Moscow assesses the Reagan style

I was fortunate to be in Moscow the week the Soviets walked out of the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) talks in Geneva in late November. From numerous conversations in the Soviet capital and then in Budapest, four general trends in arms control and broader Soviet-American relations in 1984 may be discerned:

First, on specific negotiations in INF, START, mutual and balanced force reductions, and so forth, a pragmatic viewpoint is evident in Soviet thinking. Each area of negotiation will be approached on its own terms and each examined for possible signs of positive agreement with the Reagan administration. The problem from the Soviet perspective, of course, is to what extent the Reagan administration is a serious negotiating partner.

Second, it is clear that Soviet and American objectives in arms control are rapidly diverging. Two kinds of factors are involved in this divergence - military and ideological.

On the military side, technicians are seen as having achieved important gains in the Soviet Union in the course of the past few years, in part because of developments in Soviet policy - with greater international assertiveness and changes in domestic leadership heading the list - and in part because of changes in American policy in a similar more assertive direction. Under these circumstances it has been possible for the ''worst case'' or more extreme military elements to become more prominent factors in Soviet arms control as well as defense policy. In a case of ghastly mirror imaging, this same evolution of policy is seen in Moscow as having taken place during the later Carter administration and throughout the Reagan administration.

Coupled with powerful military voices, which have helped Soviet and American policies on arms control to diverge in the past few years, are ideological forces equally strong and equally divisive. During the Andropov succession there is little question that the Communist Party has become especially vigilant about ideological considerations in Soviet policy, all the more so since General Secretary Andropov is basically a representative of the Soviet government bureaucracy and not a party operative. Linked again to this domestic source of divergence in arms control is the emergence in the Reagan administration of a much more pronounced ideological tone. To be blunt: President Reagan is a most unpopular man in Moscow and this unpopularity has reached an extreme stage of personal caricature.

Third, as both cause and effect of this rapid divergence of Soviet and American interests in arms control, a new American style in arms control negotiations has been discerned in Moscow, the Reagan style. It is argued by Soviet experts that this style is quite different from the highly pragmatic American approach to arms control in the 1969-79 period. On the one hand, it is alleged, the Reagan approach really reflects great distaste for negotiating with the Soviet Union; on the other hand, once committed to a negotiation, the Reagan administration has no intention of achieving results. Instead, it is argued in Moscow with still more ominous overtones of mirror imaging, that the Reagan administration wishes only to achieve military and ideological advantages from these negotiations.

Fourth, on a more general plane, the near-term course of Soviet-American relations - at least through 1984 - may be under serious reevaluation in Moscow. Engaged in this review may be all key participants, from think tanks to party insiders. What is at stake is a downgrading of the importance of relations with the United States in Soviet policy and an upgrading of relations with Western Europe, Japan, and China, among other key world actors.

After difficulties with the SALT II treaty and then in all negotiations with the Reagan administration, some in Moscow now see such negotiations as themselves a source of emotional friction with the United States. With detente's obituary written in both superpower capitals, the value of arms control negotiations for bettering or even steadying Soviet-American relations has become suspect. Meanwhile, certain dividends have been achieved by the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Reagan administration in countries deeply affected by the breakdown of detente and arms control.

A growing Soviet constituency is seen in Western Europe, despite what Moscow views as America's Pyrrhic victory in deploying INF missiles. The greatest prize , from Moscow's standpoint, seems to be the defection of the West German Social Democratic Party from support of deployment. There is other evidence of great nervousness from the more conservative West German side, however, as Christian Democratic Party and even Christian Socialist Party leaders travel eastward in search of better relations with the Soviets and their allies. Meanwhile, evidence of frayed nerves over Reagan policies is apparent in Great Britain, Japan, and the People's Republic of China. So, the Soviet reasoning goes, why not spend more time with America's nervous allies and less time with the over-confident Americans?

US-Soviet relations have become too emotional with the decline of detente. This suggests a certain ominousness in the form of almost paranoiac distrust and surrealistic mirror imaging. From this side of the ledger, Soviet-American relations look bleak indeed over the near term and perhaps well beyond the 1984 presidential election, no matter who is elected. On the other hand, a de-emphasis of the American connection may allow passions to abate on both sides and permit a more sober, nonideological reevaluation of Soviet-American relations to take place in both Moscow and Washington.

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