West Europe's 'sanctions' against USSR - 'pinpricks'

An Irish official called them pinpricks. British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington called the talks leading up to them ''scrappy.''

At issue were attempts - yet again - by West European foreign ministers to find common ground for sanctions against the Soviet Union for its role in the military crackdown in Poland. The results this time were bound to be disappointing - at least in Washington's view. And they were.

Discussions Jan. 25 and 26 ended in nothing more than recommendations that interest rates on export loans to the USSR be lifted marginally and that money saved by halting subsidies on food sales to Poland be given to humanitarian organizations.

The failure of the Europeans to announce any dramatic moves against the Soviets Jan. 26 reflects not so much disagreement with the United States as self-interest.

It is not that the Europeans reject the US position that the Soviets were behind the imposition of martial law in Poland. But they want to preserve their extremely profitable commercial links with the Soviets.

Western Europe does extensive trade with the Soviets, but US-Soviet trade, except for agricultural products, is minimal.

Political analysts contend that the European Community (EC) will stand steadfastly behind the NATO agreement of Jan. 11 in which it was left to individual countries to decide what measures, if any, to take against the Soviet Union during the martial-law era.

''With such a mandate,'' one European official said, ''not much in the way of joint action can be expected from the Europeans.''

Following that line, US Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., speaking in Brussels after the NATO meeting, conceded that allied unity on the Polish crisis demands special interpretation.

''We've never asked any country to follow us in lock-step,'' Haig said. ''The NATO alliance is not the Warsaw Pact, with instructions being dictated from Moscow. And we wouldn't want it to be.''

Still, some observers have begun to wonder whether - if the Europeans cannot agree to take even relatively modest steps together - they can be expected to take any steps alone.

While modest, European officials were hailing the ''measures'' (no one would call them sanctions) as the first steps toward a common EC policy on anti-Soviet sanctions. ''We want to apply steady and gradually increasing pressure,'' an official said.

But evidence of how divided the Europeans remain over the sanctions issue emerged Jan. 26 when the French held up agreement on the interest-rate proposal by wondering aloud whether it would threaten the huge gas deal they signed with the USSR Jan. 23 by making credit too costly for the Russian authorities.

Even British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, who until now has been leading the Europeans toward a tougher line against Moscow, appeared to be apologizing for his colleagues and their lack of unity when he said Jan. 25, ''It is obviously more difficult for 10 countries to get their act together than for one (i.e., the US).

Also raised as a possible line of joint action by the Europeans against the Soviets if the situation in Poland fails to improve was to restrict imports of certain Russian products into the EC.

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