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‘There was an outpouring of respect for us then, but not today’ A Soviet diplomat who helped negotiate the INF Treaty recalls how it came together in 1987 and what U.S. withdrawal means today

Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, December 8, 1987
Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, December 8, 1987
Peter Heimsath / REX / Vida Press

Donald Trump has announced that the United States will withdraw from the the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed in December 1987 by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The agreement heralded an end to the Cold War’s arms race and dramatically reduced the threat of nuclear armageddon. To learn how the deal came together more than 30 years ago, Meduza special correspondent Evgeny Berg spoke to Viktor Mizin, a weapons expert and former Soviet diplomat who helped draft the treaty. Mizin shared his thoughts about the peace negotiations and the dangers of “fanatical militarism.”

How did the INF Treaty negotiations get started on your end?

The first time Ambassador [Maynard] Glitman, who led the American delegation, invited us to his villa outside Geneva [where the negotiations took place] was in 1985, and he brought us down to his wine cellar. I joked then about how nice it was to have Russians and Americans together in one bunker, and I said it wouldn't be the last time, God willing. The [negotiations] process continued until 1987, and people practically lived there for months at a time. I was also there full-time, starting in 1986.

What was miraculous was the mood. Today, things have nearly gotten to a repeat of the Cold War, but back then — despite the fact that until just recently we’d been the “evil empire” to Reagan — relations were generally very friendly. I’m still friends with many of these people. It was important for us to show that we didn't have tails or something, and that we were representatives of a very powerful and old civilization. That’s why we had to be in constant contact, attending the theater and concerts together.

What did you do there?

I was a very young diplomat — 31 or 32 at the time — and I’d only just started working on arms control negotiations. We were all really trying to learn from our more experienced colleagues, who’d started back in the days of Molotov [the Soviet foreign minister who served during the Stalin and Khrushchev eras]. The Soviet school of diplomacy was, I suppose, the successor to the old Gorchakov school. Our leadership was made up of people who, for example, learned under [Soviet Foreign Minister from 1957 to 1985 Andrey] Gromyko, who in his day got the better of very experienced British diplomats. That’s why I’m still convinced that they were a lot better skilled [than now]. Classic diplomacy means playing along in some areas, to try to charm the other side, while planting your feet firmly on certain principles.

Personally, I was interested because I was young, I’d managed to get there, and I was hungry for more. No general would go to a restaurant without me. It enraged the other representatives of our delegation, because I was having lunch every day, accompanying our generals, who typically didn’t speak English.

And they sent you with them because you spoke good English?

Well, yes. And apparently because you’ve got to look after your generals. And there were also people from aerospace there. And they’d send me along because a general, like anybody, might get carried away, and you’d have to make sure he didn’t say too much [to the Americans].

American intelligence operatives were probably working overtime in the area?

Of course there were people [from the CIA]. They mostly avoided me, and it was our job to try to keep them away from the generals. This wasn’t too hard, because — and this is our curse — it was pretty difficult to find English-speaking officers in our delegation, and it was totally impossible to find any generals who knew the language. Also the generals preferred to talk to the people who could get down to business. Or they liked to remember various weapon deployments — that was their favorite thing. “That’s where we’d test it, and here’s where it went off!” they’d say.

On the American side, there were people from all different agencies. I can still remember one of them now: a professor at Georgetown University whom I still see regularly at conferences. He was from the CIA, though he wasn’t a recruit but an analyst on arms control. The negotiations were of course fascinating to him. Imagine it: you’re surrounded by a whole cast of Soviet generals — stars who participated in the development and deployment of various weapons systems. For example, there was a man who spent most of his life underground, in strategic missile control mines. Or the late [Rear] Admiral [Vyacheslav] Apanasenko, who probably spent more than 20 years on strategic submarines. Of course, it was also a discovery for the Americans that these weren’t bears playing balalaikas, but people who sometimes surpassed them professionally.

What prompted the idea to dismantle all land-based short-range (310–620 miles) and intermediate-range (620–3,420 miles) missiles?

It was clear that the RSD-10 Pioneer intermediate-range ballistic missiles were deployed [by the USSR in the mid-1970s] simply so the good technology wasn’t lost. These rockets were basically clones of their predecessor, which never flew very [successfully] and were removed from service. Deploying the Pioneer caused an uproar, of course, and the Americans responded with Pershing II ballistic missiles [deployed in Europe in the late 1970s]. [If launched], they would have reached Soviet command points inside eight minutes. That would have been virtually impossible to intercept! And somebody realized that these rockets had become redundant in terms of strategic deterrence, while posing an enormous threat.

A Pershing 1A missile, dismantled in accordance with the INF Treaty
A Pershing 1A missile, dismantled in accordance with the INF Treaty
Sven Simon / imago / Scanpix / LETA

After many years of stagnation, after [Communist Party General Secretary Yuri] Andropov, who was terrified of a surprise nuclear attack, and Soviet spies would circle the Pentagon at night, checking to see if the lights were on, and if the Americans were plotting their first strike — after all this, it became clear that we needed somehow to steer ourselves away from this situation and seek compromises. And then the decision to reject these missiles was the breakthrough.

Before Gorbachev, the Soviet position was roughly the same as Russia’s is today: nothing is under control until everything is under control — as if you have to solve everything all at once. This made any kind of progress impossible. I think Gorbachev — who’s now the Devil incarnate to conservatives in the military and politics — deserves credit for emphasizing the problem of short- and medium-range missiles out of everything else at the time.

I can imagine how you, as a young diplomat, would have supported the idea of partial disarmament, but did your older colleagues with you in the delegation share your enthusiasm for this initiative?

They were mostly between the ages of 45 and 50; they were also young ambassadors and young generals. These people got their start with the first negotiations for the partial test-ban treaties. These were the people with whom the partial [U.S.-Soviet] detente and the idea of peaceful coexistence began.

You mean, under Khrushchev?

Of course some of it got underway back under Khrushchev. [At the INF Treaty negotiations], there were three of Khrushchev's old translators, for instance. These people had spent their whole lives in Vienna, or in Geneva, or in New York. Of course, this changes you in certain ways: it makes you more open-minded. Back then, if a diplomat was put on one topic (let’s say disarmament), then it was his for his whole career. He’d start in the 1960s and stay with it until 1990. This was a specific caste; it was people sitting in one room who knew each other extremely well. And they made up the most progressive part of the Foreign Ministry. They might have even laughed at other [colleagues] and regional experts (especially from Asia or China).

You’ll have to forgive me, but there was also party politics at play: “We are for peace in the world” and whatnot. Disarmament was in vogue back then. It’s a dirty word now, because we’re supposed to arm ourselves, surrounded by enemies on all sides. Even “arms control” is a questionable phrase today. But it was fashionable back then! We showed the world that we were a decent country, and that we were interested in reducing the threat of war. But I’ll emphasize that this didn’t undermine our defensive capacity in any way. We didn’t disarm completely, after all. When the negotiations on arms reductions started in 1972, we were simultaneously in a mad race to achieve parity with the U.S. on all fronts, both strategic and non-strategic. For example, the Americans had three types of ground-based missiles, and we, well I don’t know exactly, had nearly 20 types, which says of course that some of them were not enormously reliable.

So I have no doubt that [the Soviet delegation in the INF Treaty talks] was made up of true patriots who did a lot to determine the course of Perestroika.

During the talks, how did the U.S. and USSR delegations get along?

There was great respect for the Soviet representatives. There was no contempt or condescension. Everyone knew there were professionals around that table, including military generals. You know, in the best sense of the word, it was kind of like a mafia, if you understand “mafia” as a kind of family. These were people who had been in negotiations with each other for many years.

The relationship wasn’t so much friendly as it was built on collegial respect. There were absolutely no insults exchanged — there wasn't even any snark. There was only a reasonable dialogue between people working toward the same goal. Nevertheless, you’re playing poker: you’ve got your position, and we’ve got ours. One side outmaneuvers the other, one side proves itself to be intellectually stronger, and one side finds the more elegant solution.

Unfortunately, the minutes of the meetings where decisions were made and positions were worked out remain classified to this day. If you could see them, however, they’d make for a fascinating read, like a novel — like the recently published conversations between Yeltsin and Clinton.

The human side of communications between diplomats would probably be more discernible.

The human side and a lot of ingenuity. Your position doesn’t change, after all, and you’ve got to keep hammering it home. It’s like an aqyn [an improvising singing poet in Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures]: it’s all the same song, but you’ve got to sing it in different ways. It’s like a form of high art.

Understandably, when people spend 10 months out of the year [in Geneva] for many years… There was a pretty good joke back then: people said the negotiators would have resolved everything in a week, if the talks had been held in Murmansk.

I’m interested to know what you did in your spare time in Geneva.

Imagine this: In the corner [of the Soviet delegation’s building], there was a lone bottle of Campari for the Americans. And the party secretary would tell everyone, “Come near this bottle and things will go very badly for you.” But then you get in the car, drive literally a thousand feet to the American mission, and they’re practically swimming in whiskey. It’s not easy to get through to Russians, especially Soviet generals, but I remember how one American translator got drunk before running out into the courtyard, getting into a car, and then started riding around, dinging other cars. A marine goes out there, drags him from the vehicle, decks him, and then leads him away. It was very funny.

All this was during the fight against alcoholism [in the USSR], and booze — beloved by all diplomats — had also stopped then. These were the worst years of the fight against drinking. One morning, I popped out to the store to buy some bread, and I saw this KGB colonel (he’s probably a retired general by now), and he was looking at the bottles of gin, trying to find the cheapest one. Wise young man that I was, I walk up to him from behind and say, “Good morning!” Bang! The bottle in his hands slips and smashes all over the floor. That’s how scared he was. There was also grotto [in the Soviet delegation’s building], and they served beer, but we only drank Sprite. And then one day this person — some top-ranking official — couldn’t resist, and he says, “Enough. Let them kick me out of the party for this, but I’m drinking a beer today.” And from then on we at least started drinking beer. It’s a joke today, of course, but back then [the party line was that] a Communist who drinks even beer was violating the party’s policy.

But what if the Americans offered? You couldn’t just refuse.

When we went to restaurants, we drank wine, which for Soviet generals was like nectar from the gods. But we had juice at receptions. Back then, we didn’t like going to the Arab and Iranian embassies, but we enjoyed visiting our North Korean and Polish friends.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at negotiations in Geneva, 1986
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at negotiations in Geneva, 1986
World History Archive / TopFoto / Scanpix / LETA

How did you prepare for the meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev?

We were very nervous. We put together [Reagan’s] whole biography: who he was, where he was from, what he liked. I think they did the same thing for Gorbachev. But you see there was chemistry, and today I don’t see anything like it.

Chemistry between Reagan and Gorbachev?

Yes. Like there was, for example, between Obama and Medvedev, or now, how Trump and Putin, it seems to me, have found a common language. It’s a huge deal when you establish personal relationships.

How did the chemistry between Reagan and Gorbachev come together?

They showed each other great respect, they were always joking, and, shall we say, unlike the next president, Gorbachev never abused strong drinks and was in control of himself the entire time. Plus, both sides had brilliant teams briefing them. There was a team of scholars for consultations for things like technical issues. And Gorbachev had a certain charm, at least back then, that made it impossible to turn him down.

Do you remember the day when Gorbachev and Reagan finally signed the agreement?

I remember that it took a long time to get it signed, and finally we really had to hustle, and people were working through the night in the end. What was it like on the day itself? There was a sense of joy — of relief. It was like being a design engineer and passing some kind of test. Like you designed an aircraft or something and it made it through trials. [Soviet rocket engineer Sergey] Korolev probably had the same feeling when Gagarin went up: “We did it, after all!” This might not be the right comparison, but maybe it was like giving birth to a child.

Did you celebrate together with your American colleagues?

No, well there was a reception, but we didn’t all go out [drinking] together. In subsequent years, we did, actually, but not then. [Signing the agreement] was a huge success. It was clear to everyone that a war in Europe would be (one) idiocy and (two) a total nightmare. In college, I did some military study, and we used to work with these maps. There was a big map of West Germany, and you’d attack here and here, and fire so many tactical nuclear weapons there and there. I had to run through all this, and show how it would work… But later I got to thinking: what would happen to Germany, if I launched all these strikes? The country would have simply ceased to be.

What do you think about the potential withdrawal of the U.S. from the INF Treaty?

For those who welcome the end of the treaty and say now [Russia’s] hands will be untied, I have the following message: any American missile systems deployed in Poland or the Baltic states will be able to reach their targets [in Russia] within three minutes. This is enormously dangerous. I spoke to some of my colleagues from Germany, and people there aren’t so much concerned as terrified. Because they understand that Europe will be the hostage in all this, all over again.

What colleagues did you talk to?

I spoke to diplomats, to people from the Bundestag, from the European Parliament and the European Commission, and with top NATO security experts — I just don’t want to name any names. One German diplomat told me: “Viktor, do you realize that your whole life has been a joke? It turns out that you devoted yourself to something that isn’t: arms control doesn’t exist.”

But I want to say that the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress isn’t the only one with a strong lobby that wants to scrap this treaty. We’ve got these lobbyists, too. I was at hearings with our deputies, where some hawkish military officials said the treaty was a mistake from the start — that all arms control is a mistake — and that we need these missiles deployed, because we’re surrounded by countries that have this class of weapon, in China, India, and the Middle East.

The last Soviet RSD-10 Pioneer missile, before being dismantled. Astrakhan region, Kapustin Yar site, May 12, 1991
The last Soviet RSD-10 Pioneer missile, before being dismantled. Astrakhan region, Kapustin Yar site, May 12, 1991
Mikhail Dyuryagin / TASS

What’s in it for them?

Money, for starters. Also, it’s the same logic that fueled the military’s thinking when it deployed the Pioneer missiles in the first place [in the mid-1970s]: “Yes, we’ve got strategic deterrence, but it would be nice to add to it, to have advantages at regional distances.” Although any reasonable defense specialist understands that these missiles are simply redundant, given the [nuclear] potential that already exists. There are also complaints here [in Russia] that the American missile-defense systems deployed in Romania [in 2016] and planned for Poland pose a threat to us. Yet, chief designer [Yuri] Solomonov [at the Moscow Heat Engineering Institute, which produces strategic and tactical missiles] has said repeatedly that there’s no threat, never mind what independent experts say.

But they don’t listen to him.

That’s right! Because this is a religion. It’s like a general on the General Staff once told me: “Well we can’t [backpedal] now, although we all understand.” Also, they see [the collapse of the INF Treaty] as a trump card and a way to put pressure on the Americans. It’s the same as when we say we’ll deploy our Iskanders somewhere in Kaliningrad to overwhelm the American missile-defense systems. It’s the same argument here: “We’ll show them, and then we’ll watch them tremble.”

What you’re describing sounds like some kind of fanatical militarism.

You think we’re short on fanatical militarism? Okay, it’s one thing to take pride in winning the [Second World] War, but we’ve got girl-journalists [sic] starting to say things like, “Oh my, look at that pretty Armata tank over there. I’m simply in love.” Of course, we’re militarizing propaganda in ways I haven’t seen for a long time (“We’re encircled by enemies”), and serious people (people in the Duma) are saying that NATO tanks are about to invade. Yeah, guys, everyone in those tanks is suicidal. They’ll start rolling in, just to get melted in a nuclear strike.

In the 1980s, during the negotiations, it was another story?

There’s a reason I was telling you earlier about the generation of people brought up on these [arms control] talks, which lasted a whole decade. This was an entire generation of brilliant diplomats, soldiers, and defense industry specialists. It’s no coincidence that most competent people around then were the ones who participated in all these negotiations: Lieutenant General [Viktor] Esin, Brigadier General [Pavel] Zolotarev. We don’t have anyone like them now. Both here and in America, there’s been a collapse of institutional memory, and no one remembers what happened at these negotiations, and there’s nobody who has the same negotiating skills. Second, we’re absolutely failing to raise the next generation. At the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, for example, I’ve been trying to do a lecture course on arms control, but it hasn’t come together, even though the students say they’re interested.

You know, when that German told me recently that my life has been for nothing, I disagreed. There will be a lot of criticism, and on TV they’re already [saying] that we need to deploy [short- and intermediate-range missiles], but no: this treaty saved us money, and most importantly it showed that we were a country that cared about stability and predictability. There was an outpouring of respect for us, which we aren’t seeing today in bilateral relations, unfortunately.

Interview by Evgeny Berg, translation by Kevin Rothrock