Commentary on Transcript of Brezhnev-Dubcek Telephone

Conversation of 13 August 1981

by Mark Kramer

 

This transcript of Leonid Brezhnev's telephone conversation with Alexander Dubcek on 13 August 1968 was declassified and released from the Russian Presidential Archive in April 1994 in connection with an international conference on the 1968 crisis held in Prague. It is one of nine documents presented at that time by the head of the Russian Archival Service, Rudol'f Pikhoya, to Czech President Vaclav Havel.

The transcript of the 13 August conversation was apparently based on tapes from a recording system operated by the KGB for top Soviet officials to enable them to keep track of important telephone calls. The conversation was transcribed verbatim except for about a half dozen places where the transcriber briefly summarized comments by Dubcek. These insertions have been marked by brackets in the text.

It is instructive to compare this conversation with the briefer and more cordial discussion that Brezhnev and Dubcek had four days earlier, on 9 August. On the 13th, Brezhnev was far more aggressive and belligerent, repeatedly accusing Dubcek of "outright deceit" and of "blatantly sabotaging the agreements reached at Cierna and Bratislava." Although Brezhnev, as usual, made no direct threats of military intervention, he offered a number of oblique warnings about "the emergence of an entirely new situation," which was "forcing [the Soviet Union] to consider new, independent measures that would defend both the KSC and the cause of socialism in Czechoslovakia." Brezhnev had not yet totally given up on Dubcek -- as is evident from his repeated efforts to spur the KSC First Secretary into action -- but the Soviet leader's impatient and accusatory tone was a clear sign, in retrospect, of how little time remained.

Dubcek, for his part, was more defensive and irritable in this conversation than he had been earlier, but that was hardly surprising in light of the pressure he was under. Dubcek had just finished seeing off Ulbricht, whose visit had come as an unpleasant surprise to the KSC leadership. The phone call from Brezhnev reinforced Dubcek's sense that, as he put it, he was "under constant attack." Although Dubcek initially tried to contain his irritation, he gradually lost his composure in the face of Brezhnev's angry reproaches. Midway through the conversation, Dubcek suddenly announced that he was considering stepping down as KSC First Secretary; and, with obvious exasperation, he said to Brezhnev that "if you [on the Soviet Politburo] believe we're deceiving you, you should take the measures you regard as appropriate. That's your affair." Brezhnev evidently was surprised by both these statements, as he urged Dubcek to calm down and said it would be preferable if the KSC itself adopted measures that would render Soviet action unnecessary. The flustered tone of Dubcek's remarks is consistent with other evidence that has recently come to light, which indicates that the KSC leader by mid-August was beginning to succumb to Moscow's relentless pressure. If Brezhnev and his colleagues had been willing to hold off a week or two longer, Dubcek might have adopted at least some of the steps they had been demanding. Whether that would have been enough to allay Soviet concerns and forestall an invasion is of course a different matter. Even if Brezhnev had believed that Dubcek would be willing to comply with most Soviet demands -- and it is doubtful that Brezhnev believed anything of the sort after the telephone conversation on the 13th -- there was a growing consensus in Moscow that events in Czechoslovakia could not be turned around without direct Soviet intervention. That consensus was bound to gain even greater impetus from Dubcek's comments on the phone.

To make matters worse, some of Dubcek's remarks, especially his insistence that Soviet leaders should "adopt whatever measures you believe are necessary," may have been construed by Brezhnev as a tacit green light for military intervention. Brezhnev warned Dubcek that the Soviet Politburo would "indeed be adopting the measures we believe are appropriate," and he noted that "such measures would be easier for us to adopt if you and your comrades would more openly say that these are the measures you're expecting of us." Dubcek's response to this warning -- to wit, that "we [in Prague] are able to resolve all these matters on our own, but if you believe it is necessary for you to adopt certain measures, then by all means go ahead" -- must have seemed to Brezhnev like a further hint that Dubcek would acquiesce, if only grudgingly, in Soviet military action. Clearly, this was not the impression that Dubcek had wanted to convey, but a miscommunication in such circumstances would hardly be unusual. Thus, the phone call on the 13th may have ended up worsening the situation not only by reinforcing Brezhnev's belief that Dubcek would not "fulfill his obligations" if left to his own devices, but also by prompting Brezhnev to conclude that Dubcek and perhaps other top KSC officials had now resigned themselves to the prospect of Soviet military intervention.

Quite apart from the substance of what the two leaders discussed, the transcript of the phone conversation sheds valuable light, albeit indirectly, on the way Soviet decisions were made between the 7th and 14th of August, in the leadup to the climactic Politburo meeting. The three top Soviet officials -- Brezhnev, Podgornyi, and Kosygin -- were all in the Crimea between the 7th and 14th, and most of the other members of the CPSU Politburo also were on vacation during that time; yet Brezhnev noted at the start of the conversation with Dubcek that "the CPSU CC Politburo" had recently "exchanged views" about the situation in Czechoslovakia and had "unanimously concluded" that Dubcek was not living up to his obligations. Later on in the conversation, Brezhnev informed Dubcek that "the entire Politburo instructed me to speak with you" (emphasis added). It would have been impossible for the "entire Politburo" to have been meeting or "exchanging views" at this time, unless some of the members were participating by phone (either during the session or by being consulted afterwards). What seems more likely is that a core of senior members of the Politburo -- Brezhnev, Podgornyi, Kosygin, and perhaps one or two others -- were meeting in the Crimea on behalf of the "entire Politburo." They undoubtedly received authority to do so at the session of the full CPSU Politburo on 6 August. Until another session of the Politburo could be convened in Moscow to reach a final decision about the invasion (as was done on 15-17 August), the three top leaders would have been entitled to act temporarily in the name of the "entire Politburo." Such an arrangement would explain how "the Politburo" was able to continue issuing instructions between the 7th and 14th of August (see the Politburo directives in Documents No. 91, 93, and 95). Brezhnev, Podgornyi, and Kosygin were the ones transmitting these orders, just as they were the ones responsible for the phone calls to Dubcek on both the 9th and the 13th.

At the end of the conversation, Brezhnev and Dubcek explicitly agreed that they would speak again when the KSC CC Presidium was done with its meeting. It is not clear whether a follow-up conversation did in fact occur. Janos Kadar's report of his meeting with Brezhnev, Podgornyi, and Kosygin in Crimea indicates that Soviet leaders promptly learned what went on at the KSC Presidium meeting, but it is not clear whether they found this out from Dubcek or from members of the "healthy forces." In any event, if a follow-up conversation did take place, the transcript from it is not yet available.