Soviet Union reaps benefits of renewed economic detente

Detente, within limits, suddenly seems alive and well in Moscow. The limits are important and don't seem likely to evaporate any time soon. They concern political relations with Ronald Reagan, particularly on the issue of arms control.

But economic detente, a central chunk of the whole process for Soviet theorists, seems to be doing better than in many months.

A US government delegation that wrapped up talks here Oct. 1 came offering the Soviets up to 15 million tons of grain above the 8 million tons allowed under existing agreement. The US side said afterward it expected the Soviets, reported to be facing their third poor harvest in a row, to buy about two-thirds of the extra amount in the next year.

That news came only days after Moscow took a giant step toward sealing the largest deal in East-West commercial history, a joint project to pipe Siberian natural gas to Western Europe.

Ronald Reagan has made it abundantly clear he doesn't like the idea. His West European allies don't seem to be listening.

Economic detente is particularly important to the Soviets at a time when their economy is under renewed strain.

The reported outcome of the grain talks here would seem to reinforce Western assessments of problems down on the Soviet farm. Moscow is still fuming over Jimmy Carter's grain embargo. The Soviets have been making large grain deals with other states, like Argentina and Canada.

This year's harvest, worldwide, seems uncommonly good. The market is slack. The Soviet must be looking for an awful lot of grain if they are, indeed, planning to buy about 18 million tons of it from the Americans.

There seems little doubt this year's Soviet crop will be disappointingly below target. Whether it will be the disaster US experts are predicting remains to be seen.

On the energy front, the picture seems a lot less disastrous than an earlier batch of US experts, from the CIA, once proclaimed. But there are problems. The output of the world's top oil producer is leveling off. World oil prices are down. So Are Moscow's crucial hard-currency revenues from oil exports.

Oil prices will eventually float up again. Meanwhile, however, Soviet energy planners have been shifting their main emphasis from oil to natural gas. That is where the mammoth East-West pipeline project comes in.

For West Germany, France, Italy, and other European states, the scheme would mean access to a rich new source of energy imports. For Western companies, it means rich new contracts. For the Soviets, it means rich new export earnings.

Moscow has gradually sealed various deals in recent months for West European and Japanese financing of the multibillion-dollar plan. Agreement was announced in late September on two other key components in the project.

First was an accord on engineering of compressor stations for the estimated 3 ,000-mile line. More important, the Soviets came to terms with a Franco-German consortium for supply of 22 of the necessary 41 stations, with subcontracts to other European firms for related equipment. Commercial sources here say the Soviets have decided to award a contract for the remaining compressor units to Italy's Nuovo Pignione, although there has been no announcement of that yet.

If one puts aside overall Soviet-US tension, then, detente is beginning to look suspiciously as it did in its heyday. The problem is that political and economic detente are ultimately related.

Even communist economists must make choices between guns and butter.Weaponry costs money and other resources, even in a country without the greedy capitalist arms merchants that Pravda loves to hate. Soviet officials say they are ready and able to match the US weapon for weapon. But they also acknowledge things would be a lot easier -- and the world a little safer -- if new, "equal" arms accords could be sealed.

The problem now -- and analysts on both sides of the superpower fence suggest it could prove a daunting one -- is to agree on just what "equal" means.

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