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Despite Kremlin's tough talk, it still seeks arms control

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 25, 1984


Soviet leaders are genuinely angry with the Reagan administration, but they have not ''given up'' on dealing with it. In fact, they have reluctantly concluded that Mr. Reagan will likely be reelected in November and are preparing to deal with him for another four years.

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That is the conclusion that has emerged from a series of interviews with Soviet officials, including ranking officials in the Communist Party hierarchy, and interviews with Western diplomats.

Although there do appear to be irreconcilable differences between Moscow and the West over nuclear arms, the Kremlin is still committed to the long-term control of nuclear arms through negotiations. In fact, it is eager to enter into talks to limit the militarization of outer space.

That said, the short-term prospects for nuclear arms negotiations do not appear promising, partly because of what Western analysts describe as a ''toughened'' attitude in the Kremlin dating from earlier this year. For this reason, some analysts expect the East-West impasse over nuclear weapons to last at least until the end of the year. It is expected to cast a pall over other relations between the superpowers.

In fact, the Soviet Union seems to be taking advantage of the present trough to settle some old scores: against rebel forces in Afghanistan; against the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov and his wife; against the United States for its boycott of the 1980 Olympics; against China, for drawing too close to Reagan during his recent trip there; and against West European nations that have allowed new US-supplied medium-range nuclear weapons to be stationed on their soil.

In turn, then, the Soviets are engaged in a punishing offensive against Afghan rebels in the Panjshir Valley.

They continue to deny Dr. Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, permission to seek medical treatment in the West - prompting a hunger strike by Sakharov that could be life-threatening. Now they seem to have sent her into internal exile.

They continue to pressure East-bloc allies not to participate in the Los Angeles Olympics. They may be spearheading a sort of counter-Olympics this summer.

They have yet to reschedule a trip to China by First Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Arkhipov that was abruptly canceled earlier this month.

And they used the occasion of a state visit by West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to lecture him publicly - and revile his government in the government-controlled news media.

Future developments in any of these areas - especially the Sakharov case - could further worsen East-West relations.

But the rest of 1984, it seems, may be a period of stock-taking on both sides. A Soviet official suggests the result may well be some form of detente with the US in the broadest sense of the word: a lessening of tensions. ''We hope,'' he says, that just the sense of self-survival will force (both countries) to that.''

In the meantime, a European diplomat says, superpower relations may continue to be tense - but they are extremely unlikely to slide into open confrontation.

Most Western diplomats here say the Soviets are unlikely to reenter nuclear arms control negotiations this year. They are waiting to see whether the Netherlands will hold to its commitment to accept new US-supplied cruise missiles on its soil. That decision is expected in June, but only after a wrenching political debate that might split the government.

The Soviets also want to see whether European peace groups will regroup this spring. A Western diplomat says Moscow is pumping in money to keep the sputtering peace movement alive.

But the overriding question for the Soviets, it seems, is the outcome of the US presidential election. Moscow does not want to do anything to help Ronald Reagan be reelected. That apparently includes talking about arms agreements.

Still, a Soviet analyst concedes, ''There's a feeling that the next president is going to be Reagan.''

Another Soviet official agrees: ''It's best to accept a worst-case scenario.''

The Soviets are modulating their criticism of Reagan to a modest extent, arguing that it is his advisers - and not necessarily the President himself - who are to blame for the atmosphere of distrust.

''We are suspicious,'' says the Soviet official, ''that they have people in this administration who would like to push the button.''

The European diplomat says the belief is a sincere one. ''There is genuine concern that some in the Reagan administration do not want arms control,'' he says.

Consequently, the Soviets say they will be looking for a change of signals from a new administration.

''Many things,'' says the Soviet official, ''will depend on the beginning of the new administration.''

The official was careful to stress that the Soviet Union will be receptive if it detects a genuine change in Washington's policies.

A member of the Communist Party's Central Committee agrees, saying, ''When the Soviet Union is met halfway, it changes heart very quickly.''