Schmidt and Brezhnev talk at -- and past -- each other
Moscow — Helmut Schmidt to Leonid Brezhnev: "Here are the NATO positions on Afghanistan and medium-range missiles in Europe. Please act on them or start discussing them with us without preconditions. Meanwhile, let Bonn and Moscow keep talking. And, of course, let's keep the level of our trade high and push it higher."
Leonid Brezhnev to Helmut Schmidt:
"Here are the Soviet positions on Afghanistan and missiles in Europe. You must accept them: We recognize no others. We are pleased you are here. And by all means, my dear capitalist friend, let's trade more and more and more."
That, in effect, was what the West German chancellor and the Soviet leader said as they talked at each other, and past each other, during Mr. Schmidt's significant visit here June 30 and July 1.
Both sides seemed to stand firm on basic positions, yielding little. It was not until late July 1 that Mr. Schmidt hinted, first to German TV interviewers and then to a jammed press conference here, that he saw some hopes of eventual negotiations on medium-range missiles.
He refused to give details, saying his foreign minister had to brief French and United States leaders July 2 and 3. Some Westerners here were skeptical, saying it was possible Mr. Schmidt was playing to the West German electorate before the German elections.
Speaking carefully, Mr. Schmidt told the press conference his visit had strengthened his belief that there would be missile talks.
However he made it clear there was no progress on Afghanistan.
The Soviet leader dismissed the NATO missile position June 30. After the talks the Tass news agency quoted Mr. Brezhnev as saying only that "attention was devoted" to reaching an "understanding" on missiles.
Perhaps the most intriguing note of the final day of the visit was a long talk Mr. Schmidt and his foreign minister had with Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov and Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the chief of the Soviet general staff. Mr. Schmidt said he wanted the talk to deepen the discussion of the missile issue.
But each side extracted from the visit valuable benefits, and each saw it as a success for its own internal and external strategies.
For the Schmidt government, it was a valuable pre-election visit, designed to show West German voters that the Social Democrats are well able to manage emotional Soviet-West German ties. Mr. Schmidt maintained a firm Western position while at the same time keeping communications open -- and cementing the large volume of trade that made Bonn the biggest Western trading partner with Moscow for most of the 1970s.
"West Germans have a history of fearing and disliking the Russians," said one West Germans observer, "and they see contacts and trade as their best security against further hostilities. Our two-way trade is now so big [$6.6 billion a year] that nothing short of overwhelming emergency can affect it.
"We get 16 percent of our natural gas from the Soviets, and a quarter of our nonferrous metals. We see benefits in the trade and Moscow needs us. So . . . ."
Mr. Schmidt also signaled President Carter, French President Giscard d'Estaing, and other Western leaders that his government is an integral part of the Western alliance.
He urged Mr. Brezhnev and other ranking members of the Politburo in the Kremlin June 30 to withdraw all troop from Afghanistan, to agree to talk about Soviet SS-20 missiles without preconditions, to help free US hostages from Tehran, and to declare that Moscow will abide by the SALT II treaty even though it is not ratified.
It was tough, firm, but not belligerent language, worked out in advance with Washington and other NATO allies -- in striking contrast to President Giscard d'Estaing, who met Mr. Brezhnev in Warsaw in May with no advance warning to his allies.
Mr. Schmidt and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher played down the economic and trade side of the visit. Mr. Schmidt wanted to avoid extra publicity involved in signing a 25-year trade-cooperation program.
He preferred to have his ambassador in Moscow sign it, despite lingering Soviet hopes of a Schmidt-Brezhnev signing amid publicity the Kremlin hoped would further embarrass the United States.
As for Mr. Brezhnev and the Kremlin hierarchy, they used the visit to try to show the world it was back to diplomatic business as usual despite their troop presence in Afghanistan.
Mr. Brezhnev yielded nothing -- just as he had given up nothing to President Giscard d'Estaing in Warsaw in May. He restated standard Soviet positions on Afghanistan, dismissing Western ideas for a settlement as "prejudiced."
On medium-range missiles, Mr. Brezhnev waved aside Mr. Schmidt's plea for unconditional negotiations. He said the West wanted to talk only about Soviet SS-20s while going ahead with plans to install 574 US Pershing and cruise missiles in Europe. The decision to install the missiles must first be suspended or canceled, the Soviets insist.
The Soviet side played up trade ties, even having the Soviet ambassador to Bonn, Vladimir Semyonov, suggest at the last minute that Mr. Schmidt bring some German business leaders in his delegation. Mr. Schmidt refused.
The Kremlin made sure the Soviet people were prevented from reading Mr. Schmidt's statements on Afghanistan and missiles. Tass and Pravda suddenly stopped quoting his speech verbatim at two key points, moved into the third person, edited him heavily, and inserted Soviet views.