Washington — It may not be so much a matter of glasnost as a question of greenbacks. While welcoming quickened progress in Soviet-American arms control negotiations, some United States analysts have concluded that the driving force is the harsh economic realities facing the Soviet leadership.
They point specifically to the continuing scramble for resources that pits the Soviet Union's formidable military against a generally backward civilian sector.
Arms control, according to some US experts, may be the only way for the Kremlin to satisfy both groups. Put another way, today's bold diplomatic gestures may be clever economic and political strategy by another name.
But if they don't provide a payoff, some analysts have concluded, then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev could be in trouble.
``We do not believe that Mikhail Gorbachev has launched his modernization program and is proposing radical change in the Soviet Union's economic system for altruistic reasons,'' concludes a report by the Defense Intelligence Agency, released this week by the Senate subcommittee on national-security economics. ``His program is aimed,'' the report continued, ``at assuring the long-term security of the nation.''
And the Central Intelligence Agency, in another newly released report, has concluded that Mr. Gorbachev's ``proposals for nuclear arms reductions are motivated both by the desire to shift some resources from defense to the civilian economy and by the realization that international tensions will strengthen the hand of opponents of reform at home.'' That is not to say that the current progress in arms control is illusory or born of desperation.
In Washington, US and Soviet diplomats said their discussions this week have ``cleared away some significant obstacles'' to an arms control agreement. In Moscow, Gorbachev predicted such an agreement could be completed by the end of this year, leading to an even more significant treaty next year.
US officials say these optimistic assessments are genuine, and generally accurate.
And they acknowledge that such progress would not be possible if it were not for Gorbachev's willingness to bargain and compromise.
But they have also concluded that more Soviet ``give'' on arms control can be understood only in the context of Gorbachev's economic modernization drive. Gorbachev has concluded, according to a number of US experts, that the Soviet Union cannot continue indefinitely as a military superpower with a muddle-through economy.
Arms control, US intelligence analysts have concluded, provides a rationale for temporarily slowing the upward spiral of Soviet military spending. In addition, it provides a more stable international environment that could foster Soviet economic modernization. But it does not mean, analysts add, that the Soviet Union is waning as a military power. Quite the contrary: If the Soviet economy is stronger, it can more easily support the needs of the Soviet military.
There is widespread agreement that Gorbachev has, to an extraordinary degree, been willing to admit that there are limits to the kind of military superstructure that the Soviet economy can support.
``They [Gorbachev and his supporters] have called for a rejection of the principle `the more, the better,''' Col. Serge Chernay, director of Soviet studies at the Air War College, told a conference of the Aerospace Education Foundation this week. ``They're saying there are two ways of maintaining military security - either a buildup of weapons, or a very low level [of armaments] on both sides.''
For the time being, he says, Gorbachev is pursuing the latter course.
The CIA, in its report released this week, concluded that ``Soviet leaders [are] increasingly aware of the rising defense burden and its link to the USSR's inability to provide more rapid gains in consumer welfare and to generate high economic growth.''
Edward L. Warner, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, says Gorbachev may have an eye on the future, when there could be a ``crunch'' between the conflicting needs to retool the civilian economy or divert more resources to the military sector.
``He has not had to make that choice yet,'' says Dr. Warner.
``But it could be a possibility in the late '80s or early '90s.''
The CIA study notes that Gorbachev has already taken a number of measures to tighten Communist Party control over the military. The military has a ``less visible public role'' in public affairs. The party apparatus responsible for overseeing the military has been ``beefed up.''
The penetration of Soviet airspace by a West German civilian piloting a Cessna light aircraft provided a rationale for a major shake-up in the Defense Ministry, the report notes. And, it forecasts, ``there are indications that a broad housecleaning [of the Defense Ministry] will take place in the months ahead.''
Even more intriguing have been Gorbachev's references to the need for ``sufficiency'' in military spending - with the implication that in the past it has been more than sufficient.
Those are words that Leonid Brezhnev, the medal-bedecked former Soviet leader, would not likely have spoken.
Also, Gorbachev has referred to the inadequacy of military means alone to ensure security, and the need for political methods as well.
The quest for that political solution is, according to some analysts, what is being conducted so vigorously now.
The benefits to the Soviet Union are numerous, says Colonel Chernay. Among them: less military spending, a less threatening image in the world, greater willingness of trading partners to sell new, high-technology products to modernize the Soviet economy, a more stable international climate, and, perhaps, reduced American influence on European security matters.
Gorbachev may indeed be striving to ``decrease the perception that the Soviet Union is in any way a threat to the US,'' says Rudolf V. Perina, director for European and Soviet Affairs of the National Security Council.
But some US analysts predict trouble for Gorbachev ahead.
They argue that his economic reforms and push for arms control have alienated some powerful, well-entrenched opponents in the Soviet bureaucracy. The Soviet military is now going along with economic reform plans, albeit without much enthusiasm. But US analysts say that could change - especially if the current drive for arms control doesn't yield tangible results.
``Gorbachev is particular vulnerable on the security issue,'' the CIA report concludes. ``The strength of military support for industrial modernization coupled with constraints in the growth of defense programs could erode substantially if the external threat assessment becomes darker.''
Then, the report concludes, ``Pressures will mount to redirect resources towards defense.''