Remembering Gorbachev: The 1986 Reykjavik Summit

By Robbin Laird

Last week, Mihail Gorbachev died.

I found much of the press coverage of this event very interesting as one who worked throughout the 1970s and 1980s on reform efforts in the Soviet Union with my recently deceased colleague Professor Erik Hoffmann.

Gorbachev was no democrat and was a modern day Leninist  trying to save the system.

He certainly had a dramatic historical impact for under his watch the pressures which would lead to the end of the Soviet Union and the Soviet empire accelerated.

It was as if he was trying to surf on a global tidal wave.

And in the midst of this, he worked with Western leaders to try to salvage what he could.

But I find also interesting that coverage of his death has led to the notion that somehow he ended the Cold War on his own.

And this view which has much to commend it simply leaves out the key role which Presidents Regan and George H. Bush played as well as the important role of Western leaders such as Thatcher and Mitterrand.

As an analyst of French affairs, I have also found it interesting that the key French role in all of this seems never to enter the American discussions of the end of the Cold War.

And certainly in the eulogies to Gorbachev, he seems to be lionized as an architect of the end of the Cold War, rather than understanding he was a surfer trying to navigate a tidal wave in order to preserve what he could for a Leninist Russia.

A good example of how to understand Gorbachev is to look back at his meeting in 1986 with President Regan at Reykjavik.

This is how the History website describes the event:

“Following up on their successful November 1985 summit meeting in Geneva, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, to continue discussions about curbing their intermediate missile arsenals in Europe. Just when it appeared that agreement might be reached, the talks fell apart amid accusations and recriminations, and U.S.-Soviet relations took a giant step backwards.

“The sticking point arose when Gorbachev requested that the talks concerning the missiles be expanded to include limitations on America’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Referred to as the “Star Wars” initiative by opponents, SDI was one of Reagan’s pet projects. A multi-billion-dollar program, SDI was supposed to use space technology to provide a “shield” from nuclear attacks.

“Not surprisingly, Reagan refused to consider Gorbachev’s suggestion, and the talks ended the next day, October 12, with no agreement in hand.”

But what this comment does not highlight how Western collaboration had ended the ability of the Soviet espionage system to steal on a regular basis U.S. and Western defense technology. And that SDI was launched after this capability was undercut which meant that the Soviets simply did not know in detail the technologies being funded by Star Wars and their impact on the evolution defense technology.

So sidetracking SDI was not just about trying to get rid of defense capabilities which might attrite Soviet capabilities, but even more importantly accelerate new technologies for which the Soviet military would simply have no near term answer.

In my co-authored book on the return of direct defense in Europe, we started the book by looking at how Western cooperation — not simply the actions of the United States — was crucial to shapign an end game to the Soviet threat to Europe.

This is how we described the role of the Farewell Affair, a key aspect in the change which is hardly ever mentioned in American analyses but was a key reason why SDI had a strategic effect on Gorbachev’s calculations.

The other espionage story from the 1980s, namely, the Farewell Affair, provided insights into how a Socialist President of France could work with the “Cowboy” Republican President Reagan to come to common understanding of how to deal with the Soviet threat.

When Reagan became President, in the days before George Schultz joined the team, many of the initial Reagan foreign and security policy team were very ideological and very anti-European in some respects. And not unpredictably, when a President of France was elected who was a socialist and who proceeded to add three communists to his cabinet, this sent out alarm bells to the Administration. It was clear that taking an ideological lens to a complex politician like Mitterrand was not going to take you very far in understanding what he would do in office.

This is always difficult for the often ideologically driven policy process in Washington where “Inside the Beltway” becomes correlated with Inside the World of Global Leadership. And what would become known as the Farewell Affair would certainly prove that. At the heart of the story is a KGB operative, Vladimir Vetrov, a Soviet agent who had served in

France and went back to Moscow and was not given a position appropriate to his skill levels.14 What this spy story as well as the Gordievsky spy story both showed was that the Soviet system was becoming very corrupt; meritocracy was being undercut by nepotism. Both spies suffered from this situation, but more generally so did the Soviet system. Vetrov was given a unique position in which he as the clearinghouse for the information being sent back to Moscow with regard to Western technologies being stolen by the Soviet intelligence services.

“Vetrov had to handle and synthesize the scientific and technical intelligence reports from KGB residencies worldwide.”

The Russians by this time were so busy stealing technology that they stopped focusing on their own process of indigenous innovation, something that clearly bothered Vetrov. Technology intelligence was his field of expertise, and he could talk about it at length. Vetrov felt, in the long run, stealing scientific and technical secrets could only come back to haunt the instigator.

He used the following metaphor: “It’s just like a bad student copying from his neighbor. When he can no longer copy, whatever the reason, he has no alternative solution. When we need a fastener for one of our rockets, our research organizations don’t even ask themselves what the best type would be but wonder which workshop in Cape Canaveral would have it. It’s absurd.” Once again, he blamed the situation on his superiors’ stupidity and laziness, pointing out there was no shortage of good engineers in the Soviet Union.

Vetrov knew the KGB had infiltrated all of the Western security services, especially the CIA. As a result, he wanted to set up a working relationship outside of the foreign intelligence services. He reached back to the DST, the French internal security services, and proceeded to set up a relationship with them. That working relationship is a key part of the narrative in the book and is worth a good film, which by the way has been made. The DST was no friend of Mitterrand’s. When the new President came to power, the head of the DST met with Mitterrand and introduced him to the project and provided him with initial materials. Mitterrand rather quickly grasped the importance of information which showed how much information the Soviets had with regard to the military systems of the United States and how rapidly they were stealing technology with the help of KGB moles in U.S. Government agencies as well U.S. industry. Mitterrand requested a private meeting with President Reagan with virtually no aides present.

At that meeting, the President of Republic began to brief President Reagan on what was happening to the United States and to the West. Let us ponder this moment—a French President disliked by the Reagan Administration, met with the U.S. President who was hardly sympathetic to Mitterrand’s domestic policies, but in spite of this, these two leaders found a way to work together. No social media; nor Twitter need apply. It was clear that the Americans did not quickly grasp the magnitude of what Mitterrand was revealing to them. And special channels had to be established to provide the information as the normal intelligence channels in the United States were far too compromised by KGB penetrations.

When the project was terminated, and Soviet spies expelled, it was only then that President Reagan announced Star Wars, which was a new technology program to deal with the Soviet threat. Only now the Soviets were not easily positioned to steal the technology. And this meant, to be blunt about it, that if there was no Farewell Affair, the impact of Star Wars on Soviet calculations would have been significantly mitigated.

“The Farewell dossier laid bare the fragility of Western societies and the weaknesses in their defense and secrecy protection systems. Thus, the Pentagon learned that it was not the only one who knew about the anti-missile defense system supposed to protect the U.S. territory; Congress learned that their budget documents were very informative on highly sensitive matters, and the White House that its electronic security system was no secret to the KGB.”

This capability stripped away was just one of many elements of Soviet power that were being undercut, challenged or atrophied during Soviet leadership first by Andropov and then by Gorbachev. That is why I refer to Gorby as trying to surf the waves of a Tsunami rather than seeing him as an architect of the end of the Cold War.