Russians see a pervasive "American threat" to their interests around the world, obstructing the Soviet Union at every turn, according to an unusual U.S. government study.
The study, conducted by the International Communication Agency's Office of Research, suggests that a mirror-image of who is challenging whom exists in the two nations. According to the study, Soviet planners by no means perceive their nation as holding a lopsided advantage for challenging or confounding the United States, as many Americans suggest. On the contrary:
"Wherever they turn, Soviets are inclined to see the hand of the United States, restraining their actions, hindering their plans, and working against their interests. Wherever the Soviet Union attempts to expand its influence or power in the world, there it sees resistance from the United States."
The study is an expanded and updated version of a similar report a year ago, reflecting attitudes and premises of middle- to upper-level members of the Soviet bureaucracy and professional groups, largely based in Moscow. The attitudes were ascertained secondhand through so-called "surrogate interviews" of the Soviets' Western counterparts, an indirect methodology that assures some controversy about its results, as was aroused by the first report.
The current study, entitled "Soviet Elites: World View and Perceptions of the U.S.," draws on interviews between mid-April and late June with 160 West Europeans and Americans, including diplomats, academics, businessmen and journalists who had long-time associations with Soviet sources. Gregory Guroff and Steven Grant of the ICA research office prepared the study.
Among the findings are that there is no Americans-are-coming fear in the Soviet Union to match the Russians-are-coming alarm often raised in the United States. Nor is there any direct counterpart for the official U.S. apprehension about a "window of vulnerability," which is said to expose the United States, in theory, to grave risk of Soviet missile attack or humbling blackmail. But the report underscored that Russians have their own kind of apprehensions about how the United States can overwhelm them--especially by superior military technology.
There is "extremely great respect--even awe" for American technological and scientific capacity among average Russians, the report notes. Even the most worldly Soviet bureaucrats and professionals were stunned, the study reported, by the sensational capacity of the U.S. space shuttle to perform dramatic military or civilian missions in a domain where Russians once scored their greatest technological breakthrough.
Despite the Soviet Union's claims that it can match whatever the United States can do in the arms race or elsewhere, many Russians simply do not believe that, the study said. On the contrary, it was found, popular Soviet suspicions tend to run in the opposite direction--that the United States can perform superhuman tasks:
"This feeling translates for most Soviets into the . . . belief that if the U.S. wants to, it can change the military balance in its favor almost overnight--that it can pull some weapon/rabbit out of its technological hat at any moment and leave the Soviet Union far behind in the arms race."
Soviet specialists have a more realistic appraisal of what is technologically and economically possible for the United States. But in the closed Soviet system, the report said, even those whom it characterized as Soviet "elite" groups also harbor doubts "about the competence, reliability and effectiveness of their own forces . . . ."
"Even one example of a Soviet breakdown or failure, on the one hand, or of American excellence, on the other, assumes an overblown significance in the information vacuum within which Soviets operate."
Among other findings:
* Despite the deep freeze in U.S.-Soviet relations since Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in 1979, many sophisticated Russians still cling to the idea of "Soviet-American cooperation" to regulate a chaotic world. But there is now "nagging doubt" in the Soviet Union "about the ultimate intention of the U.S. toward the U.S.S.R."; no longer is "the possibility of a direct conflict with the U.S. . . . dismissed out of hand" as it was in past years.
* Soviet sources "increasingly admit that they miscalculated both Western reaction and the difficulties they would encounter in Afghanistan." While many maintain they still do not understand American "linkage between Afghanistan and Western reactions, they understand instinctively the importance of Poland to East-West relations."
* In contrast to the American claim that detente operated as "a one-way street" against Western interests, Russians claim the West profited more than the East. They cite Poland as an example: Instead of assuring "the political stability" in Eastern Europe that Moscow anticipated, detente broadened Poland's ties with the West so much that it undermined Poland's fidelity to the communist system, producing "the current debacle in Poland" for Soviet interests.
* The cause of Soviet misunderstanding of American policy formulation "is usually not lack of information," but rather "the very openness" of the system," and because Soviet officials "ascribe to the U.S. features of their own system." While "a small handful of specialists in the Soviet Union may have developed "a real 'feel' for the U.S. foreign policy process . . . they have great difficulty communicating their understanding to other elements within the Soviet elite."
* Initial Soviet hopes "that Reagan will turn out to be another Nixon" crumbled into "serious debate" over whether the Soviet Union can "do business" at all with the Reagan administration. The administration's determination to expand U.S. military power greatly is now widely believed; many Russians hope it is a prelude to arms negotiations, but fear it is a drive for military superiority.
Beyond U.S.-Soviet relations, the study also reported on other Soviet perceptions:
The Chinese, unlike the Americans, are outrightly seen as "the enemy," and the "sense of inevitable conflict" with Peking "is pervasive." Russians who adamantly disclaim any tinge of racial prejudice nevertheless "speak in the most unselfconscious terms of the 'yellow peril' to describe their fears and dislike of the Chinese." The "Chinese threat" is "the basis for a fundamental difference of view beween the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. on Soviet military requirements."
While the Soviet Union often seeks to exploit differences between Western Europe and the United States, "few Soviets believe they can detach Western Europe from the U.S." One Russian version of Soviet attitudes toward Western nations, which was cited as "over-simplified but not inaccurate," was this caricature: "The Germans--we do not love them, but we respect them; the French--we love them, but do not respect them; and the Americans--sometimes we love them, but we always respect them."