LONDON — BRITAIN may have a special relationship with the United States, but it is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's special relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that is grabbing British headlines this week. Arriving for the third time on British soil today, Mr. Gorbachev is looking forward to lively discussions with Mrs. Thatcher during his 48-hour visit, according to Soviet officials.
``By any account she is seen as one of the leading figures in international politics,'' Nikolai Shyshlin, a consultant to the Soviet Central Committee, told the Sunday Times. ``That does not mean we share all her views.''
Indeed, the question is whether the leaders share any views. They disagree about the value of a nuclear deterrent in Europe. The Soviets have criticized NATO's proposals for modernizing tactical nuclear weapons, while Thatcher is pushing for an early decision to replace the aging Lance missiles.
British officials say that Thatcher will also press the Soviets to admit the full extent of their chemical weapons stockpiles as the first step in scrapping their sizable chemical warfare program.
Thatcher represents the hard edge of the Western alliance, and, says a Soviet expert, the Soviets like to deal at the hard edges. Both leaders seemed to enjoy their previous encounters when they reportedly engaged in animated debate.
Gorbachev may be encouraged that the Thatcher's views are not typical of the British public's. According to an opinion poll in the Sunday Telegraph, only three in 10 Britons say the Soviet Union poses a military threat to Britain. But 56 percent say they would support NATO even if the Soviets withdrew their troops from Eastern Europe, and 46 percent agree that Britain should retain its own nuclear weapons.
Despite her questioning of Soviet intentions, Thatcher has welcomed the internal changes in the Soviet Union. In an interview with the Soviet newspaper Izvestia, she commented, ``Sometimes it seems to me that you are trying to do in five to 10 years what it took more than a century for us to do.''
One of Thatcher's senior advisors said that the prime minister wants to hear about the progress of perestroika (restructuring) and to hear Gorbachev's account of recent Soviet elections.