Yuri Andropov
Yuri Andropov; drawing by David Levine

Of Time magazine’s two “men of the year,” Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov, one consented to an interview. Reagan said: “I think there is less of a risk and less of a danger [of war] today than there was a few years ago…. Because [then] there was more risk of someone gambling if it did not look as if we could retaliate in any extremely damaging way.”1 The first statement undervalues both the seriousness of the danger of deteriorating superpower relations in recent years and the potentially explosive consequences of tensions inside the Soviet Union. The second statement may well overestimate the importance of America’s military capacity, should the Soviet Union decide to gamble.

Having recently returned from my third trip to the Soviet Union in thirteen months, I should like here to convey the mood in Moscow and the formidable threat presented by the combination of American bellicosity and Soviet anger and vulnerability. I want also to suggest ways of improving the poisonous atmosphere that exacerbates the far from normal hostility of the two powers, which persists notwithstanding the recent gestures of the Reagan administration. I speak as an advocate of a strong defense; of increased military spending by the United States, Western Europe, and Japan to counter one-sided Soviet gains during the last decade; the deployment of INF weapons in Europe on political if not military grounds; the disciplined use of policies concerning trade, credit, and technology transfer to advance the goals of the Western alliance; and the containment of Soviet expansionism. I wish I could speak as an optimist who expects the dangers I encountered to be recognized and enlightened statesmanship to outweigh political advantage during the election year.


In Moscow, I found that the dominant mood among officials was one of anger; among people outside official circles, it was one of fear. The urban population has been deeply affected during the last two years by a war scare; and this has been fueled by incessant, agitated, and strident vilification of the United States. The higher officials of the Party and government leaders have been stirred to defiant hostility toward the United States; the combination of American insult and pressure since 1982 has been made more bitter by the recognition among Russian elites of their own political and economic vulnerability. An increasingly intolerant neo-Stalinism in domestic affairs coexists with urgent advocacy of economic reform. These different tendencies share one volatile ingredient—the desire to reassert Soviet greatness at home and abroad.

Residents of Moscow have been subjected to an assault of anti-American propaganda that recalls Stalin’s attacks of the early 1950s. Their published and unpublished letters to newspapers and their insistent questions at public lectures suggest the impact of a campaign against American policies and leaders that has been more primitive and offensive than any others I have observed during the last three decades. President Reagan, for example, is portrayed as a new Hitler. The fear of war is deliberately fostered by Soviet authorities. Appeal to Russian patriotism and Soviet great-power nationalism in the face of foreign menace is once again being used to inspire new exertions, to justify present and future austerities, and to mobilize support for Soviet policies.

The neo-Stalinist direction of the press and television is followed by the academic institutes that study international relations and the United States. Their researchers busily grind out what is officially called “counterpropaganda.” Articles on international questions are returned to their authors with the advice that additional pages attacking the American government would speed publication. Predictably, the scholars who might once have appeared “soft” on America are now the ones who are anxious to appear most zealous in their attacks.

The turn to neo-Stalinism is reflected not only in the pressures on dissident groups but in the choice of prosecutors as well. Andrei Sakharov is denounced as a warmonger. Dissenters are tried with exceptional speed, sentenced harshly, and their treatment in camps and prisons has become more cruel. Experienced KGB managers have taken control of the uniformed police who, after undergoing a purge, have been unleashed against “speculators, hooligans, and shirkers.” Increasingly tough measures have been applied in factories and offices to enforce “work discipline.” American diplomats and correspondents are more effectively isolated. In December the head of the KGB gained alternate membership in the Politburo, a promotion that preserves the KGB’s place at the very top during Andropov’s illness and underscores symbolically its new visibility and power.

Most striking in official circles, however, is the intensity with which Soviet officials, their aides and experts respond personally to real or imagined slights from Washington. Policy makers in the West—and President Reagan foremost, as the opening quotation indicates—are accustomed to regarding Soviet leaders and their advisers, notwithstanding their ideological hostility, as having pragmatic respect for the language of power, as being prudent calculators of risks and costs in international relations. Even at the height of détente, the Soviet leaders were committed to ideological warfare; but this was somewhat discounted in the West when it came to negotiations. Now the sensitivity and emotion with which Soviet leaders and elites respond to strong doses of their own medicine from the American side have put assumptions about their “pragmatism” in doubt.


President Reagan’s rhetoric has badly shaken the self-esteem and patriotic pride of the Soviet political elites. The administration’s self-righteous moralistic tone, its reduction of Soviet achievements to crimes by international outlaws from an “evil empire”—such language stunned and humiliated the Soviet leaders, especially since it followed so suddenly a decade of the greatest mutual civility in the history of Soviet-American relations. No one who seeks to understand the political culture of Soviet Russia, not to speak of its historical tradition, should under-estimate the potency of words. Among the Soviet elites, who have spent much of their lives manipulating the nuances of ideology, words are taken very seriously. They use an elaborate rhetoric to convey existing attitudes and shifting policies and they expect no less of the adversary’s rhetoric. For Soviet leaders and high officials President Reagan’s decision to use bellicose language was and is a political fact that amounts to a policy pronouncement. The Soviets became convinced that far from being mere posturing, President Reagan’s rhetoric reflected actual beliefs that promised even tougher policies if the Soviet Union allowed itself to be pushed around. Thus even the recent muting of Reagan’s attack, largely under pressure from Western European allies—as in his speech of January 15—cannot quiet their alarm. The damage will not easily be undone.

High Soviet officials, their aides, and their experts believe that President Reagan is determined to deny the Soviet Union nothing less than its legitimacy and status as a global power. This status, they thought, had been conceded once and for all by Reagan’s predecessors, not to speak of America’s allies. They believe President Reagan would deny them the respect and international influence due them as an inevitable consequence of what they see as the most important accomplishment in their postrevolutionary history—the achievement of military parity with the West. A rekindled sense of insecurity fires an angry and defiant response, a desire to lash out, to reassert self-esteem, to restore the diminished respect of others. Such an attitude must surely make us reconsider our confident expectation that Soviet pragmatists will continue to be content with policies of “low risk” and “low cost.”

How do Soviet officials and experts explain Reaganism? Without detailed information or deep understanding of the US, high Soviet officials and Soviet experts often resort to their ideology’s simplistic formulas and to superficial comparisons with times past. Reagan for them has become the spokesman of aggressive new business interests in the western and southwestern United States and of the “military-industrial complex,” which has reemerged to end the post-Vietnam caution, and which seeks new conquests and huge profits. The historical analogies used and probably believed in official circles ironically point to the same period whose lessons are emphasized by zealots in Reagan’s entourage—the 1930s. In the Soviet version, Reagan’s America is an aggressive force plotting if not to attack the Soviet Union then to roll back the Soviet Eastern European empire, to isolate the Soviet Union, and to deny it equality as a superpower. Reagan’s military budgets are seen as proof of his determination to alter substantially the balance of European nuclear power and the balance of global strategic forces. They are equated with Hitler’s preparations for war. Reagan’s refusal to accept a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons is said to reflect his willingness to contemplate nuclear war. The lesson of the 1930s seems as obvious to Soviet leaders and their advisers as it is to President Reagan and some of his advisers: “appeasement” can only bring disaster.

In an already paranoid regime, the intensification of dread takes place rapidly. Mistrust of Reagan and his policies is deep and pervasive. To mention only one of many examples, a high Soviet official harangued me for twenty minutes on American culpability in the Korean airplane disaster. It was, he insisted, deliberately engineered by Reagan’s people so that the Soviet military would be forced to shoot down a passenger plane, thereby exposing the Soviets to international condemnation and loss of stature.

In these circumstances the Soviet officials contemplate the present and future of Soviet-American relations very soberly. They expect only the worst from Reagan and are preparing for it. At formal and informal meetings with Americans they speak more earnestly and resort less to propaganda clichés than at any time in my memory. They seemed to me to be making an exceptional effort to understand the position of the American administration and to signal to their American counterparts what is and is not acceptable to Soviet leaders. Whether or not President Reagan is reelected in 1984, they anticipate no return to the détente of the period between 1972 and 1975. Like their American counterparts they no longer harbor illusions about the prospects for long-term relations. Whatever the outcome of the election, they expect continued high American military expenditures, even if a Democratic president in their view would call for lower annual increases. Yet, most of all, they fear Reagan’s reelection. They know they must prepare a strategy for relations during a second term.



Taken together, President Reagan’s rhetoric and politics have contributed to a momentous change in the atmosphere of Soviet-American relations, one that is not readily reversible. Reagan’s rhetoric deeply disturbed Soviet leaders in three ways. His public disrespect toward Soviet leaders affected them personally. His assault on the legitimacy of the Soviet system and the prestige of its leaders humiliated them before their domestic audience. His denunciation of Soviet international behavior diminished them before the world audience. The persistent rhetorical onslaught created for the Soviet leaders not only personal grievances but domestic and foreign problems. Reagan’s rhetoric provoked an especially savage Soviet rhetoric by way of response. The consequence for Soviet-American relations is a deeply rooted situation of confrontations exacerbated by personal grudges and high emotions.

During the fall of 1983 an invisible line was crossed in the attitudes and expectations of Soviet leaders regarding President Reagan’s policies present and future. Soviet leaders concluded that any attempt to improve relations would be futile. Reagan’s policies were judged as qualitatively different from those of his predecessors. This evaluation with the attendant mood of pessimism had been building since Reagan took office. It reached its height in recent months as events continued to belie Soviet expectations and predictions.

The Soviets expected from Reagan a pragmatic Republican administration on the order of Nixon’s. Instead they got a vociferously ideological administration bearing little resemblance to the one that negotiated détente. The Soviets expected Reagan like his predecessors to move to the center. Instead they found an intransigence that relented slightly in the summer of 1983, only to be revived abruptly by the Korean airplane incident. The Soviets expected the post-Watergate mood to persist: Congress and the press would act to moderate the president’s extremism. Instead they were stunned by Reagan’s masterful maneuvering through Congress, during a recession, of increased military budgets—the totals shocked them—and of controversial programs like the MX missile and the B-1 bomber. They watched with amazement as the press and television deferred more to Reagan and criticized him less than they had any president in several decades.

The Soviets expected the Democratic party to battle energetically against Reagan’s policies. Instead they saw only lethargy and the absence of any coherent and imaginative alternative. The Soviets expected that European public opinion would constrain Reagan and prevent deployment of medium-range weapons in Europe. Instead they suffered one of their most important defeats in decades when the first Pershings were installed. The Soviets expected the post-Vietnam caution to restrict American activism abroad. Instead they saw the popular success of the invasion of Grenada, the openly approved “covert” war in Nicaragua, and the dispatch of American marines and a large naval task force to Lebanon. The Soviets expected President Reagan to moderate the conduct of the Israelis. Instead they saw US policy shift radically to support of Israel as a strategic asset in the Soviet-American competition in the Middle East. The Soviets now believe that during the period of détente they underestimated the strength of anti-Soviet feeling among Americans. They accuse Reagan of skillfully inciting popular fears of Soviet world domination.

Soviet leaders drew one major conclusion from this reassessment. The 1984 American presidential election is now the key issue of Soviet foreign policy, and the prospect of Reagan’s reelection poses the fundamental dilemma they have to face. One group of Soviet experts on America issued a report predicting Reagan’s defeat, but all the officials I met dismissed its findings.


The dilemma of Soviet leaders—to conceive a policy capable of meeting a protracted Reagan challenge—is rendered more complex and difficult by their knowledge of their own weaknesses and even more so by their knowledge that both their friends and their adversaries fully appreciate how vulnerable they are. In brief, the inadequate Soviet economic machinery can barely support the costs of modernity and global ambition. The economic growth rate is low, a potential threat to social stability. A new spiral in the arms race will cost much more than the previous buildup of the 1970s. The economic and military overextension of Soviet forces abroad heavily drains available resources. The Polish stalemate exposes the potential instability of the Eastern European empire, while relations with China have yet to be stabilized.

Overshadowing these and other longstanding problems is the most visible and dangerous vulnerability of all—Andropov’s illness. That he has been sick for months, yet apparently retains power, is something of an anomaly in the Soviet Union. Before Andropov, of course, Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev had periods of serious illness without losing their high positions, but they became ill long after their power bases were secure and their authority was unquestioned. By all rules of the Soviet political game Andropov could not have consolidated power by this autumn. Yet I found no hint that his position as general secretary is being challenged or the general direction of his domestic program reversed.

In late summer or early fall Andropov underwent major surgery which incapacitated him for two months. He is said to have returned to Moscow late in October. Though he became more active, his condition did not permit him to appear in December at meetings of the Central Committee or the Supreme Soviet. Yet his memorandums—presumed to come from his bedroom—are heeded, his speeches read, his policies implemented, his loyalists promoted, his writings published; his personal qualities continue to be celebrated. In November, for example, Marshal Ustinov, civilian head of the armed forces and a member of the Politburo, praised Andropov with unusual warmth and frequency to a meeting of high-ranking military officers. Indeed, the meeting was called specifically to reaffirm the military’s loyalty to the Party and its absent leader. And in December, several of Andropov’s protégés were appointed to higher positions.

How can we explain the political survival and even apparent prospering of an incapacitated and absent leader? To answer this question, we would have to know more than we do about Andropov’s apparent success in taking over all the key leadership positions, the strength of his support in the central Party apparatus and KGB, the degree of consensus among elites on the moderation of his reforming domestic policies, especially with regard to the economy. One point that I heard stressed was the absence of experienced and acceptable candidates who could hope to dislodge Andropov and his supporters while there is hope for his recovery.

Among the other factors that help to explain the paradox of Andropov’s resilience, one is particularly germane to Soviet-American relations. The extent of the perceived external danger compels Soviet leaders to preserve unity at all costs. They are genuinely persuaded that Reagan and his policies present a grave test of their will to maintain and improve their international position. They want the sort of strong leadership that Andropov was able to deliver until August 1983 and that, it is hoped, can be renewed with his recovery.

Yet the Soviet Union is not a country that can long be ruled by memorandums and telephone calls from a hospital bed. Memories are still fresh of the paralysis of policy making that took place during Brezhnev’s last years. It seems to me unlikely that Andropov’s political power could survive another bout of illness lasting four or five months. What Andropov’s colleagues in the Politburo hope, I think, is that he will be able to continue for another year or two while a younger member of the Politburo is prepared for the succession. If Andropov died or had to resign, this would bring forth another aged leader to preside over yet another “transition”—Marshal Ustinov, for example. For the long term, the man with strong prospects is said to be Mikhail Gorbachev, the fifty-three-year-old secretary of the Party Central Committee. During last year he broadened the range of his duties and became more of a “generalist”—a qualification deemed essential for the post of general secretary.

This highly uncertain situation poses many difficulties for the Soviets but it is comforting for the United States only at first glance. For the Soviets it slows the impetus for necessary domestic changes long overdue. It promises to undermine effective decision making on both domestic and foreign questions. The US, for its part, is denied a negotiating partner sufficiently strong to undertake the compromises essential to agreement between the two superpowers.

Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet Union and the recognition by Soviet leaders of their own vulnerability do not combine to reinforce caution in Soviet international conduct. On the contrary, in my opinion, this combination could lead Soviet policy makers to take higher risks; it fuels anger, obduracy, and defiance. Soviet leaders have been deeply frustrated by the unexpected difficulties and dangers they have encountered in translating their military might into international political and economic gains. They do not look for sympathy in the world, but they expect to command respect from their adversaries and the uncommitted nations. What they can tolerate least of all is not to be taken seriously and not to be feared.

In the present situation Soviet foreign policy is as uncertain as Soviet leadership. No discernible effort is being made to look beyond tactical goals to a middle-range strategy. Until the American presidential election Soviet leaders will continue in familiar directions, trying to mobilize the Party and the population against American “warmongers”; to hold their gains abroad; to prevent at any cost a change in the military balance; to stonewall arms control negotiations with offers that seek to build good will in Europe while denying a realistic basis for negotiations to the United States; to split the Western alliance further on the issue of INF deployment.

Even more important for the West, however, Soviet leaders will continue to pursue another and very dangerous direction in their foreign policy: to await, or create, occasions for reasserting themselves and confirming to the world that they are not being pushed around by the US. One such occasion was their withdrawal from INF negotiations, to which, I believe, they will not return, notwithstanding the claims of the Reagan administration. A second is the expected deployment of Soviet missiles in East Germany and Czechoslovakia and stepped-up placement of missile-carrying submarines off American shores. Yet these gestures of Soviet determination, in my view, will not suffice to satisfy the aims of the Soviet leaders.

The risk that they will take a dangerous gamble is heightened by pressures for national self-assertion. Some kind of public opinion does exist in the Soviet Union and affects policy, although in ways very different from public opinion in the West. The views that count circulate in the largest urban centers, through the Party and government apparatus, and, most important, among the various elites. The unrelenting attack on the United States in the press and television has created an atmosphere in which the elites, the apparatchiks, and at least a part of the public in Moscow and Leningrad expect their leaders to act forcefully. In this sense the Soviet leadership has become a captive of its own rhetoric and may well be caught in a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy. With the abolition of mass terror—and even more in this time of uncertain leadership—the allegiance of the politically involved public and especially the elites cannot be manipulated as completely as it was in Stalin’s day. Nor does the leadership enjoy the unlimited flexibility in international affairs that once allowed Soviet diplomats to call Hitler a mad dog one day and two months later shake his hand.


For the reasons I have outlined, I believe relations between the Soviet Union and the United States have passed beyond the stage of acute tension into the danger zone of confrontation. Some American leaders, however, even a number outside the Reagan administration, consider the present situation between the Soviet Union and the United States as “normal.”2 In my view they are very wrong. In a world bristling with nuclear arms it cannot be normal to identify the interests of American security with a crude anticommunist crusade and to impose simplistic ideology onto practical policy toward the Soviet Union. “Extremism in the defense of liberty” is a vice: it will not advance liberty where liberty has never existed while it increasingly endangers the most basic liberty, the right to live.

It cannot be normal to perpetuate a highly emotional ideological shouting match between those responsible for the world’s two most deadly nuclear arsenals. Management of the conflict with the Soviet Union requires on both sides a minimum of civility and trust.

It cannot be normal for the two super-powers to conduct negotiations on arms control as an exercise in public relations in which they do not seek reasonable compromise but to score points with a third audience in Western Europe.

It cannot be normal when pro forma meetings following predictable scripts replace genuine talks on mutual needs, interests, and goals between Soviet and American leaders and advisers. Nor can it be normal to attribute all regional disputes and local civil turmoil to Soviet aid and intrigue instead of acknowledging that many of the problems facing the US in the third world have indigenous causes that must be dealt with through regional solutions.

If steps are not taken on both sides to redefine what is “normal” in American-Soviet relations, dangers will multiply. One long-range danger is the real possibility that both arms control and the stability of superpower nuclear forces will be sacrificed to the search on both sides for an impossible condition of total security, not to speak of an illusory military superiority that will only exacerbate the arms race. Stalemated in their arms negotiations, the two superpowers are already engaged in a new phase of strategic arms buildup that may outstrip their ability to conclude verifiable arms agreements. Arms agreements would of course lead to an improved political relationship, but they in fact follow rather than precede an improved political relationship. As the sole candidate for the West German presidency, Richard von Weizsäcker, rightly said recently: “Experience teaches that it is not disarmament that points the way to peace, but rather that peaceful relations open the door to disarmament.”3 The error of the various peace and “freeze” movements is to think the process works the other way around.

One short-range and indeed immediate danger is a regional crisis where confrontation can easily explode from the lack of communications, the inability of the superpowers to understand one another, the emotionalism of the local political conflict, and the conviction of otherwise pragmatic leaders that they can’t “blink” first. The Middle East today is a prime example.

Here the forces of the two superpowers are in close proximity—the American marines in Beirut with a large naval force offshore are less than sixty miles from the growing force of Soviet soldiers manning SAM-5 and SS-21 missiles in Syria. The Soviets are determined to hold on to Syria, their last strong client in the region. But they cannot be sure of their control over their Syrian allies; nor can the Americans be sure of controlling the Israelis. Suppose that Israeli anxiety over the SAM-5 system, the most powerful air defense system in the Middle East—capable of striking Israeli planes over Israeli airspace—prompts the Israelis to attack and destroy the system and, while doing so, kill scores of Soviet military and technical personnel? Or suppose that, prodded by Syria, the Soviets extend the current “no trespass” prohibition from the frontiers of Syria into Lebanon itself and agree to use the SAM-5 system there? Who can predict the outcome?

Only incurable fanatics on both sides would deny that the two superpowers in the nuclear age must “manage” their conflict with regard to nuclear arms and regional conflicts. Yet the simple truth is that they are not managing it. What can be done to improve immediately and appreciably the intensely hostile political environment? From the Soviet side, very little in 1984. The Soviets now wait and wonder whether to deal seriously with President Reagan; if they do so, they calculate that they may help him get re-elected. If they don’t do so, they risk an even stronger adversary when he wins a second term. The Russians would like very much to influence the American elections; but either they don’t know how or they fear that what “help” they gave would backfire as it did in recent German elections.

The US government has more latitude, even in this election year. First it would have to acknowledge the present danger, to show some genuine commitment to bold measures that would reduce tensions and reopen prospects for compromise agreements on critical issues. President Reagan in his much-heralded speech of January 15 fell far short of this. Indeed, he dismissed those who speak of an increased danger of conflict as “profoundly mistaken.” His speech satisfied more the requirements of vigorous political campaigning than those for effectively dealing with the tense impasse between the two superpowers. The speech lacked the strength, open-mindedness, and concreteness that would reassure our Western European allies and convince our Soviet adversaries that a new course had been chosen. The former, while expressing some relief, will see in it hypocrisy; the latter will regard it with disdain. From this beginning, however modest in both tone and content, we should try to move from politics to statesmanship.

We should call for a joint moratorium on abrasive talk. We should listen carefully for the response and pursue any constructive signals that may be sent by the other side. The aim of such a new approach should be to commence a high-level dialogue to present our respective intentions, positions, and objectives. We should urge the Soviets to end the isolation of American diplomats in Moscow and use existing diplomatic channels more effectively. We should increase rather than curtail governmental and nongovernmental exchanges and contacts, and stop petty tactics such as denying visas, in order to improve mutual understanding and to help ascertain intentions. We should negotiate in good faith on such an urgent matter as preventing the arms race in outer space. Consideration of this question should not have to await a “breakthrough” in the principal arms negotiations. We should immediately propose negotiations with the Soviet Union (and within the Western alliance) on the critical issue of nuclear proliferation, which menaces all of us.

We could keep alive arms control negotiations without compromising our defenses by formulating proposals that would deny to both sides a first-strike capacity. (In this connection we should consider whether the latest Soviet proposal on limiting the number of nuclear launchers, if augmented by an American proposal for limiting the number of war-heads, could become a serious basis for resumption of START talks.) If, as I believe, the Russians will not return to INF negotiations, we should consider merging these negotiations with the START talks, to which the Soviets will in all likelihood return. We should offer the Russians a one-year moratorium on further INF deployments in Europe in exchange for a radical reduction of SS-20s and the resumption of the INF negotiations. We should consult and negotiate, away from the glare of publicity, about regional danger points, including Lebanon, so that each side can define its vital interests, discuss measures to reduce tensions, and perhaps even reach agreements on partial disengagement. We surely can expect little progress by continuing to refuse to negotiate on matters in which the Soviets lag behind the US—for example, economic relations—while insisting on concessions on their only source of strength—military power.

In part because of Reagan’s military policies, but decisively because of domestic problems in the Soviet Union, what the Soviets call “the international correlation of forces” has shifted in favor of the US. In short, the Soviets are in a hole. It would be tempting to relax with satisfaction at their plight were doing it not so dangerous in the nuclear age. Any knowledgeable observer of the Soviet Union would probably agree that the Soviets will not consent to remaining in a hole for long. Their struggle to reemerge will only increase the risks and dangers of an already inflammatory international situation. We must now use our advantages to promote the cause of peace without having any illusions about the toughness of our adversaries. To advance a closed-minded ideological position with inflamed, or even a suddenly tempered, rhetoric is to abandon our obligation to maneuver the conflict away from the abyss. It is to increase significantly the dangers of nuclear confrontation.

January 18, 1984

This Issue

February 16, 1984