The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War

By Raymond L. Garthoff | Go to book overview

2 The Response of the Brezhnev Regime, 1981-82

SOVIET POLICY in the world was always much more reactive and responsive than has generally been recognized in the West. During the 1970s the USSR did also show initiative in building détente with the United States and in pursuing efforts to expand its influence and presence in the Third World. In the first half of the 1980s, however, for several reasons, Soviet policy became even more reactive. One reason was the nature of changes in American policy and in the world. The American abandonment of détente left the Soviet Union little choice in its relations with the United States but to respond to a new American challenge, one perceived not only to include an intensified arms race and geopolitical containment but also to go beyond that into confrontation and a crusade directed at the very legitimacy and existence of the Soviet system and communist rule. At the same time, not only were there no new attractive opportunities in the Third World, but the Soviet Union was overextended in involvements in Africa and Asia, particularly by its commitment in Afghanistan, and economically in Cuba and Vietnam. Of at least equal importance, the Soviet Union throughout the first half of the decade was beset by internal challenges to the stability of the Soviet bloc by developments in Poland, persisting economic problems at home, and finally by the unsettled state of the Soviet leadership itself. The Soviet leader, President and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid 1. Brezhnev, had been seriously ailing ever since the mid-1970s, and by 1981-82 at age 75 was barely able to function as even the nominal head of a small group of aging leaders. This situation had a very negative effect on policy, dampening any possibility for policy initiative or even effective reaction. In these declining years of Brezhnev's rule, continuing under the succeeding transitional leaderships headed by Yury V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chemenko, and throughout the final years of a new reformational leadership under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Soviet attention was absorbed by the internal political situation.

Reactive tendencies were intensified in 1980 as the détente of the 1970s with the United States collapsed. While a policy of waiting to see what

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