Primary Sources

National Intelligence Council Memorandum, Status of Soviet Unilateral Withdrawals


In December 1988, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 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. Even with the proposed cutbacks, Soviet conventional forces in Europe (CFE) would exceed NATO’s, however. As President George H. W. Bush took office in January 1989, some in his administration doubted the Soviet leader’s sincerity, believing he was scheming to divide the US from NATO allies such as West Germany by encouraging their people’s support for reductions in short-range nuclear forces (SNF), which the Bush administration wanted to upgrade as part of their deterrence strategy. Negotiations between NATO and Warsaw Pact member states to reduce CFE began in March. During a Moscow meeting with Secretary of State James Baker in May, Gorbachev indicated that the Warsaw Pact would propose more substantial CFE cuts and announced unilateral reductions in SNF, thereby scoring a public relations coup. Baker realized that further reductions in conventional forces would nullify the immediate need to modernize the short-range missiles. To gain leadership over the negotiation process, Bush announced the first significant initiative of his presidency later that month at a NATO summit in Brussels: a proposal to cut conventional arms by both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and overall cuts in both US and Soviet military personnel in Europe. The following intelligence report accessing the state of Soviet military withdrawals validated the views of those in the Bush administration who believed that Gorbachev was committed to real change, but also gave pause to others who argued for making cuts in U.S. defense, citing the report’s warning that although the Soviets were reducing forces, they also were “restructuring” to produce a smaller, but more effective and modern force.


National Intelligence Council, "National Intelligence Council Memorandum, Status of Soviet Unilateral Withdrawals," October 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

- Soviet reductions in Eastern Europe are proceeding in a manner consistent with Gorbachev's commitment; they will result in a significant reduction in the combat capability of Soviet forces in Eastern Europe.

- Current Soviet activities comprise four simultaneous processes: withdrawal, reduction, restructuring, and modernization.

- In Eastern Europe the Soviets, at roughly halfway through the period, have withdrawn about 50 percent of the equipment and units promised. . . .

- Soviet restructuring and modernization activities will produce a smaller, more versatile, standing force optimized for defense, but still capable of smaller scale offensive operations.

Discussion . . .

We have reached two bottom-line judgments. First, we believe that the Soviet withdrawal is real and that it will result in a reduction in the combat capability of the remaining Soviet forces in Eastern Europe; second, all of the changes we are seeing, and those we anticipate, are consistent with our understanding of General Secretary Gorbachev's policy objectives reducing Western perceptions of the Warsaw Pact threat, inducing a relaxation in NATO's defense efforts, achieving an agreement on Conventional Forces in Europe {CFE), and lowering the defense economic burden on the USSR. . . .

The Soviets are beginning to acknowledge deviations from some of their statements, but they have still not been entirely forthright about some of the consequences, notably:

- That the artillery in the remaining divisions is being increased by the addition of one artillery battalion in tank divisions and that artillery battalions in divisions are being expanded from 18 to 24 guns.

- That the restructuring of the remaining divisions may eventually require the introduction of some 2,000 additional armored troop carriers. . . .

The character of the restructured residual force, therefore, is a major question. To discuss that force, however, requires some explanation of the overall Soviet motivation for the process. We believe that the ongoing unilateral reductions and restructuring are intended largely to foster a perception of reduced threat in the West and to maintain the momentum toward a CFE agreement that would allow Gorbachev to reduce his forces further, reap potential economic benefits, and simultaneously reduce NATO force capability. We believe the Soviets remain committed to this end game and will not jeopardize it in an effort to obtain short-term military advantages that almost certainly would be quickly discovered by the West. . . .

How to Cite this Source

National Intelligence Council, "National Intelligence Council Memorandum, Status of Soviet Unilateral Withdrawals," Making the History of 1989, Item #418, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:24 pm).

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