Soviets cancel meeting with US, but are seen as wanting to limit damage to ties

The Soviet Union called off yesterday a planned meeting between Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Secretary of State George Shultz because of the US attack on Libya. The two officials were scheduled to meet May 14-16 to set a date for a Washington summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Besides canceling the meeting, Moscow condemned the US air raids on Libya with a barrage of anti-American rhetoric.

But Moscow-based diplomats predicted that the Kremlin would want to limit any damage to East-West relations.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev yesterday told Ingvar Carlsson, the visiting prime minister of Sweden, that he was ``strongly concerned'' about the situation arising from the US strikes.

The official news agency Tass said of President Reagan's justification of the raids: ``The head of the administration hypocritically contended that this armed action was undertaken by the United States for reasons of `self-defense.' '' The agency called the raids ``barbarous and totally unjustified aggression.''

Western diplomats said the news-media reaction, which quoted at length criticisms of the US made by noncommunist foreign countries, reflected the Soviet intention to make political capital out of the issue. But they said that, as after last month's US-Libya clash in the Mediterranean over the disputed Gulf of Sidra, there would be more sound and fury from Moscow than concrete action.

Moscow's main concern lies in reaching an arms control accord with the US, the diplomats said. Soviet officials have repeatedly said there should be no link between major arms talks and other issues.

The diplomats said one option the Soviets could take was to step up arms deliveries to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

``Qaddafi is close to Moscow, but they find him a tricky customer and they have significant differences with him over the Gulf war [between Iran and Iraq] and the Arab-Israeli question,'' one Western envoy said.

Also, Moscow has invested much effort in the last year in improving relations with conservative Gulf states and Arab countries who, for all their public rhetoric, regard Qaddafi with suspicion.

The Kremlin established full diplomatic relations with Oman and the United Arab Emirates last year and has also wooed Saudi Arabia, one of the key players in the Gulf.

Plans for a Soviet-Libyan friendship treaty, which were announced in 1983, have been quietly dropped. Moscow uses such treaties to cement relations with allies, and the Kremlin would have felt under more pressure to help Qaddafi if a pact had been signed with him. However, Moscow is Libya's chief arms supplier, and Soviet military technicians and other personnel are stationed there to train Libyans and keep the weapons in shape.

Diplomats said Moscow also appears genuinely irritated when the US accuses it of stoking up conflicts in such places as Ethiopia, Angola, and Nicaragua, while at the same time it is attacking Libya.

The current Soviet term for US policy is ``neoglobalism.'' The term is apparently meant to convey the idea that the Reagan administration is hankering after a revived US role as the world's policeman.

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