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More strain for Soviet economy

By Ned TemkoStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 30, 1981


The Polish crisis already seems to be hurting the Soviet economy, an enormous machine that churns out lots of natural gas, oil, hard-currency earnings, inefficiency, corruption, and food shortages.

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And now the new US economic sanctions may well compound that strain - although public Soviet reaction will surely deny this.

At first sight, the Reagan package appeared less far-reaching than the Soviets might have feared. It does not include any cutoff of arms control talks nor does it impose a flat grain embargo - both contained in the Carter sanctions after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

In addition, the impact of the US sanctions also will depend ultimately on the extent of West European and Japanese support for them. But the seven-point program announced Dec. 29 is likely to hurt the Soviet Union in two important areas:

* It may complicate construction of a huge pipeline that is to funnel Siberian natural gas to Western Europe. The Soviets anticipate that the multibillion dollar project will provide them with much needed hardcurrency as well as stronger ties with West Europe, especially West Germany.

* It will make it more difficult for the Russians to count on future supplies of American grain at a time when foreign grain supplies are more vital to them than ever following their third poor harvest in row.

Specifically, under the Reagan package, negotiations on a new long-term grain agreement are being postponed. Export of oil and gas equipment, including pipe-laying equipment, to the Soviet Union will be subject to new restrictions. Issuance or renewal of licenses for the export of electronic equipment, computers, and other high-technology materials is being suspended.

In addition, negotiations on a new US-Soviet maritime agreement are being suspended, and a new regime of port-access controls will be put into effect for all Soviet ships. All Aeroflot service to the United States will be suspended. And no US-Soviet exchange agreements, including those on energy and science and technology, will be renewed in the near future.

According to top US officials, these sanctions will be reviewed in coming days and weeks, and will be added to if necessary to push Moscow toward a change of policy on Poland. US officials have also asked the Western allies to take parallel steps or at least not to undermine the US action.

Even without these sanctions and those the US imposed against Poland last week, the ongoing Polish crisis is a drain on the Soviet economy that threatens to get worse.

Perhaps one of the few bright spots is that the crisis has come at a time when the Soviets' stocks of prized hard currency were apparently doing well. The world oil market, until this year's glut, favored sellers. Moscow is an important seller.

And although Soviet oil production is leveling off, huge stocks of natural gas seem a realistic substitute as a hard-currency earner in the years to come. Recent announcements here say that the world's largest known natural gas deposit , at Urengoi in western Siberia, has been found to be twice as large as originally thought. The gas for the new pipeline will come from Urengoi.

The bad news for the Kremlin is that the Polish crisis came at a time when the Soviet Union, for the first time in the postwar era, is coping with three bad grain crops in a row. Shortages of meat and dairy products have been worsening.

One recent Soviet radio report said shortages of feedgrain in the Ukraine were ''affecting the productivity of animals, their reproduction, and the fulfillment of the meat and milk delivery plans.''