A combination of fear and toughness on the part of the aging Soviet leadership is threatening to turn this month's Conference on European Security and Cooperation in Madrid into a fiasco.
The men in the Kremlin are stalling in Madrid because of their growing concern about keeping a firm grip on their empire.
Until the very last moment before the conference's being formally called to order at its opening session late Nov. 11, there was doubt about whether it would be able to assemble as planned.
The reason for the doubt: Nine weeks of preparatory talks to draw up an agreed agenda for the full three months the conference was expected to run have failed to produce one.
The stumbling block is Soviet insitence on a formula for the proceedings that would have blocked Western efforts to get a full airing on the sensitive issues of human rights within the Soviet Union and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. The Soviets prefer to emphasize what they see as more dangerous than any violation of human rights to European security and cooperation: the threat of an arms race between the power blocs.
Piquantly, the intransigence of the top men in the Kremlin is supported, as this challenging decade of the 1980s opens, by a more favorable military position -- relative to the US-led Western alliance -- than ever before. Simultaneously, Moscow is closer than ever before to acceptance as a truly global superpower, complete with an ocean-going navy and unprecedented outposts in Africa, Southeast Asia, Arabia, and even the Caribbean.
Yet the Soviet leadership has an Achilles' heel of increasing vulnerability: the security and stability of its empire across the Eurasian heartland from the Elbe to the PAcific.
It is awareness of this growing vulnerability that is making the Soviet delegation so obdurately defensive in Madrid.
The heirs of the Russian czars in the Kremlin know that they continue to preside over the only European empire surviving from the Victorian age. This knowledge may not prompt so much self-questioning about the life-expectancy of this surviving Russian (now Soviet) empire as an increased resolve to defend it at all costs.
At the time that the other European powers, at the end of World War II, were beginning the process that divested them of empire, Stalin was still expanding the Russian empire into Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia (Sakhalin and the Kuriles). Even within the past year, Leonid Brezhnev has moved to expand the Russian empire into Central Asia -- at the expense of Afghanistan.
Ironically, this month's Madrid conference, which the Soviets are apparently trying to duck, is an outgrowth of a Brezhnev initiative aimed at putting the seal of US and Western European recognition on the new Russian imperial frontiers pushed westward into Europe by the victorious Red Army in 1945. Mr. Brezhnev got that at the Helsinki Conference on European Security and Cooperation in 1975 -- but at a price.
The price exacted by the West at Helsinki was a Soviet signature on a declaration of intent by all conference participants to facilitate communications at all levels and in both directions across their frontiers and, within those frontiers, to safeguard and protech human rights. Dissidents within the Soviet Union -- and elsewhere in communist Eastern Europe -- took this at its face value.
They even set up committees at home to monitor implementation of the declaration, even though this got them into trouble with the authorities. The Western participants at Helsinki sought to keep the Soviet Union to its apparent commitment with a follow-up conference in Belgrade in 1977, and now with this year's conference in Madrid.
There is no doubt that the Helsinki declaration caused the Soviet leadership trouble -- but not enough for them to try to avoid scrutiny of the Soviet record in Belgrade three years ago. However, Madrid this year is manifestly a different question.
All the more so, since in addition to their international embarrassment over Afghanistan the recent record within the Soviet Union has been one of ruthlessly silencing intellectual and religious dissidence. the authorities even moved at last against the best known of the dissidents remaining within the Soviet Union, andrei Sakharov, so long untouched because of his reputation and contribution to the state as a nuclear physicist. At the same time, jamming of US, British, and West German broadcasts to the Soviet Union has been revived.
All this at a time when, for the Soviet leaders, the dilemma is compounded by:
* Events in Poland, where dissidence today means a true mass workers' movement, not merely an intellectual elitist handful susceptible to being picked off one-by-one.
* The impending arrival in the White House of a new US President, in the person of Ronald Reagan, who is perceived as a hard-liner doubtful about some aspects of detente and committed to an American military buildup.
* Awareness of the inevitably before long of generational change at the top in the Kremlin, brought home by the recent retirement of ailing, septuagenarian Premier Alexei Kosygin.