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Profile: Gyorgy Arbatov
Gyorgy Arbatov was a participant or observer in the following events:
Gorbachev and Reagan at the Reykjavik summit. [Source: Ronald Reagan Library]President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a second summit, to follow on the success of their first meeting almost a year before (see November 16-19, 1985). They base their discussion on Gorbachev’s January proposals of deep cuts in the two nations’ nuclear arsenals (see January 1986).
Elimination of All Nuclear Weapons by 1996 - Gorbachev and his negotiators begin by reiterating Gorbachev’s proposals for a 50 percent cut in all nuclear weapons, deep reductions in Soviet ICBMs, and the elimination of all European-based intermediate nuclear weapons. Reagan and his negotiators counter with a proposal for both sides to destroy half of their nuclear ballistic missiles in the next five years, and the rest to be destroyed over the next five, leaving both sides with large arsenals of cruise missiles and bomber-based weapons. Gorbachev ups the ante, proposing that all nuclear weapons be destroyed within 10 years. Reagan responds that it would be fine with him “if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” implicitly including all tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and everywhere else. Gorbachev says, “We can do that,” and Secretary of State George Shultz says, “Let’s do it.”
Agreement Founders on SDI - The heady moment is lost when the two sides fail to reach an agreement on SDI—the Americans’ “Star Wars” missile defense system (see March 23, 1983). Gorbachev cannot accept any major reductions in nuclear weapons if the US has a viable missile defense system; Reagan is convinced that SDI would allow both sides to eliminate their nuclear weapons, and offers the SDI technology to the Soviets. Gorbachev finds Reagan’s offer naive, since there is no guarantee that future presidents would honor the deal. Reagan, in another example of his ignorance of the mechanics of the US nuclear program (see April 1981 and After), does not seem to realize that even a completely effective SDI program would not defend against Soviet cruise missiles and long-range bombers, and therefore would not end the threat of nuclear destruction for either side. Author J. Peter Scoblic will later write, “[SDI] would have convinced the Soviet Union that the United States sought a first-strike capability, since the Americans were so far ahead in cruise missile and stealth bomber technology.” Gorbachev does not ask that the US abandon SDI entirely, but simply observe the terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty (see May 26, 1972) and confine SDI research to the laboratory. Reagan refuses. Gorbachev says that if this is the US’s position, then they would have to “forget everything they discussed.” Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze breaks in, saying that the two nations are “so close” to making history that “if future generations read the minutes of these meetings, and saw how close we had come but how we did not use these opportunities, they would never forgive us.” But the agreement is not to be.
Participants' Reactions - As Shultz later says, “Reykjavik was too bold for the world.” Shultz tells reporters that he is “deeply disappointed” in the results, and no longer sees “any prospect” for a third summit. Gorbachev tells reporters that Reagan’s insistence on retaining SDI had “frustrated and scuttled” the opportunity for an agreement. Gorbachev says he told Reagan that the two countries “were missing a historic chance. Never had our positions been so close together.” Reagan says as he is leaving Iceland that “though we put on the table the most far-reaching arms control proposal in history, the general secretary [Gorbachev] rejected it.” Scoblic will later write, “In the end, ironically, it was Reagan’s utopianism, hitched as it was to a missile shield, that preserved the status quo.” [Washington Post, 10/13/1986; Scoblic, 2008, pp. 140-142]
Hardline Sabotage - One element that contributes to the failure of the negotiations is the efforts to undermine the talks by hardline advisers Richard Perle and Ken Adelman, who tell Reagan that confining SDI to research facilities would destroy the program. Perle and Adelman are lying, but Reagan, not knowing any better, believes them, and insists that SDI remain in development. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 143-144]
Going Too Far? - Reagan’s negotiators, even the most ardent proponents of nuclear reduction, are shocked that he almost agreed to give up the US’s entire nuclear arsenal—with Shultz’s encouragement. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand are horrified at the prospect, given that NATO’s nuclear arsenal in Europe is the only real counterweight to the huge Red Army so close to the borders of Western European nations. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 140-142]
Failure of Trust - The US-Soviet talks may well have foundered on an inability of either side to trust the other one to the extent necessary to implement the agreements. During the talks, Soviet aide Gyorgy Arbatov tells US negotiator Paul Nitze that the proposals would require “an exceptional level of trust.” Therefore, Arbatov says, “we cannot accept your position.” [National Security Archives, 3/12/2008]
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