According to internal Soviet Union documents from the SALT-2 negotiations in 1979, Joe Biden effectively told Soviet negotiators not to worry about American rhetoric about human-rights concerns. In fact, Biden also told the Soviets that the Senate didn’t really care about European security, but only in giving the appearance of caring about it. Vladimir Bukovsky and Pavel Stroilov parse the dispatch from the deputy head of the International Department of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for Front Page Magazine:
The delegation did not officially raise the issue of human rights during the negotiations. Biden said they did not want ‘to spoil the atmosphere with problems which are bound to cause distrust in our relations.’ However, during the breaks between the sessions the senators passed to us several letters concerning these or those ‘refuseniks’. …
Unofficially, Biden and [Senator Richard] Lugar said that, in the end of the day, they were not so much concerned with having a problem of this or that citizen solved as with showing to the American public that they do care for ‘human rights’. They must prove to their voters that they are ‘effective in fulfilling their wishes’. In other words, the collocutors directly admitted that what is happening is a kind of a show, that they absolutely do not care for the fate of most so-called dissidents.
In the same conversation, Biden asked us to ensure that senators’ appeals on those issues are not left unanswered – even if we just reply that the letter is received but we cannot do anything.
The “refuseniks” were Soviet Jews who had applied for exit visas to either Israel or the West, but got refused, usually for trumped-up charges. Many people may not recall that the Soviets didn’t allow people to leave their “workers paradise”, which meant that those wanting to leave had to defect while traveling on false pretenses or convince the Soviets that they’d be better off without them. The Soviets had continued the Russian tradition of persecution of Jews, and the “refuseniks” became a huge international controversy.
When the delegation went to these SALT 2 negotiations, the Democrats especially, they made a lot of noise about holding the Soviets accountable for their human-rights abuses. If this document accurately represents the discussions, then Biden and Richard Lugar betrayed the refuseniks and their own rhetoric in a particularly cynical and callous way. Biden even described the best way for the Soviets to address the issue in a manner that would let everyone off the hook for it.
Does this document really reflect the record? Vadim V. Zagladin wrote it contemporaneous to the talks, and transmitted it as a highly classified document to the Kremlin. In fact, it’s still technically classified, but it escaped scrutiny during the initial collapse of the Soviet Union, and the two authors discovered it in Gorbachev’s library, where Zagladin works now. Bukovsky and Poilov point out that Zagladin would have been taking a risk in painting Biden and Lugar as sympathetic even to a small degree to Soviet concerns about dissidents. Soviet agents could certainly have used that information against both men later, and if the Soviets tried and found out Zagladin lied about it, his career would have come to an abrupt end in Siberia or some other equally unpleasant final destination.
In April 1979, Jimmy Carter had already notoriously kissed Leonid Brezhnev’s cheek and declared that peaceful coexistence should be our policy with the Soviets. He badly needed an arms treaty to demonstrate that he wasn’t being completely feckless in the Cold War, and the refusenik situation complicated that. Biden and Lugar may have wanted to clear the talks from all other considerations, which might make sense, except for the rhetoric of Biden and Carter on human rights and their criticism of previous administrations for ignoring the issue in past negotiations. Biden and other Democrats would make that same criticism through the Reagan administration, right up to the collapse of the USSR.
If Biden sold out the refuseniks while he and his party screeched about their plight, then he has already demonstrated a lack of resolve and character for higher office. Biden needs to explain himself.