GREAT DECISIONS '81; The US and the Soviet Union

The image -- on arriving in Moscow in this winter of superpower discontent -- is irresistible: It is barely 5 in the afternoon, but already dark.

Sheremetyevo 2 -- the glass and marble Olympic air terminal virtually imported from West Germany -- stands as a monument to Soviet power and Soviet weaknesses.

And outside, everywhere, there is snow and the howling and whipping of wind: nature, stubborn and chilly and immutable.

The symbol is eerie, disturbing, and more than a little confusing: in short, appropriate to a potentially dangerous transition period in Soviet-US relations.

In Washington, a new president is taking office with a perceived mandate to reassert American strength and to get tough with the Kremlin. "Illegal Soviet activity," Secretary of State-designate Alexander Haig said at his confirmation hearings, "must be viewed with more gravity than heretofore."

In Moscow, the guard will be changing, too. On this reporter's office wall, the group photograph of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo resembles nothing so much as a 1930 college yearbook picture. One member, former Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, passed on at the age of 76 late last year.

Another -- Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev -- has long been reported ailing. Burly, bushy-browed, he had directed Soviet policy toward four US presidents. At home, he resists change. Abroad, he believes in dealing from strength -- and distinctly dislikes being lectured at, much less dictated to, by Washington.

Other men will almost surely steer the Soviet Union through much of the 1980 s. Kremlinologists hope for the first solid indication of how the power transition may look when the Soviet Communist Party convenes its quinquennial congress here in February.

Meanwhile, the state of relations between the superpowers, with repercussions worldwide, looks bleak. Yet not irrevocably so.

Detente, whatever the precise process defined by that maddeningly elastic term, looks battered. But not yet dead.

Nor is the cold war over. But, then, it never really was.

Nothing, in short, is certain or final.

The vision of US-Soviet relations that fills most embassy living rooms here this January is one of an always dangerous rivalry getting slowly, stubbornly, worse.

Soviet military strength has grown inexorably, erasing US superiority of years past.

Soviet troops support a year-old puppet regime in neighboring Afghanistan. Despite international protests and US trade sanctions, there seems at this writing no indication the troops are packing for home.

Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces ring Poland. There has been a preemptive howl of "Oh, no, you don't" from the West. But few diplomats or other analysts doubt that, should the Kremlin deem the Polish Communisty Party finally unable to cope with labor unrest, some form of heightened Soviet intervention would be likely.

Washington moves to beef up its military potential in the Middle East and the Gulf region. The Soviet Union, in an apparent reply, moves to reinforce ties with India.

The SALT II arms-limitation pact -- signed in Vienna in 1979 but promptly fallen victim to opposition inside the United States and to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- remains unratified.

In Washington, the nascent Reagan administration has talked of reopening negotiations on a treaty it sees as unfairly tilted toward the Kremlin.

The Kremlin doesn't see things that way at all. In a statement released on the eve of President Reagan's Jan. 20 inauguration, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko put explicitly what the official Moscow news media had been hinting at for some time:

Yes, we are willing to keep an open mind toward the incoming US administration. Yes, at least possibly, there can be fresh talks on just about anything. But the basic precepts of SALT II are, in our view, inviolate. And if the new boys in Washington think they can rewrite the rules in US-Soviet relations, they've got another think coming.

The Soviet Union, Mr. Gromyko suggested, was finally and fully the military "equal" to the West, and the Americans might just as well get used to that.

At a farewell luncheon in early January, the wife of the outgoing US ambassador to Moscow, Thomas Watson, gently fingered an intricate lace shawl.

"Mrs. Gromyko gave me this as a departure gift," she said. "It means that detente is still alive."

"Mrs. Gromyko said that?" a guest probed. "No," the ambassador's wife replied with a hint of a smile, "I said that."

Yet detente still lives, if without the utopian sheen of its early days.

There is a growing sense among seasoned Moscow analysts that the stuff of "transition" in US-Soviet relations will consist of defining just what detente can entail.

No one in the diplomatic corps, despite a seemingly endless swap of pessimistic predictions, is visibly sending money home to stock the bomb shelters.

At least one facet of superpower coexistence seems unchallenged, perhaps best summed up in the eerily academic phrase: "balance of terror." The Soviets, in current US jargon, have not nuked New York, or Washington or Frankfurt . . . or Peking, although that particular superpower feud is to be touched on later in this series.

Most Moscow analysts still appear convinced that this simply won't happen, that whatever the differences between East and West, the Kremlin remains sensitive to the dangers of major world conflagration. There are those who will add that this is the safest of bets. If the pundits are wrong, not many earthlings may be around to tell them so. But there are also indications of occasional restraint in Soviet policy.

One such example cited by some analysts here was the feint late last year by Syria toward war with neighboring -- and relatively pro- Western -- Jordan. Although the Soviets had just penned a friendship treaty with Syria, they are said to have exerted important pressure on their new formal ally to keep cool.

Western experts also cite on-the-ground indications that the Soviets are tacitly adhering to the provisions of SALT II despite the US ratification wrangle.

There also remain objective limits to Soviet power.

In the oil-rich Middle East, particularly, wildly variant regimes often seem to hold but one thing in common: a suspicion of the Soviets. This goes even for the likes of the Syrians, treaty notwithstanding. For clear exceptions to the rule, one must look to virtual surrogate regimes like South Yemen.

In the most recent Mideast flare-up -- between Iran and Iraq -- the Kremlin has been reduced to a vocal neutrality that seems to have won favor with neither side.

Some diplomats evaluating the USSR's coming five-year plan also point to growing internal, economic constraints.

There is something of an unresolved debate among analysts here over the past CIA predictions of a Soviet energy squeeze by the end of the 1980s. Skepticism remains.

But virtually all foreign observers discount the possibility of a short-term solution to other, endemic economic woes: overplanning, lagging production, a choking bureaucracy, and an unsurprising shortage of consumer goods.

Events in Poland, too, could represent a long-term challenge to Soviet strength.

Moscow has not alerted thousands of troops, Western analysts reason, just for show. The Kremlin is seen as fundamentally reluctant to escalate its involvement in the Polish crisis. Yet much more than the intermittent taunts as Afghan rebels, the issues raised in Poland are seen as striking at the very core of Soviet ideology and power.

The scene shifts back to the wind-swept international air terminal ouside Moscow, built as part of the USSR's sprucing-up for last summer's Olympic Games.

Here, if you look for them, are both the Soviet Union's weaknesses and its strengths.

The marble floors, the imposing glass facades, the ultramodern fixtures and subtle lighting would all seem to attest to a new height in Moscow superpowerdom.

But look more closely. Everything from paneling to electric sockets was trucked in from outside, supervised by a West German firm. Like the latest generation of Soviet weaponry, the new airport seems ultimately to be proof that the USSR can get anything done if it spends enough time and money -- that is, diverts enough resources from more basic economic commodities.

Even with the West German's help the airport lagged behind the original construction timetable. Western sources here maintain that this is partly due to the US trade embargo to protest Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, in that some of the terminal's equipment would ideally have included US high-technology components.

But in the end, the marble and glass may be less important than the snow outside, or the almost reverently silent Soviet men and women grouped at passport control inside.

The first suggests the immense size of this country and a harsh nature that seems almost to force life here into slow motion. The obediently quiet folk inside are also part of this. Few outsiders seem to come to the Soviet Union with an adequate picture of how fundamentally thick-skinned, conservative, or rural most of its people are.

With or without Voice of America reports on the Polish crisis -- jammed by the authorities here with uneven success -- most Soviet people appears less than eager to meddle in Soviet political life. The people grumble. Some bribe their way around ever-present bottle- necks in a frustrating economy. They may trade bitter jokes about empty shop shelves.

But a popular uprising?

There is, indeed, pressure on men like Leonid Brezhnev. There is, indeed, the possibility of change in the USSR. A former Soviet leader named Nikita Khrushchev, for one, discovered this at the hands of his own Politburo in 1964. The lesson on his downfall was that policy setbacks can make handy tools in the hands of political enemies.

But change in the USSR does seem to come stolidly, by Western standards.

And tomorrow, as yesterday, it is much more apt to come from within the Kremlin than from the streets.

A senior Western diplomat offers a footnote: "We in the West had better get used to the fact that the Soviet Union isn't just going to disappear."

Andrei Gromyko could not have said it better.

In his stated Soviet view, the Reagan administration is going to have to restore a woefully absent element in US-Soviet relations: continuity.

In the American view, this continuity cannot allow the USSR simply to do as it pleases: to march into Poland, for instance: or, in Alexander Haig's words, to pursue "illegal activity by proxy" beyond its frontiers.

Few Western analysts expect as speedy reconciliation of these world views. Some suspect that sleight of hand may prove just plain impossible, giving way to a full-scale renewal of cold war.

Jolts in the international arena (a Soviet military move in Poland, or the virtual scrapping of the SALT process, or major third-world flare-ups) could further complicate relations between the world's two major nuclear powers.

The Soviets, if, indeed, running low on domestic oil, could conceivably vie with the West for access to Mideast crude reserves.

But these -- like much else on the typical Kremlinologist's plate nowadays -- are "ifs."

The consensus here, despite a clear downturn in Soviet-US relations, is that a fundamental balance of terror still survives between Washington and Moscow. Each superpower still seems committed to coexistence over confrontation.

The perceived problem -- perhaps inevitable from the Kissingerian days of yore -- is that both sides seem finally determined that peace must come through strength.

The perceived question -- potentially unsettling, potentially dangerous -- is whether detente itself can weather this kind of redefinition.

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