The Russian Easter Overture

June 1, 1985

Even before Mikhail Gorbachev ascended to top Soviet leadership in March, he had taken the fancy of many in the West. That favorable assessment, along with the incredibly tolerant standards the world uses to judge Soviet behavior, practically guaranteed Gorbachev an early advantage in the propaganda wars. He was quick in attempting to exploit it.

His opening round was his Easter speech, which fooled hardly anyone. In it, Gorbachev announced his willingness to freeze medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe at present levels, which would leave the Soviet Union ahead by a ten-to-one ratio. As the Washington Post said, “Some moratorium.”

It took colossal gall for the Soviets to make such an offer, having previously availed themselves of a unilateral six-year heard start on deployment of these missiles and now having more than 400 of them operational. That Gorbachev expected — and got — any serious attention by this ploy is difficult to understand.

The United States soon came under criticism for its prompt rejection of Gorbachev’s moratorium. Some had seen a praiseworthy concession in his offer: It would allow NATO to keep in place the limited number of missiles it already has. Previously, the Soviet Union had insisted on an absolute monopoly for itself.

The content of what Gorbachev said, we are told by the editorial writer for the Hartford Courant, was less important than his conciliatory tone. “More gestures like Mr. Gorbachev’s by both sides and — who knows — they might even start to get somewhere on nuclear arms control,” the Courant said. The US rejection was “over-wrought,” in the opinion of the New York Times, which admonished us to remember “the context in which Mr. Gorbachev must operate.” Since he had not yet had time to maneuver his own followers on the Politburo, the Times proclaimed, it was “small wonder that in this first pitch of the West he sounded like his predecessors.”

The Old Guard who put Gorbachev where he is have known him better and for longer than have we in the West. It seems unlikely that they would have elected him to power had they perceived his ultimate purpose to be dissolution of their system. Gorbachev, at fifty-four, is likely to continue as General Secretary for many years. We should not hurry to make too much of his style until we see some substance to go with it.

The Soviet Union that Gorbachev heads is the nation that still occupies Afghanistan and that is consolidating its resubjugation of Poland. It is the nation that shot down an unarmed airliner less than two years ago and the one that showed no remorse when a Soviet sentry killed an American officer two weeks before Gorbachev’s Easter speech. It is the nation that persisted, throughout the era of détente, in a one-sided arms race. It is also the same Soviet Union that has engaged in wholesale violations of arms-control agreements.

This outrageous record in itself may be a major reason why the rest of the world is so reluctant to hold the Soviet Union to strict account. Gestures of appeasement indicate a fear of Soviet volatility and irresponsibility. This is something akin to giving a mad dog the wide part of the road — except that the Soviets do what they do with cold deliberation, not madness. When we make excuses for them or show ourselves eager to make unreciprocated concessions, we give them no motivation to act any differently.

The United States has made substantial reductions in its strategic forces without the compensation of matching reductions by the Soviet Union. While the Soviets have added relentlessly to their nuclear arsenal, we have tended to regard our strategic modernization programs as bargaining chips. Last year, the House of Representatives made its stand on further MX production contingent on perceived progress in arms-control negotiations. The MX vote carried this year only because a great many congressmen concluded that it would have barter value in Geneva.

“The Soviets can take pleasure in the expectation that if they stand pat, we will meanwhile negotiate with ourselves and probably change our position,” observes Kenneth L. Adelman, Director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

If there was any conciliatory note in Gorbachev’s Easter overture, it is most likely attributable to NATO’s steadfast stand on missile counter-deployments and to Moscow’s perception that the US is serious bout strategic modernization. If there is any hope for meaningful arms control, we will not achieve it by glossing over questions of reciprocity, verification, and compliance. We must have more from Mr. Gorbachev than his winning smile.