envision the possibility of serious progress, H. Kissinger said that in his opinion one could expect an affirmation by the new administration of its adherence in principle to the idea of continuing the [present] course of relations with the USSR, as adopted by President Reagan. A statement to that effect, in a general form, will in all likelihood be included in G. Bush’s inaugural address, as will a general point about the possibility of cooperation on the environment—about which the newly-elected president spoke earlier—and in the sphere of banning chemical weapons.

18At the same time, noted H. Kissinger, the incoming president will need some time to grasp in detail all the discussions on military-political questions that are going on now in the United States. In part, these discussions are related to the necessity of responding to the budgetary situation. However, in part, [they are related] to the indefinite situation existing in the strategic sphere as such; for example, how should the USA react to SS-24 and SS-25 missiles?

19We would also like, said H. Kissinger, to figure out the interconnections and interdependencies between strategic and conventional weapons. This analysis is especially challenging for the USA, “because earlier we did not study conventional weapons as closely and as comprehensively as we did in regard to strategic weapons. Besides, past experience shows that in contrast to strategic [weapons], in the conventional sphere the balance does not guarantee against war.” There have been instances where wars have been started, and even won, by those with fewer weapons. In other words, in this sphere, one has to account for many more parameters than in the strategic one.

20H. Kissinger showed detailed interest in the progress of perestroika, in its practical results and difficulties, in the reaction to it by various strata of the population, in the prospects for the price-formation reform, and in the resolution of problems that have accumulated in inter-ethnic relations.

21January 17, 1989

22[Source: State Archive of the Russian Federation [GARF], Moscow. Yakovlev Collection. Fond 10063. Opis 1. Delo 258. On file at the National Security Archive. Translated by Svetlana Savranskaya.]

© Central European University Press, 2010

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