Imbroglios of Convenience : If Summit Hopes Dim, Soviets Can--and Do--Milk a Crisis

<i> Adam B. Ulam is the Gurney Professor of History and Political Science and director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University</i>

The imbroglio caused by the arrest of an American correspondent in Moscow brings to mind what to most people in this country must now seem like ancient history: the U-2 episode in 1960.

To be sure, the facts in the two cases are quite dissimilar. Francis Gary Powers, who piloted the aircraft that was shot down deep in Soviet territory, was engaged in what by any definition was then espionage: photographing a secret Soviet installation from high altitude (now this is being done over both countries and much more accurately by satellites, but nobody raises a fuss about it). Nicholas Daniloff, the U.S. News & World Report correspondent, has to all appearances been a victim of KGB provocation.

But the political circumstances attending both affairs offer certain parallels. As is Mikhail S. Gorbachev today, Nikita S. Khrushchev was anticipating a summit meeting. Yet by the time Powers dropped in uninvited on Soviet soil, the Kremlin must have realized that the summit was unlikely to bring what the Soviets wanted: a German peace treaty in which the West would recognize the legitimacy of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). And so the U-2 episode provided Khrushchev with an excellent pretext to abort the summit meeting. He did go to Paris to meet President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as well as French President Charles de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, but only to rant and rave. The summit fizzled, and the Soviet leader added insult to histrionics by withdrawing his invitation for Eisenhower to visit the Soviet Union.

But the Soviets had also known about the U-2 flights for quite some time. Had the prospects of obtaining something tangible out of the Paris meeting been propitious, Khrushchev would undoubtedly have been able to control his indignation and could have refrained from breaking up the meeting.


When it suits its purposes, the Kremlin can put up with apparent blows to its prestige. This was vividly demonstrated in 1972 when President Richard M. Nixon was due to go to the Soviet Union to put the finishing touches on SALT I and other agreements ushering in detente. In the spring of that year North Vietnam had launched a major military effort against the south, and Nixon ordered stepped-up bombing of the north and the mining of its harbors. This must have appeared as an open challenge to Moscow: Its ally and protege was being devastated, and Soviet ships in Haiphong harbor were exposed to bombs and mines. Many in the West expected Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev to read the Americans a lesson and withdraw Nixon’s invitation. Nothing of the kind. This time the Soviets could expect concrete benefits from the summit meeting, and so the visit took place as scheduled. Amid much cordiality, the two sides sealed their rapprochement.

Now, as on the two previous occasions, the trouble that has been brought on by the Daniloff affair appears to put the prospects for a Soviet-American summit meeting in jeopardy. There is, however, this significant difference: Unlike 1960 and 1972, the two sides have not as yet fully committed themselves to a meeting between their chiefs of state. Indeed, Gorbachev has of late been implying that he sees no point in a summit meeting that, as of now, does not promise to be attended by a significant agreement touching on nuclear weapons. Those circumstances have led some American Kremlinologists to speculate that the arrest was part of the Kremlin’s gambit to avoid the summit for the time being, while putting the onus for its being aborted on the United States. Even more involved is another variant of the above: While Gorbachev himself is eager to improve Soviet-American relations, another faction in the Politburo--including the head of the KGB--is trying to sabotage his efforts.

Yet such speculations are rather far-fetched. It is much simpler to assume that the initial impulse to seize an American reporter was prompted by the KGB’s need to secure a hostage who could then be exchanged for the Soviet agent who was arrested shortly before in New York and charged with trying to obtain classified information.

Since what is elsewhere considered as workaday journalism (such as trying to find out how Soviet soldiers feel about serving in Afghanistan) is equated in the Soviet Union with criminal prying into state secrets, the KGB must feel that it can make an impressive case against Daniloff in open court. Then, after being sentenced, he would magnanimously be pardoned and expelled from the Soviet Union. By then, surely, the United States would not quibble about releasing the Soviet agent who had been caught red-handed.


Well, one can only hope that the above scenario is not going to be followed. It would be no disgrace, but quite the opposite, for the Kremlin to heed common sense, release an innocent man and thus avoid further damage to American-Soviet relations.