Primary Sources

CIA National Intelligence Estimate - Soviet Policy Towards the West: The Gorbachev Challenge


As President George H. W. Bush took office in January 1989, factions within his administration disagreed concerning the approach to take with regard to US-Soviet relations. In December 1988, Gorbachev had delivered what he called a “watershed” address at the United Nations, announcing that he planned unilaterally to reduce Soviet military forces by 500,000, cut conventional armaments massively, and withdraw substantial numbers of armaments and troops from Eastern European countries. Gorbachev had spoken of freedom, individual rights, and national self-determination, declaring that “the use of threat or force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy.” Some in the Bush administration advised that the US should support Gorbachev’s liberalization efforts, while others doubted the Soviet leader’s sincerity, believing he was scheming to divide the US from its NATO allies and that Soviet force remained a real threat. In February, Bush ordered a “strategic review” of foreign policy to help determine his own course. The following declassified intelligence report from April—one of three major reports that analyzed the shift in Soviet policy—may have been influential in the decision of the Bush administration to test Gorbachev’s rhetoric of reform, as indicated in the “Indicators” section at the conclusion of the excerpt. [note that the .pdf contains many charts and graphs not found in the full text listing below]


National Intelligence Council, "Soviet Policy Toward the West: The Gorbachev Challenge," 1 April 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Full Text

Key Judgments

Dramatic changes in approach to the West under Soviet leader Gorbachev are driven by economic and social decay at home, a widening technological gap with the West, and a growing realism about trends in the outside world. For the foreseeable future, the USSR will remain the West's principal adversary. But the process Gorbachev has set in motion is likely to change the nature of the Soviet challenge over the next five years or so:

- New Soviet policies will threaten the security consensus developed in the West to combat Soviet expansionism.

- The Soviets are likely to succeed to a degree in undercutting support abroad for defense programs and in reducing political barriers to Western participation in their economic development.

- At the same time new policies will make Moscow more flexible on regional issues and human rights and pave the way for a potentially significant reduction of the military threat.

- Alliance cohesion will decline faster in the Warsaw Pact than in NATO, giving the East Europeans much greater scope for change. . . .

Given the turmoil unleashed by the reform process, we cannot predict policy trends during the period of the Estimate with high confidence. Nevertheless, we believe that Gorbachev is likely to stay in power and that the reform effort is more likely than not to continue. . . .


There is general agreement in the Intelligence Community over the outlook for the next five to seven years, but differing views over the longer term prospects for fundamental and enduring change toward less competitive Soviet behavior:

- Some analysts see current policy changes as largely tactical, driven by the need for breathing space from the competition. They believe the ideological imperatives of Marxism-Leninism and its hostility toward capitalist countries are enduring. . . .

- Other analysts believe Gorbachev's policies reflect a fundamental rethinking of national interests and ideology as well as more tactical considerations. They argue that ideological tenets of Marxism-Leninism such as class conflict and capitalist-socialist enmity are being revised. . . . They judge that Gorbachev's changes are likely to have sufficient momentum to produce lasting shifts in Soviet behavior.


As evidence of Moscow's progress over the next two to three years toward fulfilling the promise of more responsible behavior, we will be watching for:

- Soviet acceptance of real liberalization in Eastern Europe.

- Full implementation of announced force reductions.

- A substantial conversion in the defense industry to production for the civilian economy.

We believe that, over the longer term, the most reliable guarantees of enduring change will be in the institutionalization of a more open society and relationship with the outside world . . .

How to Cite this Source

National Intelligence Council, "CIA National Intelligence Estimate - Soviet Policy Towards the West: The Gorbachev Challenge," Making the History of 1989, Item #349, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:24 pm).

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