Death of a Diplomat and a New START in Arms Control

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Richard A. Moss is a co-editor at nixontapes.org and works as government consultant in Northern Virginia. He defended his doctoral dissertation, “Behind the Backchannel: Achieving Détente in U.S.-Soviet relations, 1969-1972,” at The George Washington University in May 2009. The views presented in this op-ed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer or the U.S. Government.

That Dobrynin is as sharp as a tack,” Henry Kissinger marveled to President Nixon in the Oval Office.  “The way that he edited that letter of yours…He actually strengthened it.”

Kissinger’s discussion with the president – recorded on February 23, 1971, one week after the installation of Nixon’s secret White House taping system – was focused on a largely deceptive document:  a letter from Nixon to Alexei Kosygin designed to hide a recent breakthrough in secret U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations then underway (In his memoirs, Nixon even misrecalled that the letter was to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev).

And the Dobrynin whom Kissinger extolled was Anatoly Feodorovich Dobrynin, the longtime Soviet ambassador to the United States who was Kissinger’s chief negotiating partner in the backchannel negotiations.  A further measure of Kissinger and Nixon’s esteem for Dobrynin, who died on April 6th at the age of 90, was that the principal party from which the negotiations were to be kept secret, at all costs, was the Nixon administration’s own Department of State.

Although historians chiefly remember Dobrynin for his role in the resolution of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when he met privately with Robert F. Kennedy, his greatest triumph was his contribution to the reduction of superpower tensions during the Nixon administration.  Dobrynin’s canny understanding of American domestic politics and clout back home in the Kremlin earned him membership in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – an extraordinary feat for a mere diplomat in the Brezhnev era.

Fitting, then, that ITAR-TASS announced Dobrynin's death on the very day Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague -- even though Dobrynin had passed away in Moscow two days earlier.  It was Dobrynin who, representing the Soviets, played the critical role in brokering the compromise between Moscow and Washington that produced the landmark Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaties of 1972.

In Dobrynin’s time, the primary obstacle to arms control was the link that both countries asserted between offensive weapons, such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and defensive weapons – better known today as “missile defense.”  President Nixon balked at signing any agreement that did not limit the arms race in strategic missiles without a corresponding limitation on defensive arms.  The problem was the asymmetrical nuclear forces between the two superpowers.  Whereas the United States of 1972 placed a premium on accurate missiles carrying a greater number of smaller warheads, the Soviets compensated for inferior guidance systems by fielding a greater number of missiles with huge warheads.  Both sides at the time were developing and deploying defensive weapons known as anti-ballistic missile systems, or ABMs.  

Additionally, the Soviets linked the resolution of arms control issues to the containment of a regional power whose growing influence was deeply troubling to Moscow:  West Germany.  Fortunately for the Kremlin, the Soviet leaders found an able partner in Chancellor Willy Brandt, and West Germany’s rise was economic and peaceful.  Secret meetings between Dobrynin and Kissinger allowed both sides to agree to disagree, resulting in separate agreements for offensive and defensive weapons signed concurrently at the Moscow Summit of 1972, and the ratification of treaties handling the German question.

It is therefore ironic that this month’s START agreement deals, much to the chagrin of the Russian government, only with offensive weapons.  Unlike in 1972, today’s Russian and American offensive force structures look much more alike; and instead of placing a ceiling on the number of weapons to be built at some future date, the new START agreement reduces the numbers of weapons presently deployed.

The 800-pound matroshka doll in the room remains the challenge of defensive weapons.  Ever since the Bush administration abrogated the ABM treaty in 2002, the Russian government has tried to cajole Washington into signing a successor agreement on defensive weapons.  Like its predecessor, the Obama administration has refused to consider this—at least not openly.  The Russians appear to have accepted this because their bargaining position is weaker than that of their Soviet predecessors.  Additionally, they may hope that by acquiescing to the Obama administration’s “reset” of Russian-American relations, they may yet finagle that elusive successor to the ABM treaty.

With a de facto restart of arms control negotiations after nearly two decades in the doldrums, the current treaty may indeed pave the way for future substantial reductions in missile and nuclear forces.  It seems foolhardy to assume Russia will continue to accept a position of relative weakness as it gradually re-emerges as a great, if not super, power.  Future Russian governments may not be as willing as the current one to accept an agreement that, in the short term at least, works largely to the benefit of the United States.

They may also invoke “linkage” on contemporary issues and demand reciprocal concessions, as the Soviet Union did in 1972, and as the United States does today in its efforts to forestall nuclear weapons development in Iran.  When that day comes, possibly in the near future, one can only hope Russia and the United States will be able to call upon the services of diplomats and leaders as capable, as healthily secretive, and as inclined toward productive compromise as Anatoly Dobrynin.

All of the Nixon Tape conversations in which Anatoly Dobrynin are posted at: http://nixontapes.org/afd.html

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