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Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
    << Back to Soviet Union (former) Government

    A central concern of Soviet foreign and military policy since World War II, relations with the United States have gone through cycles of "cold" and "warm" periods. A crucial factor in SovietAmerican relations has been the mutual nuclear threat (see The Soviet Union and Nuclear Arms Control , this ch.). A high point in Soviet-American relations occurred when the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks ( SALT; see Glossary) resulted in the May 1972 signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on the limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms. This event marked the beginning of the beginning of Soviet-American détente.

    The Soviet Union and the United States differed over the meaning of the détente relationship. In the West, détente has usually been considered to mean a nonhostile, even harmonious, relationship. The Soviet Union, however, has preferred the terms mirnoe sosushchestvovanie (peaceful coexistence) or razriadka napriazhennosti (a discharging or easing of tensions) instead of the term détente. Brezhnev explained the Soviet perception of the détente relationship at the 1976 and 1981 CPSU party congresses, asserting that détente did not mean that the Soviet Union would cease to support Third World national liberation movements or the world class struggle. In the Soviet view, détente with the West was compatible with sponsoring Cuban intervention in the Third World. However, Soviet-sponsored intervention in the Third World met with growing protest from the United States. The détente relationship conclusively ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

    Following the Soviet invasion, the United States instigated a number of trade sanctions against the Soviet Union, including an embargo on grain shipments to the Soviet Union, the cancellation of American participation in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and the shelving of efforts to win ratification in the United States Senate of the Second SALT agreement. In April 1981, under the new administration of President Ronald Reagan, the United States announced the lifting of the grain embargo but also moved to tighten procedures concerning the export of strategically sensitive technology to the Soviet Union. As part of this effort to limit such exports, the Reagan administration in 1982 unsuccessfully attempted to convince West European governments to block the sale of American-developed technology for the construction of Soviet natural gas pipelines. A freeze on cultural exchanges that had developed after the invasion of Afghanistan continued during Reagan's first term in office.

    The Soviet Union began deploying SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads along its western and southeastern borders in 1977. The United States and its NATO allies regarded this deployment as destabilizing to the nuclear balance in Europe, and in December 1979 NATO decided to counter with the deployment of Pershing II intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), both equipped with nuclear warheads. In November 1981, Reagan proposed the "zero option" as the solution to the nuclear imbalance in Western Europe. Basically, the zero option included the elimination of SS-20s and other missiles targeted against Western Europe and the nondeployment of countervailing NATO weapons. The Soviet Union refused to accept the zero option and insisted that French and British nuclear forces be included in the reckoning of the balance of nuclear forces in Europe and in any agreement on reductions of nuclear forces. Feeling forced to match the Soviet nuclear threat, NATO began countervailing deployments in late 1983. As the deployment date neared, the Soviet Union threatened to deploy additional nuclear weapons targeted on Western Europe and weapons that would place the territory of the United States under threat. Also, Soviet negotiators walked out of talks on the reduction of intermediate-range nuclear forces (the INF talks) and strategic forces (the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START). The refusal to come back to the negotiating table continued after General Secretary Iurii V. Andropov's death and Konstantin V. Chernenko's selection as general secretary in early 1984. The Soviet Union finally agreed to resume the INF and START talks around the time of Chernenko's death and Gorbachev's selection as general secretary in March 1985. Progress was then made on the revamped INF talks. In 1987 the Soviet Union acceded to the zero option, which involved the elimination of NATO Pershing IIs and GLCMs targeted against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and Soviet missiles targeted against Western Europe and Asia. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) was signed in Washington on December 8, 1987, during a summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev.

    Between November 1982 and March 1985, the Soviet Union had four general secretaries (Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev) while the United States had a single chief executive. The changes of leadership in the Soviet Union had a noticeable effect on Soviet-American relations. Until Gorbachev assumed power and partially consolidated his rule by 1986, the frequent changes in Soviet leadership resulted in the continuation of policies formulated during the late Brezhnev period. Soviet foreign policy toward the United States during this period increasingly took the form of vituperative propaganda attacks on Reagan, who, it was alleged, was personally responsible for derailing Soviet-American détente and increasing the danger of nuclear war. The low point in Soviet-American relations occurred in March 1983, when Reagan described the Soviet Union as an "evil empire . . . the focus of evil in the modern world," and Soviet spokesmen responded by attacking Reagan's "bellicose, lunatic anticommunism." The Soviet shoot-down of a civilian South Korean airliner in September 1983 near the Soviet island of Sakhalin shocked world public opinion and militated against any improvement in Soviet-American relations at that time. In 1983 the United States was increasingly concerned about Soviet activities in Grenada, finally directing the military operation in October 1983 that was denounced by the Soviet Union. In November 1983, the Soviet negotiators walked out of the arms control talks.

    In August 1985, Gorbachev declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing. The United States, in the midst of a nuclear warhead modernization program, refused to go along with the moratorium. Some Western analysts viewed Gorbachev's unilateral moratorium as a Soviet attempt to delay weapons modernization in the United States and, in the event that the United States refused to abide by the moratorium even unofficially, an attempt to depict the United States and the Reagan administration as militaristic. The Soviet Union ended the moratorium with an underground nuclear test in February 1987.

    A general improvement in Soviet-American relations began soon after Gorbachev was selected general secretary in March 1985. Annual summit meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev were held at Geneva (November 1985); Reykjavik (October 1986); Washington (December 1987); and Moscow (May 1988). At the Geneva summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in November 1985, a new general cultural agreement was signed that involved exchanges of performing arts groups and fine arts and educational exhibits. At the Reykjavik summit, some progress was made in strategic arms reductions negotiations, although no agreements were reached. At the Washington summit, the INF Treaty was signed. At the Moscow summit, an agreement increasing the level and type of educational exchanges was signed. Although no major arms control agreements were signed during the Moscow summit, the summit was significant because it demonstrated a commitment by both sides to a renewed détente.

    During the mid- to late 1980s, the Soviet Union also stepped up media contacts. Soviet spokesmen appeared regularly on United States television, United States journalists were allowed unprecedented access to report on everyday life in the Soviet Union, and video conferences (termed "tele-bridges") were held between various United States groups and selected Soviet citizens.

    Data as of May 1989

    NOTE: The information regarding Soviet Union (former) on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Soviet Union (former) SOVIET-UNITED STATES RELATIONS information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Soviet Union (former) SOVIET-UNITED STATES RELATIONS should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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