Moscow — Did the United States in effect doubl-cross the Soviet Union in the way it handled the recent exchange on germ warfare? The Soviets feel it did -- by first acting privately, then going public before the Soviets could give their side. They also think the Americans lacked the evidence to go public, and they feel aggrieved.
The issue emerges from the recent flap over the 1975 germ warfare treaty, in which the United States asked the Soviets for information about an incident that reportedly occurred in the Urals steel city of Sverdlovsk in the spring of 1979.
The United States decided to raise the Sverdlovsk incident through diplomatic channels, asking whether, in fact, bacteriological agents had been released in an explosion as some Western press reports had alleged a month beforehand.
It did so just as the 1975 treaty was being reviewed in Geneva. The signatories were approaching Article 5, under which they had to determine whether anyone had breached its terms forbidding the manufacture, storage, or use of bacteriological agents.
It was also a time when the Pentagon had been saying that evidence suggested the Soviets had been using toxic gases in Afghanistan -- but conceding that the evidence was not yet conclusive. The Voice of America shortwave radio had been broadcasting news of the reports, saying they were unconfirmed.
On Monday March 17 the Ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Watson Jr., duly raised the request for information at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, acting on instructions. The Soviets understood he was coming to them privately, through accepted diplomatic channels. No immediate reply was given.
The very next day in Washington, however, the daily bulletin of the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which usually prints up-to-the-minute radio broadcasts from around the world, suddenly republished press reports about the Sverdlovsk incident from several weeks before.
When correspondents at the State Department asked briefer David Passage about the reprints, he responded with a statement on the inquiry to the Soviets which he said had been approved by the White House.
News about a "possible" breach of the 1975 treaty by the Soviets began to pour out.Reporters dug out officials in Washington who added information. The next day major newspapers combined the public statement and previously alleged accounts of an explosion in a Sverdlovsk suburb last spring and the possibility of thousands of casualties.
The Voice of America broadcast it back here in Russian. Some newcasts during the week also referred to the Pentagon allegations about the use of gas warfare by Soviet troops in Afghanistan, though the broadcasts also included statements that so far the use of the gas had yet to be reliably proved.
The Soviets were furious. First they had been approached in private, and now it was around the world. In the specialized world of diplomacy, the Soviets pride themselves on observing the rules. (This is one reason why Washington legitimately hoped for more Soviet backstage help when the US hostages were taken in Iran in defiance of diplomatic immunity. On that occasion the Soviets refused.)
One wire agency correspondent here, recalling a fragment of information he had been given by the Soviet Foreign Ministry when the Sverdlovsk rumors first appeared in the West German press in February, decided to telephone the ministry on Wednesday, March 19, to go through the motions of trying to get a reaction.
The usual Soviet method is to relay reactions through the press or via the official news agency Tass.Feeling he would get nowhere, the correspondent nonetheless dialed the number and began talking to an official known to American correspondents generally here through routine contacts connected with arranging trips and credentials.
To his astonishment, the official began reading him a statement denouncing the US suggestions of a violation of the 1975 treaty as "impudent lies."
"I was astounded," the correspondent said later. "Just astounded." Clearly the ministry was acting on orders: If the Americans could go public, then the Soviets could, too. The official repeated the statement to others who telephoned.
The next day, Thursday, more articles appeared in the US press and more broadcasts came on the Voice of America and the BBC. Tass released a long article rejecting any idea that Moscow had violated any treaty of any kind, saying the Soviets had replied to the US, and suddenly raising the possibility, in a backhand way, that there had been an epidemic of some kind in Sverdlovsk. Inquiries by telephone to Sverdlovsk revealed that the local press there had printed articles on how to avoid anthrax last year.
That night, the Foreign Ministry took an even more dramatically unusual step. It actually telephone wire agencies (contacting the first one at 6.05 p.m., well after the ministry normally closes) with a statement volunteering details of what the Soviets had put into their diplomatic reply (that the Soviets hadn't violated any treaty and that the US behavior raised doubts about the search for detente and arms control.)
A few hours later Washington officials revealed that the Soviet reply also admitted to a Sverdlovsk outbreak of anthrax, insisting it was due to the improper handling of meat and not to an explosion releasing chemical warfare agents. (Anthrax is such an agent.)
On Monday, March 24, Tass put a detailed Soviet version on the record for overseas readers, providing a rare look at anthrax problems im Sverdlovsk (said to have existed for hundreds of years) and again accusing the US of poisoning the international atmosphere.
On March 26, the weekly Literary Gazette gave its intellectual readers the first Soviet account to be released domestically. It omitted the word "anthrax" and used instead the far less serious malady of "foot and mouth disease."
The question arises: Would the US not have been better advised to wait until it received the Soviet reply before making its inquiry public? Couldn't the p rocess of reviewing the treaty in Geneva have been delayed a few days? The Soviets are now convinced the US set them up, without solid evidence.
Indeed, there is no solid evidence to be found anywhere. Sverdlovsk is closed to foreigners because of defense plants there. Accounts of an explosion by emigres may or may not be connected with bacteriological agents. If the Soviets say anthrax broke out, who is to confirm or deny it?
If the US had solid evidence, why has it not released it? At first glance, some officials in Washington even called the anthrax reply "plausible."
The point is not whether the Soviets have suddenly become knights in shining armor on the issue of germ warfare. It is to ask whether the US acted in an unwise manner toward an adversary already weighed down with more than its share of insecurity, defensiveness, pride, and aggression.
The Soviets are not noted for their reticence when it comes to making unfounded propaganda charges against other countries, including the United States. But the US is not the Soviet Union and lays claim to rather different standards.