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1972
Brezhnev (left) and Nixon (right) greet each other during their first summit meeting in 1972. (UPI Photo)


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  • A Good Week for Kremlin

    By Robert G. Kaiser
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    May 31, 1972

    MOSCOW, MAY 30 -- By their own standards, the men who rule the Soviet Union have had a good week. They entertained the President of the United States almost without a hitch; they got his signature on several documents which they have long coveted; they made no visible concessions of significance; and at the end of it all, they have achieved the appearance of equality, almost partnership, with the most powerful nation in the world.

    The price for all this was one small military humiliation in Haiphong's harbor. A dozen Soviet merchant vessels still trapped in the harbor by American mines are a reminder of that.

    Compared with the success of the summit conference, the Soviet leaders may well feel that a dozen ships and the loss of face that their present situation implies are not too high a price. They must be pleased that they let Mr. Nixon come to Moscow, despite his mines.

    If the case is argued from a purely competitive point of view, the Soviets seem to have got the best of the summit. They were given the right to have more strategic weapons under the SALT agreement. They persuaded the Americans to go ahead with the European security conference that has long been their goal. They signed a formal document with the Americans outlining a peacefully coexisting relationship which appears to prove the success of Communist party chief Leonid Brezhnev's peace program." The summit turned out just the way the Soviet people had been told it would.

    This view of the summit seems too simple, though. The American side knew it would probably come out the way it has, and they were still eager to come to Moscow. The United States can also benefit greatly from the results of the summit; mutual interests were discovered.

    For the Soviet Union, dealing with Richard Nixon was a tricky business. As the Soviet officials and journalists who met with unprecedented frequency and openness with Western newsmen indicated all week, Mr. Nixon was (and perhaps still is) a source of great suspicion and some fear here.

    In the early days of the Nixon administration, one Russian editor observed, "We wondered if he was the kind of man who would push the button" -- that is, begin a nuclear war. "We decided that he wouldn't push the button," this editor added, but the basic mistrust was not removed.

    If the views of these journalists and middle-ranking officials accurately reflect those at the top, Mr. Nixon's Cambodian operation in May, 1970, was an important event in Soviet American relations. It confirmed Mr. Nixon's unpredictabiliity for the Russians -- they were not sure what to expect after the invasion.

    (Nixon administration officials said at the time that this was one of the objects of the Cambodian operation -- to break the pattern of predictability in international relations.)

    The President's trip to China was another jolt here. Was he plotting with the Soviet Union's most fearsome enemy? That question was taken seriously in this country. Then on the eve of the summit meeting Mr. Nixon bombed Haiphong and mined North Vietnam's harbors.

    Nevertheless, the Soviets welcomed him, and quite warmly, though they started (and later ended) with a cool touch by sending only their number two and three men to the airport to greet the President. (Brezhnev stayed home on a point of protocol, according to Soviet officials -- he is not the legal chief of state. But they forgot this point when it came time to sign the most important documents of the week -- Brezhnev signed them all.)

    And the first night he was here, with Russian ships blocked in Haiphong by American mines, Mr. Nixon said in a toast:

    "We should recognize that great nuclear powers have a solemn responsibility to exercise restraint in any crisis, and to take positive action to avert direct confrontation."

    During the week Russian journalists repeatedly asked their American colleagues if the summit were the beginning of a new period in world history, or just another meeting. Was Mr. Nixon serious?

    One thoughtful Soviet editor was asked what the President could do to signal that he was indeed serious.

    "Better communication" he answered. He said the President should explain his position fully and frankly on all issues. It would be especially helpful, the editor said, if Mr. Nixon would explain what happened when he was in China, and what agreements he reached with Premier Chou En-lai.

    The Russians wanted reassurance from Mr. Nixon that he put Moscow ahead of Peking in his own view of the world, but the President reportedly did not oblige. White House adviser Henry Kissinger, who helped design the American policy which implies playing one giant Communist power against the other, told reporters yesterday: "We did not discuss the Soviet Union in Peking, and we did not discuss the Peoples' Republic in Moscow."

    Nevertheless, the Soviet Union decided to declare the summit meeting a success, and the press here has been trumpeting this message since Mr. Nixon arrived. This morning's papers devote virtually their entire front pages to the conclusion of the visit. Several papers also print enthusiastic letters from readers under headlines like "Rejoice and Thank" and "A Victory for Leninist Principles."

    A typical letter begins: "The workers of our factory learned with joy of the signing in the Kremlin of the Treaty with the U.S.A. on the limitation of antiballistic missiles..."

    This is undoubtedly the beginning of a propoganda campaign to explain the visit and its results to the party faithful and the general public. The first official reactions here suggest that this campaign will emphasize the concrete achievements of the summit, while repeating that the Soviet Union remains faithful to "the irreconcilable struggle against aggressive imperialist forces," as Pravda put it yesterday.

    This attempt to balance detente with vigilance may be the basic theme of Soviet domestic and foreign policy for some time to come. It is not an easy policy to pursue, but there is no hint yet that success at the summit will mean a loosening at home.

    Leonid Zamyatin, the director of the government news agency Tass and the Soviet spokesman during the summit, was asked yesterday if the Soviet Union would now stop jamming broadcasts of the Voice of America. Only if the VOA "changes its line," he replied.

    If a "spirit of Moscow" survives the months ahead and the war in Vietnam, it will be fascinating to see if the insecurity implicit in the jamming of foreign broadcasts is replaced by new self-confidence in Moscow. After all, President Nixon did come to Moscow to ratify the achievements of Lenin's heirs -- achievements greater than any Russian czar's. The president of the United States ratified the Soviet Union's equality with the most powerful nation in human history. That just might be grounds for self-confidence.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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