Negotiating With the Soviets
Cold War Lessons on the Russians Being “More Equal”
By Former Ambassador and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Edward L. Rowny
There may be news outlets that believe they have Russia’s meddling and motives pegged as it relates to the U.S., but having negotiated with the Soviets on behalf of five U.S. presidents, I would wager that reporters have gauged but a small fraction of behind-the-scenes activities. I can shed some light on the mindset with which the Russians approach dealings with the U.S., having spent decades negotiating strategic arms reduction agreements with the Soviets and, eventually, nuclear disarmament. President Reagan told me he heard the Russians were “difficult,” but as I said to him, that hardly begins to describe their techniques for twisting and circumventing the rules. I long wondered if it was possible to reach satisfactory agreements with them.
My work at the negotiating table began under President Nixon. Early in my first round of negotiating, it became clear to me that we were a B-team up against professionals. We were the minor-leaguers from Gaithersburg, Maryland to their Yankees. Soviet negotiators were required to pass a stiff course of training prior to negotiating. They were taught English. They studied U.S. history and culture for clues as to how best to defeat us in negotiations, going so far as to read "Treasure Island" and “Huckleberry Finn" as well as books providing insight into our national character such as DeToquelle's "The American People."
In contrast, the U.S. saw no special talent required of its negotiators. I was the only one among six team members that spoke Russian. And while several on our team had read translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, none other than me delved into the seminal book by Tibor Szamuely, The Russian Tradition, that provides a comprehensive understanding of the Russian culture and mindset.
The Soviet negotiators played with semantic infiltration, learning from Lenin's writings that they could achieve an advantage by adopting our terms such as "freedom" and "democracy.” These terms had entirely different meanings to the Russians, but by using the expressions, they lulled opponents into believing they were collectively in agreement. The Russians also claimed that they were true democrats because 100 percent of their citizens went to the polls, while only 40 percent of Americans voted. They expressed no hint of humor when proudly backing up that fact by noting that “100 percent of our voters pick the same candidate.” Their semantics extended to their descriptions of other states, such as using our terms to describe East Germany as the German Democratic Republic. It was neither democratic nor a republic.
In early negotiations, the Soviets asked me to agree to each negotiator having equal time to present his position. I agreed, and the Soviets produced a timer us`ed in chess matches to grant players equal time. They timed my argument. Then one of their military leaders, General Trusov, set the timer in motion to speak an equal length of time. When he finished, a second military leader, General Bieletsky, set the timer for the same number of minutes. I cried "Foul!" saying that the Soviets already had equal time. They replied that I had agreed on equal time for each negotiator and since my military leadership of the U.S. team had to be matched by two military leaders on their side, each was entitled to speak an equal amount of time. It taught me a lesson: be careful of the fine print since the Soviets used literal interpretations to defend their positions and gain advantages.
They also paid great attention to the agenda, believing that by loading it with their items, they could gain a negotiating advantage. Not wishing to waste time with trivial matters on the agenda, we often gave in, losing out in the process. Even when we agreed to discuss certain matters, the Soviets would continually revert to their favorite subjects, repeating their rote lines to detract from our matters of focus. Still, they showed little genuine initiative, instead relying on the U.S. to ask questions. In answer, they would turn to responses noted on three-by-five cards that had been pre-approved by Moscow. If they lacked the answer to a question, they would read us one of their prepared answers to a different question. When we said, "You didn't answer our question," they would say wryly, showing no sense of humor, "You didn't ask the right question." In truth, the Soviets showed little flexibility and had no authority for open discussions. Any proposition of ours needed forwarding to Moscow for a reply.
Not surprisingly the Soviets were very secretive, but they took secrecy to an extreme. They not only kept information from us but from one another. Civilian members of the negotiating team, including the chief, did not even know the names of Soviet missiles, let alone how many they possessed. When listing their systems, they would say, "The USSR has, according to the United States, 1,300 missiles that the U.S. calls SS-17 but no strategic bombers." Referring to our side, they would use the names and numbers we gave them, reciting back our cited positions such as, "The United States has 1,000 Minuteman Missiles and 250 B-54 bombers." I discovered that the Soviets were even secretive about their own families. At a cocktail party one evening, I attempted to practice my Russian, approaching a group of Soviet women to converse. When I asked one how many children she had, she grew pale and approached her KGB monitor. I overheard her asking, “Can I tell him how many children I have?"
The U.S. tended toward openness, showing what cards we had on the table, while the Soviets kept their face down. They were especially bent on maintaining a closed society when it came to arms. I invited them to come look at our missile sites and even our missiles. "No," they replied. "If we conduct inspections in the United States, you will want to reciprocate by conducting inspections in the Soviet Union." The Russians could not afford to take that chance. They would not permit us any on-site inspections in Russia saying instead that, "We trust you and therefore you should trust us." This lack of access pertained not only to missile sites but the missiles themselves. For example, we detected that some Soviet missiles, which were thought comparable to ours when discussing mutual reductions, actually contained multiple warheads to our one warhead. We were forced to rely on high-level photography to uncover that fact rather than inspections, discerning the discrepancy given the different coverings required of multiple warheads. At the time, I was Chief Negotiator for Nuclear Disarmament under President Reagan and convinced the president that verification was important. I taught him to say in Russian, "Doveria no proveria," i.e., “Trust but verify.” The president vigorously adopted that policy.
Through these many maneuverings, the Russians showed great patience at the negotiating table, believing that by repeating the same thing over and over, we would begin to believe it was true. They learned from Madison Avenue advertisements that Wheaties supposedly make you strong, but they were willing to debunk that myth by wearing us out, figuring that we would get tired and give in. They even resorted to wearing diapers at negotiations, so they did not have to take comfort breaks.
I remember during earlier negotiations when President Carter insisted that we treat the Russians as Christians, to which I replied, “But they’re not Christians.” In fact, I had a summary produced for the Joint Chiefs of Staff that summarized Szamuely’s key reflections on Russian social and political institutions and their traditions, habits and attitudes, to shed light on approaches to negotiating with them. That memorandum noted the following:
“Every country of modern Europe either was at one time a province of the Roman Empire or received its religion from Rome. Russia is the sole exception. Russia is the only country of geographical Europe that owed virtually nothing to the common cultural and spiritual heritage of the West … Russia’s heritage has been fundamentally divorced from the West.”
The memorandum also pointed out that any façade of “Westernism” by the Russians was largely a veneer. Its geographical position and 250 years of Mongol domination had created an autocratic Russian State bent toward a policy of expansion, on the one hand, and a “near paranoid concern for defense of the homeland, on the other.” While that Russian mindset undoubtedly influenced deliberations, I was not deceived by the Russian fear of being invaded. Granted, their state had suffered invasions, but in 1898 the Russian general staff concluded that of the 38 major wars in which Russia had been involved, 36 were offensive and only two defensive.
The Russians also tended to follow the maxim that ''What’s mine is mine; what’s yours is negotiable,” or lifting from a George Orwell quote, “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others." That was the viewpoint of the Russians, which I saw up close. I had invited the Russian negotiating team and their wives to join the U.S. team on a boat ride on Lake Geneva to break the monotony of our long, boring lunches. They arrived promptly at the appointed hour, but without their wives or secretaries. "All our ladies had headaches today," said the Soviet chief, Minister Semenov.
As our boat ride began, the Soviets all huddled together on one side of the boat instead of mingling. Trying to ease the atmosphere, I went to the microphone and, taking out my harmonica, played "Polushke Polle," a folk tune known to us as "Russian Sleigh Ride." Seeing that my counterparts were intrigued, I played a modern tune, "Moscow Nights," and the Russians all joined us in singing. I did not risk playing "Lara’s Theme" from Dr. Zhivago since it was forbidden music in the Soviet Union. I was emboldened, however, and played "Mi Communisti," a Soviet marching song that means "We are the Communists." At this, the Soviets joined us in a conga line, stomping around the boat.
When we finished, Minister Semenov removed his sailor cap and took up a collection of dollars, rubles and Swiss francs. He approached me with the full cap, saying "Feefty-feefty." I reached out for my portion, but he pulled back the cap and put all the money in his pocket. "You had the pleasure of playing,” he said with a straight face, “And I will have the pleasure of spending the money. Feefty-feefty."
This 50/50 viewpoint spilled over into arms negotiations, with the Russians believing they were entitled to more missile systems than the U.S. Even the chief Soviet negotiator considered himself more equal than his colleagues. While he took great pride in all members of his team, he was careful to point out that, “Only I am driven to work in a Mercedes."
Another example of the Soviets being more equal was when they brought eight men to the negotiating table – one negotiator and seven delegates – while we had only six delegates, which is why I ended up with two Russians paired against me. One would hit me high and the other low. When I later became chief negotiator, I made the Soviets agree to only seven members on each team, yet still, they showed up with eight. When I objected, they said Moscow insisted on needing all eight on their side. I called a recess, summoned one of my senior advisors and made him a delegate. We reconvened, equally matched. My Soviet counterpart said, ''You can't blame us for trying.''
When it came to women, Soviet leadership did not believe females were capable of learning about weapons systems or how to negotiate, hence the reason that the Soviet negotiating team was exclusively male. In my fourth round of negotiating with them, however, I was assigned a female Navy captain, Captain Wylie, who was an expert on submarine-fired ballistic missiles. When I brought her to a meeting my counterpart, Viktor Karpov, called for a break. Taking me aside, he said, "I am sorry you are sick."
"I feel fine," I replied. "What makes you think I’m sick?"
"Because," he said, "you brought a nurse in a white uniform."
In truth, by the end of the round, the Russians had grown to respect Captain Wylie, and at the end of the round, I toasted the captain, thanking her for her service. Taking her aside, I said to her, "I believe you’re probably going to write a book about your experiences at SALT II negotiations."
"Yes," she answered, "and I'm going to call it 'A Pinch of Salt.’"
It turns out my counterpart, Viktor Karpov, was well known for pinching attractive women such as Wylie.
Throughout these ups and downs with the Russians, I was labeled in the press as an "uncompromising Cold Warrior." That was fine with me, as I wholeheartedly agreed with President Reagan’s policy of peace through strength. When several cabinet members told the president that the U.S. could not afford a strategic arms buildup because the country was faced with double-digit inflation and unemployment, President Reagan replied, "My first responsibility as president is to preserve the security of the United States." Likewise, I sought to avoid any “provocative weakness” that would provide the Russians an opportunity to capitalize on an inferior position.
In pursuing that course, a particularly amusing incident took place during the president’s Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986. The Iceland summit was initially billed as a get-to-know-you meeting with the new general secretary of the USSR, but it surprisingly turned out to be a substantive meeting. Discussions were held at a historic farmhouse. The U.S., however, had not brought along the usual van in which we conducted our secret negotiations, and members of our team resorted to the small farmhouse bathroom where we could whisper and hope that our conversations were not picked up by the Soviets. The bathroom was so crowded at one point that two of my colleagues and I had to stand in the bathtub. President Reagan entered the bathroom, and seeing the bathtub taken, quipped "I'll take the throne."
Figuratively, the president did take the throne, making breakthroughs at that summit that would lead to an agreement with the Soviets on the reduction of conventional arms. And of course, the Wall would fall three years later. When awarding me the Presidential Citizen Medal for my lengthy negotiating efforts to help end the Cold War, President Reagan noted me as being one of the chief architects of peace through strength. It had been a long road of negotiations over three decades, but in the end, the U.S. came out as more than equal to our Russian counterparts.
This article was written by Lt. Gen. Rowny in the weeks just prior to his death on December 17, 2017, at age 100. General Rowny served as a special advisor to five U.S. presidents, and was the Chief Negotiator for Nuclear Disarmament under President Reagan, helping to end the Cold War “without a shot being fired,” as Gen. Rowny often said. He was Gen. MacArthur's spokesman during the Korean War and helped plan the Inchon invasion that saved South Korea from domination by the North. He was the first to bring the concept of helicopter air mobility to Vietnam, helping to entirely change the face of modern warfare. Earlier, he commanded troops in Italy in WWII. He was awarded three silver stars, two Legions of Merit, and two Bronze Starts among other awards.
This article was written in collaboration with Anne Kazel-Wilcox, who co-authored with the general and PJ Wilcox, “West Point ’41: The Class That Went To War and Shaped America.” The book follows the West Point class of 1941, which was the last to graduate before the U.S. entered WWII, through three wars — WWII, Korea and Vietnam — as well as through the Cold War and periods of peacetime innovation. The book was written in collaboration with seven U.S. generals and other surviving members of the ’41 class.