Version classiqueVersion mobile

Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 45: Cable from Jack Matlock to State Department, “The Soviet Union over the Next Four Years”, February 13, 1989

Texte intégral

1Matlock’s second cable in a series (see Document Nos. 43 & 47) echoes the hardline position in Washington held most prominently by Scowcroft and Gates: “New Thinking in Soviet foreign policy probably started as a tactical shift to buttress a limited reform … The intent most likely was to provide a temporary breathing space during which the Soviet Union could consolidate its strength and resume its expansionist policies with enhanced prospects for success.” He goes on to give a traditional analysis of Soviet foreign policy that includes the comment: “Historically, Russia and the Soviet Union have been most threatening to their neighbors and the rest of the world when the political leaders felt strong and confident.” This view would be significantly contradicted by internal Kremlin documentation describing the insecurity and paranoia underlying landmark decisions by Soviet leaders ranging from Stalin in Germany to Brezhnev in Afghanistan.

2Closer to the mark, Matlock’s second cable tells Washington exactly what Bogomolov has just told Yakovlev—that military intervention in Eastern Europe “would of course mean the end of reform in the Soviet Union.” But unlike Bogomolov, Matlock warns that the U.S. “should not dismiss the possibility” of outside interference even though the “threshold of pain” that would trigger such an intervention is currently much higher than in the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. ambassador, like almost everybody else, does not foresee any rapid transformations in the region and predicts erroneously that Soviet tolerance for changes in the GDR, Poland and Czechoslovakia would not be as high as in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Even as the Polish Roundtable begins meeting, Matlock uses the conditional “if” on the possibility that Solidarity might be legalized; yet within six months Solidarity would sweep national elections and assume the leadership of a non-communist government in Poland. Matlock still does not see Gorbachev’s intention to end the Cold War, and describes Soviet policy in terms that perhaps Moscow’s hard-liners would have endorsed, though not Gorbachev and his inner circle: “If they are lucky, they will induce the West to disarm as fast or faster than they do. If they are doubly lucky, they will cajole the West into picking up the tab … But even if the West is sufficiently prudent to deny them these advantages, their tactics create problems for our alliances and drive wedges.”


31. Secret—Entire Text.


42. While Soviet foreign policy may show a considerable degree of unpredictability in its details, its broader thrusts must, willy nilly, conform to domestic demands and domestic capabilities. These require a reduction of international tension, so that a greater measure of resources and leadership attention can be devoted to solving domestic problems. This situation suggests that we are likely to see:

5A—Continued effort to pare down (but not eliminate) military commitment abroad.

6B—Increasing use of political and economic means of exerting influence—but no flagging in the determination to be a global power.

7C—Ideological revisionism to provide a conceptual framework for a shift to a less confrontational stance vis-a-vis the capitalist world.

8D—Growing willingness to engage in joint bilateral or international efforts to deal with specific global problems: e.g., chemical weapons proliferation, environmental protection, terrorism, traffic in illicit drugs.

9E—A major drive to break into the world economic system, particularly the financial councils of the developed world.

10F—A continued concentration on the Soviet-U.S. relationship, combined with attempts to improve relations with Western Europe, China, and Japan and to drive wedges whenever possible.

11G—No letup in espionage and no end to “direct action” when attractive; possibly some decrease in outright disinformation.

123. In sum, Soviet policy will not only seem to the outside world less aggressive, it will in fact be less threatening militarily—at least in the short to medium term. Yet, even with projected cuts in the Soviet military establishment, the potential long-term Soviet capacity to use force for political ends will not disappear. Furthermore, despite Soviet economic weakness and political confusion at home, Soviet influence in some areas of international life may actually grow as the rest of the world responds to perceived non-threatening, “cooperative” behavior.

End Summary.

134. This message, the second in a series, contains my personal assessment of likely trends in Soviet foreign policy over the next four years. In my view, these years will be marked by political and diplomatic activism to cover a retrenchment in Soviet armed forces and in Soviet military involvement abroad.

145. The extent and pace, as well as the concrete manifestations of increased reliance on political instruments of influence will be determined by many factors, some unpredictable at this point: domestic developments in the Soviet Union, the policy of other countries—most importantly the United States—and the occurrence or absence of major events such as widespread public disorders in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, we can predict with confidence that the tendency to shift from intimidation to persuasion in dealing with the outside world will continue. Soviet conditions at this time, and over the coming few years, permit no other course.


156. Some well-informed observers have expressed the fear that a “failed” perestroika could result in a Soviet Union even more threatening to our interests than the USSR of the 1970’s. The “sick bear” could go on a rampage, lashing out in all directions in a desperate effort to distract attention from his illness through aggressive behavior.

167. I do not believe that such a scenario is plausible. The failure of perestroika might be a tragedy for the Soviet people, and for those of Eastern Europe, but it would not in itself threaten the West’s vital interests. The most important reason for this is that a Soviet leadership, weakened by an abortive reform process, is most unlikely to have either the means or incentive to make serious trouble abroad. Even a change of leadership to one which discarded many of today’s policies is unlikely to bring more threatening external activity.

178. Historically, Russia and the Soviet Union have been most threatening to their neighbors and the rest of the world when the political leaders felt strong and confident. When they felt weak and troubled at home, they turned inward. Therefore, while another ruling group might well be more truculent, more secretive, more given to propaganda and bluster, and less interested in negotiation and cooperation, its external policy is likely to resemble a sulk in the corner more than a rampage through the neighborhood.

“New thinking”: how new?

189. For decades the Soviets have resorted so consistently to misleading propaganda that one is entitled to approach slogans like “new thinking” with great circumspection, if not outright cynicism. There is no reason at all for us to take the Soviets at their word until their actions provide concrete proof; in fact, there is every reason for us to refuse to accept words at face value in the absence of corroborative evidence.

1910. Nevertheless, we would be negligent if we failed to recognize that much of the “new thinking” is in fact genuinely new in a Soviet context. To the extent that this “new thinking” becomes established as the accepted norm, and implemented in concrete policies and actions (a process which is far from complete), it could signal a lasting and fundamental change in the Soviet approach to the rest of the world. If it is truly accepted that mankind has interests which transcend and supersede Marxist class interests, and that security and prosperity can be achieved only by cooperation with other countries in a[n] interdependent world, then this would represent a fundamental break with the traditional Soviet view of international relations as a zero/sum struggle of irreconcilable classes, one of which is destined to defeat and supplant the other.

“New thinking”: how long?

2011. “New Thinking” in Soviet foreign policy probably started as a tactical shift to buttress a limited reform of the Soviet economic management system. The intent most likely was to provide a temporary breathing space during which the Soviet Union could consolidate its strength and resume its expansionist policies with enhanced prospects for success. But, even if this was the original intent, some unexpected things happen on the road to the quick fix: the quick fix itself dissolved like a mirage on the horizon, and the efforts to produce some limited controlled changes began to have ramifications far beyond their planned effect. Perestroika has already produced effects in the body politic which will impede efforts to revert past policies.

2112. One of the most important of these effects is a fundamental attitudinal change in regard to the rest of the world. For decades after World War II the world’s most pervasive propaganda machine drummed into the Soviet population the theme of the external threat, particularly from the U.S. Though it was never accepted a hundred percent by the Soviet Public, this hostile propaganda had an undeniable effect on attitudes. It, combined with the absence of information regarding the magnitude of the Soviet military effort, permitted the diversion of enormous resources to the military without any effective complaints from the citizenry. After all, even those who were hostile to the Soviet rulers and much of their policy were usually willing to sacrifice to defend their motherland.

2213. Now, after little more than three years of U.S.-Soviet summitry, these old propaganda themes have been shattered—and very likely shattered beyond repair. It turns out that the rest of the world is not hostile: Would the U.S. agree to eliminate INF missiles if it were? Would the world have rushed to aid earthquake victims if it were? Would Ronald Reagan be seen kissing babies in Red Square if it were?

2314. But that is not all. It also turns out that it was not Western hostility which created difficulties for the Soviet citizenry, but the Soviet system itself. It was not the West that caused the Chernobyl disaster or flimsy construction in seismic zones, but their own system which ignored safety considerations. It was not western economic boycotts which deprived the[m] of consumer goods, but rather their own leaders’ propensity to give all the goodies to the military. The decision to reduce Soviet military forces unilaterally suggests unmistakably to the average Soviet citizen that the Soviet military was built up beyond any objective need, just as the withdrawal from Afghanistan makes clear that the rest of the world had good reason to fear the Soviet Union.

2415. These “revelations” are still reverberating through the Soviet public consciousness, and they will make it very difficult for a future Soviet leadership to obtain automatic public acquiescence to a renewed military buildup or to aggressive military actions abroad. Once facts and attitudes are out in the public domain, they cannot easily be rounded up and forced back into the old stockade—particularly if the stockade fence itself has tumbled down in many places.

2516. Ultimately, however, what will give the “new thinking” its staying power is its fundamental accuracy: we do in fact live in an interdependent world; there are in fact common interests of mankind, and though there is no constitutional barrier to any Soviet political leadership reverting to fallacious Marxist slogans as a basis of policy, those slogans will never reflect objective reality. They are simply wrong, and no policy based on them is likely to work—particularly the second time around, when they are more likely to produce a farce than a tragedy.

Converging and conflicting interests

2617. The Soviet leaders are now beginning to see areas where their and Western interests converge rather than conflict, and these go beyond such obvious and traditional ones as avoidance of nuclear war, nuclear non-proliferation, and environmental protection. There is clearly growing interest (though not always identical approaches) in areas such as chemical weapons control, non-proliferation of ballistic missile technology, and combating terrorism and illicit drug trafficking. Also, as the Soviets move to reduce their own conventional military forces, their interest in finding political solutions to regional conflicts is growing.

2718. Though they talk about it much less in public, the Soviet leaders are doubtless aware that Soviet and Western aims remain incompatible in many key areas. In particular, the announced cuts in Soviet military forces will not eliminate the potential threat to the West from that quarter. There is a manifest Soviet interest in stimulating the disarmament of the West more rapidly than their own, the erosion of our alliances and system of overseas bases, and the hobbling of the U.S. Navy. They continue to back clients who are hostile to Western interests, and to provide military support to them. Their extensive efforts to conduct espionage continues unabated, and there is no reason to suppose that they will be less willing in the future to pursue covert action to further their goals. Even in some areas where the Soviets have acknowledged a need to cooperate with the West, the old competitive habits still dominate their practice. The Soviets, thus, still have far to go before their deeds will fully match the words of their “new thinking.”

The east european “wild card”

2819. A future Soviet decision to intervene militarily to put down disorders in Eastern Europe would of course mean the end of reform in the Soviet Union for a long period thereafter. One certainly should not dismiss the possibility of such a retrograde event, given the history of the area and the pressures for change which are mounting there.

2920. Nevertheless, my guess is that the Soviet leaders will manage to avoid such a traumatic event—at least over the next four to five years. The fact is that the “threshold of pain” which would trigger Soviet intervention is much higher today than it was in the sixties and seventies. This gives governments in the area considerable leeway to liberalize, if they are so inclined. It is clear, for example, that the Soviets will not try to block a legalization of Solidarity in Poland, if that should emerge from the current Roundtable. If a Dubček II were to create a Prague Spring this year or next, Moscow would almost certainly tolerate it and might even cheer it on.

3021. This means that if major disorders occur in Eastern Europe, they most likely will result from the rigidity of the East European regimes, and not from a Soviet effort to block all internal change. Even if confronted with widespread disorders, the Soviet leaders might well refrain from military intervention so long as Soviet installations were not attacked and there was no serious effort to leave the Warsaw Pact. (The degree of Soviet tolerance, of course, varies with the country in question: it is doubtless greater in respect to Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary than it would be with the GDR, Poland, and perhaps Czechoslovakia.)


3122. If, as is likely, the Soviet Union will avoid a repeat of 1948, 1956, and 1968, its diplomacy is likely to feature the smile, and its speech the language of compromise and conciliation. The smiling face did not come naturally to this regime, but the Soviet leaders have learned to enjoy wearing it. Being popular in the world is such a novel experience for a Russian that it tends to go to the head. Furthermore, the current leaders are beginning to learn something their cyni[c]al predecessors would have jeered: as Willy Loman said, You can go a long way on a smile and a shoeshine.

3223. Of course, the Soviet leaders are not into smiling just for the kicks. They expect the smile to translate into political benefits. Their constant talk of their defensive doctrine, their announcements of unilateral military cuts, the periodic proclamation of various “peace” initiatives, are elements of an overall strategy designed to maintain Moscow’s great power status and influence during a period of military and economic retrenchment. If they are lucky, they will induce the West to disarm as fast as or faster than they do, and thus remain at a military disadvantage. If they are doubly lucky, they will cajole the West into picking up the tab for some of their economic reconstruction. But even if the West is sufficiently prudent to deny them these advantages, their tactics create problems for our alliances and drive wedges. And even when the West holds firm and the Soviets are forced to meet Western terms, their tactics ensure that much of the Western public will credit them for initiatives they did not in fact make.

3324. Does this make all the defensive talk and “new thinking” a fake? I think not. In my view, the Soviet leaders are making a virtue of necessity. They are covering their retrenchment with a hyperactive diplomacy in an attempt to preserve their great power position (or at least as much of it as possible) on a diminished base of military power.

3425. Vorontsov’s frenzied diplomacy in the last months of Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan exemplifies this overall technique. The fact that he did not obtain his ostensible goals (a general ceasefire and an acknowledged future political role for the PDPA) does not mean that his efforts will be [j]udged unsuccessful in Soviet eyes. The ostensible goals were maximum ones and nobody would have been more surprised than the Soviet leaders if they had been reached. Real Soviet goals were probably more modest: to prevent the humiliation of Soviet forces during their withdrawal (the fall of major cities as they left); to stimulate disputes among the Afghan opposition forces; to drive wedges between the Mujaheddin forces and other countries, especially Pakistan and the U.S.; and—not least—to demonstrate solidarity with their friends in Kabul, so that the latter would have to assume full responsibility for their own future collapse.

3526. Such, in my estimation, will be the Soviet approach to many other issues, mutatis mutandis (and of course the specifics vary widely). The bottom line for the Soviet leadership will be whether they can cloak—and thus make politically acceptable at home—a diminished use of military force in their foreign policy. If they manage to pick up a few extra dividends along the way in the form of gratuitous western concessions, they will of course accept them with pleasure (though without gratitude). The challenge for the West is to deny unbalanced concessions and thereby maintain the pressure for a further evolution of Soviet policy along the path the Soviet leaders have ostensibly taken. Matlock

36[Source: U.S. Department of State, obtained through FOIA. On file at the National Security Archive.]

© Central European University Press, 2010

Conditions d’utilisation :


Volume papier
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search