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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 57: National Intelligence Estimate 11-4-89, “Soviet Policy toward the West: The Gorbachev Challenge” April 1989

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1This remarkable estimate from the U.S. intelligence community provides one of the clearest expressions anywhere in the American documentary record of the split between hardline skeptics of Gorbachev—a group that in 1989 included President Bush as well as his top advisers Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Robert Gates—versus those who saw fundamental change happening in the Soviet Union, a less influential group that included former President Reagan as well as most of the senior career analysts at CIA such as Douglas MacEachin. The extraordinary “Disagreements” section of this estimate summarizes the views of both sides, without mentioning that the first group was actually in charge of the U.S. government at that moment. The opening bullet points of the “Key Judgments” are especially striking for their obtuseness, warning that the first two effects of changes in “the nature of the Soviet challenge” would be to “threaten the security consensus developed in the West to combat Soviet expansionism” and “undercutting support abroad for defense programs”! The evidence now available from the Soviet side, including the documents published in this book, which intelligence analysts at the time could only dream of gaining access to, demonstrates that the “fundamental re-thinking” view was precisely on target; yet this view did not have nearly as much influence on U.S. policy after the 1986 Reykjavik summit, (or especially in the first year of the Bush administration), as did the opinions of the hard-liners who were so wrong in these judgments because of their presumptions about the Soviet Union.



  • 1 Information available as of April 17, 1989 [as indicated in original document].

2Dramatic changes in approach to the West under Soviet leader Gorbachev are driven by economic and social decay at home, a widening technological gap with the West, and a growing realism about trends in the outside world. For the foreseeable future, the USSR will remain the West’s principal adversary. But the process Gorbachev has set in motion is likely to change the nature of the Soviet challenge over the next five years or so:

  • New Soviet policies will threaten the security consensus developed in the West to combat Soviet expansionism.
  • The Soviets are likely to succeed to a degree in undercutting support abroad for defense programs and in reducing political barriers to Western participation in their economic development.
  • At the same time new policies will make Moscow more flexible on regional issues and human rights and pave the way for a potentially significant reduction of the military threat.
  • Alliance cohesion will decline faster in the Warsaw Pact than in NATO, giving the East Europeans much greater scope for change.

3We believe Moscow wants to shift competition with the West to a largely political and economic plane. In order to prepare the ground for such a shift, Soviet leaders are making major policy changes and promoting a broad reassessment of the West.

4These new policies serve domestic as well as foreign policy needs:

  • They aim to create an international environment more conducive to domestic reform and to undermine the rationale for high defense budgets and repressive political controls.
  • They are seen as more effective than past policies in advancing Soviet foreign interests.

5There are limits on how far the new Soviet leadership wants to go in the direction of a less confrontational East-West relationship:

  • Vigorous efforts to protect and advance Soviet geopolitical interests and selective support for Communist regimes and revolutionary movements will continue.
  • Moscow will continue to employ active measures and covert efforts to advance its objectives. Foreign intelligence activity is likely to increase.

6Given the turmoil unleashed by the reform process, we cannot predict policy trends during the period of the Estimate with high confidence. Nevertheless, we believe that Gorbachev is likely to stay in power and that the reform effort is more likely than not to continue. If so, we believe the following developments are probable:

  • Military power. While increasing so far under Gorbachev, Soviet defense spending will decline significantly in real terms. Moscow will maintain vigorous force modernization programs and a strong R&D effort in key areas, but production and procurement of many major weapons will decline. Gorbachev is likely to make further concessions to achieve a START agreement, show flexibility on chemical weapons, and take further steps to trim and redeploy Soviet conventional forces—moving unilaterally if necessary.
  • The Western Alliance. Moscow will attempt to translate its more benign image into expanded credits, trade, and technology sales and reduced support for defense spending and force modernization in Western Europe. While trying to reduce US influence and military presence, Moscow does not see an abrupt unraveling of current Alliance arrangements as serving Soviet interests.
  • Third World competition. The Soviets will seek to expand their influence and continue support to leftist causes deemed to have some future. But they will be more careful to consider how such moves affect broader Soviet interests, including relations with the West. They will encourage their clients to make economic and political reforms and seek Western aid. It is highly unlikely that Moscow will become directly involved in military support to another leftist seizure of power in the Third World as it did in the 1970s.


7We see a number of developments that—while unlikely—could disrupt current trends and push Gorbachev onto a different course:

  • A widespread crackdown on unrest at home or in Eastern Europe would probably trigger a re-escalation of East-West tensions, causing Gorbachev to tack in a conservative direction. A shift of this sort would limit Gorbachev’s freedom of maneuver in negotiations and his ability to transfer resources away from defense.
  • Were nationality unrest to threaten central control or the territorial integrity of the country, we see a risk that the leadership would revert to more hostile rhetoric and policies toward the West in an attempt to reunify the country.

8Gorbachev’s removal—unlikely but not to be ruled out—would have a significant impact:

  • A more orthodox regime would slow the pace of change, be more supportive of military interests and leftist allies abroad, and eschew unilateral arms control concessions.
  • We see little chance that a successor leadership would completely roll back Gorbachev’s policies or revert to a major military buildup and aggressive policies in the Third World.


9There is general agreement in the Intelligence Community over the outlook for the next five to seven years, but differing views over the longer term prospects for fundamental and enduring change toward less competitive Soviet behavior:

  • Some analysts see current policy changes as largely tactical, driven by the need for breathing space from the competition. They believe the ideological imperatives of Marxism-Leninism and its hostility toward capitalist countries are enduring. They point to the previous failures of reform and the transient nature of past “detentes.” They judge that there is a serious risk of Moscow returning to traditionally combative behavior when the hoped for gains in economic performance are achieved.
  • Other analysts believe Gorbachev’s policies reflect a fundamental rethinking of national interests and ideology as well as more tactical considerations. They argue that ideological tenets of Marxism-Leninism such as class conflict and capitalist-socialist enmity are being revised. They consider the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the shift toward tolerance of power sharing in Eastern Europe to be historic shifts in the Soviet definition of national interest. They judge that Gorbachev’s changes are likely to have sufficient momentum to produce lasting shifts in Soviet behavior.


10As evidence of Moscow’s progress over the next two to three years toward fulfilling the promise of more responsible behavior, we will be watching for:

  • Soviet acceptance of real liberalization in Eastern Europe.
  • Full implementation of announced force reductions.
  • A substantial conversion in the defense industry to production for the civilian economy.

11[Source: Central Intelligence Agency: At Cold War’s End: US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989-1991. Ed: Benjamin B. Fischer, 1999.]


1 Information available as of April 17, 1989 [as indicated in original document].

© Central European University Press, 2010

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