Don’t Expect Much from the Latest Tit-for-Tat Diplomatic Expulsions

News Abroad
tags: Cold War, Russia, Putin, Soviet Union, Trump, Diplomatic Expulsions

Dr. Joe Renouard teaches history and diplomacy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Nanjing, China. His latest book is Human Rights in American Foreign Policy: From the 1960s to the Soviet Collapse (Penn Press). His work has also appeared in The National Interest, The Diplomat, The Los Angeles Times, and American Diplomacy. He has taught at Emory University, Oxford College, Virginia Tech, Kennesaw State University, and The Citadel.

The West’s “Russia problem” entered a new phase on March 4 with the attempted assassination-by-poison of the former spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury, England. The botched killing touched off a diplomatic row and an astounding show of transatlantic unity, with nearly thirty countries expelling Russian agents in solidarity with Britain. Moscow has responded by denying involvement in the affair, announcing reciprocal expulsions, and closing other nations’ cultural institutions and consulates.

Talk of a “new Cold War” between Russia and the West may be exaggerated, but there is no denying the high level of East/West acrimony. Those who blame Russia for this state of affairs point to the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the ensuing armed conflict in Ukraine, intervention in the Syrian civil war, and meddling in the U.S. election. Meanwhile, Russia’s defenders claim that America seeks to isolate Russia, dominate its neighbors economically and politically, and pursue a new “containment” policy via NATO expansion and E.U. enlargement. Indeed, overt U.S. support to the post-Yanukovych Ukrainian government in 2014 arguably fit the longstanding American interest in coaxing states away from the Russian orbit. When the U.K. announced the expulsion of twenty-three Russian diplomats after the Skripal poisoning, the U.S. quickly followed suit by ejecting sixty Russian officers and closing the consulate in Seattle.

Yet although this latest episode looks like a throwback to the bad old days, extraterritorial assassinations have long been a part of Moscow’s modus operandi, and the spy-arrest-expulsion carousel is old hat. When the U.S. arrested C.I.A. officer Aldrich Ames in 1994 and F.B.I. agent Robert P. Hanssen in 2001 for selling secrets to the Russians, it also expelled Russian diplomats. There have been even more such tit-for-tat expulsions in the Obama-Trump era, including the December 2016 ejection of thirty-five Russians in response to Moscow’s election interference.

2018 is not 1986

Don’t expect the Skripal affair to foster anything as positive as the last diplomatic expulsions of the Cold War, which took place in 1986 following the arrest of a Soviet spy and an American journalist. Not only is the current East/West rivalry fundamentally different from the old one, but the U.S.-Soviet fracas of 1986 involved a reformist Soviet leadership desperate for a modus vivendi with the West. Moreover, the impasse was intertwined with two areas that were hallmarks of a different time: Russian reformers’ desire for arms reductions, and human rights activists’ desire for reforms in the Eastern Bloc. The episode’s resolution on the cusp of the Reykjavik summit showed that the two sides were willing to cooperate in both of these areas.

1986 was a pivotal year in the still-dangerous Cold War. The tensions of the early 1980s had passed, but the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had little to show for the many years of arms control talks. They still aimed their massive nuclear arsenals at each other, and they fought each other by proxy in the armed struggles of Central America, Afghanistan, southern Africa, the Horn of Africa, Sudan, Lebanon, and Iran/Iraq. On the other hand, human rights norms were gaining wider international acceptance, and a global democracy trend that had begun in southern Europe in the 1970s was sweeping through South America in the 80s. Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, and Ecuador had democratized, and many others would follow suit before the decade’s end.

Also promising was the burgeoning superpower détente overseen by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. These two leaders represented fundamentally different systems, but they were also unusually pragmatic. As Vladislav Zubok pointed out in his book Failed Empire, Gorbachev saw détente as a way to overcome his nation’s endemic economic weaknesses. The high oil prices of the 1970s had spurred a military spending spree, but by the mid-80s the Soviet economy was foundering on the shoals of low productivity and crashing oil prices. Gorbachev proposed a sweeping program of economic reforms (perestroika – “restructuring”) and liberation of the public sphere (glasnost’ – “publicity,” “openness”), and he was willing to make bold arms reduction proposals in the hope of reaping a “peace dividend” of reduced defense spending and new Western economic credits. One clear sign of this openness was the Soviets’ decision in February 1986 to release the refusenik political prisoner Anatoly Shcharansky and include him in a spy exchange. “What seems clear,” writes the scholar John Lamberton Harper, “is that early 1986 represented a point of no return for Gorbachev’s foreign policy.”

Reagan’s approach to world affairs was also undergoing a profound change. In his first term (1981-1985), he oversaw a huge military buildup, and he generally defended America’s anticommunist partners while attacking the human rights records of communist governments. But in his second term (1985-1989), he proved far more willing to support democracy-promotion efforts while criticizing partner governments’ human rights abuses. When the U.S.-friendly dictators of Haiti and the Philippines fled their countries in February 1986, the administration quickly backed the new leaders. Reagan also lobbied hard to free high-profile dissidents like Shcharansky, Andrei Sakharov, and Yuri Orlov.

Despite these new developments, several events in the spring and summer of 1986 threatened the thaw. Arms control talks stalled, due in part to American resumption of nuclear tests in Nevada. In March, the Soviets placed their forces on high alert when two American warships entered the Black Sea and sailed six miles from the Soviet coast. The following month, the U.S. carried out airstrikes against the Soviet client Libya after terrorists bombed a West Berlin disco. Less than two weeks later, the worst nuclear accident in history took place in Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR. And in June, the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. had violated Nicaraguan sovereignty by supplying and funding contra rebels.

The Zakharov-Daniloff Affair

Later that year, a series of arrests and tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions further threatened the U.S.-Soviet détente. The saga began on August 23 with the FBI’s arrest of Gennadi Zakharov, a member of the Soviet U.N. delegation who was caught buying technical information from an undercover agent. A week later, the Soviets retaliated by arresting the American journalist Nicholas Daniloff on trumped-up espionage charges, just as they had done in 1963 and 1978. When Zakharov gave his interrogators the names of three spies (according to a U.S. official, Zakharov “sang like a tweetie bird” while in custody), the U.S. expelled twenty-five members of the Soviet U.N. delegation.

Reagan personally assured Gorbachev that Daniloff was no spy, and Gorbachev replied by angrily decrying the “massive hostile campaign” against the Soviet Union. “It is as if a pretext was deliberately sought to aggravate Soviet-American relations,” he wrote. He then publicly rebuffed Reagan, calling Daniloff “a spy caught red-handed” and adding that the Americans had used the affair “simply to reap a harvest of hatred toward us.” Reagan was furious, writing in his diary that Gorbachev was “arrogant” and deliberately obtuse. “I’m mad as h--l. . . . The whole thing follows the pattern. We catch a spy as we have this time & the Soviets grab an American—any American and frame him so they can then demand a trade of prisoners.” In a speech to the U.N. on September 22, a defiant Reagan declared, “A pall has been cast over our relations with the Soviet Union,” but, he insisted, the facts were clear: Daniloff was “a hostage” and Zakharov a spy.

Both Gorbachev and Reagan saw hostile forces stymieing their efforts. For Reagan, it was the news media. “The press is obsessed with the Daniloff affair,” he wrote in his diary, “& determined to paint all of us as caving into the Soviets.” For Gorbachev, it was the conservative American defense establishment. As he told the Politburo, “I am convinced . . . that in the U.S. governing circles they do not want to allow a relaxation of tensions, a slowing down of the arms race. This is most important for them now. . . . Not to let us increase the dynamism of our system. . . . This is what scares the Americans.”

Because the Daniloff arrest had become the chief obstacle to a superpower summit, Secretary of State George Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze worked for weeks to resolve the issue. The journalist’s release was the Reagan administration’s primary condition for continued talks, and they would not discharge Zakharov until the Soviets agreed to free some high-profile dissidents. The Soviets finally freed Daniloff at the end of September, and the Americans exchanged Zakharov for Yuri and Irina Orlov and two other dissidents. Upon Zakharov’s release, they announced that a U.S.-Soviet summit would soon take place in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Reykjavik and Beyond

Reading the documentary record today, one is struck by just how much Gorbachev was willing to concede to reduce his nation’s defense burden and win economic concessions from the West. At the Reykjavik summit, he sought to sidestep troublesome issues like Afghanistan and human rights and instead make major arms reduction offers. “Our goal is to prevent the next round of arms race,” he instructed his advisers before the summit. “If we do not do this, the threat to us will only grow. . . . We will be pulled into an arms race beyond our power, and we will lose this race, for we are presently at the limit of our capabilities. . . . The pressure on our economy will be inconceivable.”

The Americans had lower expectations. Reagan’s advisers were cautious about Gorbachev’s intentions, even to the point of predicting that Reagan and Shultz would have to “smoke out” the cagey Soviet leader. Shultz counseled Reagan that he should not expect any new agreements, but that the domestic political audience would want to see progress on arms control and human rights. “Gorbachev must go home,” wrote Shultz, “with a clear sense that Moscow’s continuing insensitivity to the humanitarian dimension” was hindering other breakthroughs.

As it turned out, the Reykjavik summit would be remembered for the way in which the two leaders snatched defeat from the jaws of victory over nuclear weapons and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile defense system. In their final meeting, they came to a remarkable verbal agreement that each side would reduce, and eventually destroy, its nuclear arsenal. “What went on between the two leaders seemed almost surreal to other participants,” writes Zubok. “In the view of American experts, Gorbachev made more concessions than they had received from the Soviet Union in twenty-five years.” But the Soviet leader’s condition was the abandonment of SDI, a suggestion that Reagan would not consider. “He wanted language that would have killed SDI,” wrote Reagan in his diary. “The price was high but I wouldn’t sell & that’s how the day ended.”

In the tense post-summit atmosphere, the Soviets expelled five American diplomats and ordered 260 Soviet-citizen employees of the U.S. embassy in Moscow to stop work, while the U.S. ejected fifty-five diplomats from the Soviet embassy—the largest number ever expelled from the U.S. Things got worse for Reagan before they got better. Congress took control of America’s South Africa policy by passing a far-reaching sanctions package. In the November election, Democrats retook the Senate for the first time in six years. That same week, the press broke the story that the U.S. had sold arms to Iran and channeled funds to the Nicaraguan contras. Although Reagan was never directly linked to the Iran-contra decisions, his presidency was seriously weakened for nearly a year in 1986-87.

Meanwhile, many State Department Sovietologists did not believe that Gorbachev wanted to transcend the Cold War, and conservatives still feared the spread of communism in the global South. Some intelligence experts concluded that trading Zakharov for an innocent journalist had set a bad precedent and that the Soviets would simply repeat their gambit the next time around. And hawks in both nations feared that summit meetings were largely a ploy for the other side to demand concessions.

Despite these short-term misgivings, the long-term accomplishments of the Zakharov-Daniloff-Reykjavik period are undeniable. The Reagan administration put dissidents on the agenda, and the Soviets consented (with reservations) in order to achieve their economic and strategic goals. Moscow was beginning to accept such conditions as the cost of doing business with Washington. Many in Congress and the administration now believed that Gorbachev genuinely desired domestic liberalization and a fundamental reduction in East/West tensions.

Upon returning to Moscow, Gorbachev stated to his advisers, “We need not fall into despair; Reykjavik led us to the most important stage of understanding of where we stand. Everybody saw that agreement is possible.” In the ensuing months, the Soviets freed Andrei Sakharov, further liberalized emigration, and released most of their remaining political prisoners. The two sides also made great leaps in arms talks. As the arms negotiator Thomas Graham later reflected, “Reykjavik was the watershed of arms control.” At the breakthrough December 1987 Washington summit, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. As the first-ever agreement to reduce nuclear arsenals rather than merely limit weapon production, it was a key stepping-stone toward the landmark 1991 START I treaty. Moreover, the joint statement was the first to acknowledge human rights as a subject of bilateral concern.

The two sides had done the utmost to defuse tensions between the Zakharov-Daniloff affair and the Washington summit, and this new environment made possible the peaceful management of the Cold War’s end. Gorbachev’s post-summit briefing to the Politburo spoke volumes about the momentous change in East/West perceptions:

In Washington we saw for the first time with our own eyes what great interest exists in everything that is happening here. . . . And the goodwill, even enthusiasm to a degree, with which prim Washington received us, was an indicator of the changes that have started taking place in the West. These changes evidence the beginning of the crumbling “image of the enemy,” and the beginning of the destruction of the “Soviet military threat” myth. That was momentous to us. And it was noticed throughout the world.

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