Reagan's Soviet policy: mixing hardball, soft sell
Washington — In its strained relationship with the Soviet Union over Poland, the Reagan administration now is running along two tracks. President Reagan is offering the prospect of a superpower summit meeting with the Soviets, especially if they show restraint in Poland. But at the same time, he is blaming the Soviets for much of what has happened in Poland and is preparing economic and diplomatic sanctions against them should the Polish repression continue.
Mr. Reagan seems to sense that Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev wants a superpower summit meeting. The US President is, in effect, offering the Soviet leader a summit as a reward for good behavior. But he also told newsmen recently that he sees a summit as ''likely'' in 1982 despite the current disagreements with the Soviets over Poland.
President Reagan has thus come a long way since the days when he firmly linked Soviet behavior in a number of regions of the world with the prospects for an improvement in relations.
In a similar vein, the President had offered six weeks earlier, in his major speech on arms control, to discuss with the Soviets ''deep cuts'' in nuclear weapons arsenals. He did not link such arms control progress to Soviet behavior elsewhere in the world.
The President seems to be sending mixed signals to the Soviets, both hard and soft. But there are several good reasons why he might want to do so. First, he wants to offer the Soviets some prospect for improved relations should they show restraint in Poland. But perhaps more important, he must demonstrate to America's European allies - all of whom are concerned to varying degrees about a rise in East-West tensions - that the US is interested in exploring every possible avenue to arms control and peace. The President must also pay attention to polls which show that while many Americans want stronger military defenses, they also would favor equitable arms control agreements.
''The realities of power tend to drive a president toward summits,'' one administration official said. ''And there's nothing better than a big, fat, attention-getting summit in a midterm election year.''
A nationwide Gallup poll released on Dec. 13 showed that 76 percent of Americans polled would favor a reduction in US and Soviet nuclear weapons stocks by 50 percent across the board if such cuts were equitable. In his Nov. 18 speech on arms control, President Reagan proposed that the two sides work toward achieving ''equality at lower levels'' in their conventional arms in Europe and toward canceling US plans to deploy new US nuclear missiles in Europe in return for the dismantling of comparable Soviet missiles.
The administration would be reluctant to withdraw from the arms control talks with the Soviets, which began in Geneva on Nov. 30, largely because this might provoke dissension with the allies. A State Department specialist on Western Europe said that short of a Soviet invasion of Poland, West Germany, for one, would oppose such a withdrawal. In the West German view, the official said, Poland's Solidarity trade union movement went too far in its demands and the Soviet role in Poland is still unclear.
What the US could do in the diplomatic realm is suspend its participation in the Madrid meetings on implementation of the 1975 Helsinki agreements. According to a State Department official, the US might declare that the Soviets, through their influence and actions in Poland, have ''made a mockery'' of the human rights provisions of the Helsinki accords. Some officials apparently have even suggested that the administration renounce the accords. State Department officials opposed that. So what is now under consideration apparently is a suspension of US participation in the meetings in Madrid. The Madrid meetings are now in recess and set to resume Feb. 9.
On the economic front, cuts in high technology exports to the Soviet Union has already been tried as a punitive tactic. The US led the way in tightening restrictions following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan two years ago. The problem was that the West Europeans declined to go as far in this area as the Americans wanted. They have not yet been asked to cut high technology exports to the Soviets because of Poland but indications are that they would balk at such action unless the Soviets actually invaded Poland.
One administration official said that the only ''big gun'' which the US had to use against the Soviets at this time would be a grain embargo, but that this would only be effective if friends and allies went along. Friends and allies would not go along, he said, unless the Soviets invaded Poland.
The official said that should an invasion occur, the administration would be prepared to get much tougher. He suggested that one move that it might consider would be to help supply more sophisticated weapons to the guerrillas who are fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Mines, antitank weapons, and more hand-held , heat-seeking missiles could be made available by a number of countries allied with the United States.
The Soviets, meanwhile, appear to be interested in a summit.
President Brezhnev said as much in a reply to questions from NBC's diplomatic correspondent Marvin Kalb on Dec. 21. Brezhnev said that ''experience shows that to better understand the position and intentions of each other and to come up with serious political solutions, summit meetings are more useful than any other form of inter-state communications.''
Arthur Macy Cox, a former CIA official and now a consultant to the American Committee on East-West Accord, said that Soviet diplomats have indicated to him that the Soviets want a summit in part to find out if President Reagan is really serious about deep cuts in nuclear weaponry. They also have asserted, he said, that they do not think Reagan fully understands the Soviet Union position on arms control because of ''misinformation'' he is getting from his advisers.
A State Department specialist said the Soviets want a summit partly because it accords them a form of symbolic ''legitimacy'' which they instinctively know, as unelected officials, that they are lacking.