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Chill of US-Soviet relations losing its edge

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 1984


As seen from here, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States may finally have bottomed out. Some diplomats here cautiously predict that a long, slow upward trend will become evident in coming months.

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Western sources say the Soviets have been engaged in a fairly extensive review of relations with the West, one that involved a high-level gathering of Soviet officialdom at a retreat outside Moscow in late December. It is believed that the Soviets are still reassessing their position in light of the deployment of new NATO missiles in Europe.

Soviet sources decline to say how long the review might take. ''But I do not think it will be very long,'' says a member of the Communist Party Central Committee.

In the meantime, the Soviets are holding to a rigid public stance, as evidenced by Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko's tough speech in Stockholm last week. But some Western Kremlin-watchers here predict the Soviets will eventually seek an opening with the West - especially as the NATO deployment continues.

''We have come to the conclusion,'' says a West European diplomat, ''that the Soviets do have a real interest in getting Western deployment under control.''

Exactly how long it will take for that to be translated into nuclear-weapons negotiations with the US remains to be seen.

''No one in the West knows,'' the European diplomat continues, ''and we doubt whether the Soviets know themselves.''

But some Western diplomats say a renewal of negotiations is virtually inevitable. Indeed, says one, ''if they want to limit the deployments, they're going to have to negotiate.''

In fact, some diplomatic contact between the US and the Soviet Union is still taking place. The meeting between Mr. Gromyko and Secretary of State George Shultz in Stockholm was the most visible example. But there are others.

For example, the Soviets have apparently expressed a willingness to reconvene talks on reducing conventional forces in Europe, possibly March 15.

Last week, Soviet and American officials met to discuss improving communications links between the White House and the Kremlin, involving the so-called ''hot line'' between the two capitals. And Soviet representatives are due in Washington in late January to discuss the disputed maritime border between the US and the USSR in the Bering Sea.

Such contacts, however, will not prevent the Soviets from making good on many of their threatened countermeasures against the NATO deployments. These will probably be highly visible and well-publicized, such as the recent front-page newspaper reports (in the Soviet Army newspaper, Red Star) that Soviet troops are manning missile sites in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

And the Soviets will probably station more missiles on submarines off US shores. In the Soviet view, new American-supplied Pershing II and cruise missiles deployed in Western Europe are ''strategic'' nuclear weapons - because they can be fired by the US and hit Soviet territory. Therefore, the Soviets argue that they must deploy new missiles closer to the US to counter this advantage.