Brezhnev response to Reagan: talking tough is a game two can play

Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev, saying ''words'' are not enough to counter Reagan administration policy, has called on his military to hike ''combat readiness'' and keep pace with new weapons technology.

For the first time, he also explicitly linked recent efforts at improving Soviet-Chinese ties to the souring of relations between Moscow and Washington. He said that although ''no radical changes'' in Peking's foreign policy had yet appeared, the Chinese had spoken in favor of normalizing relations and that ''new things which appear (from China) must not be ignored by us.''

Although pledging commitment to general ''detente'' and to ''reducing the danger of nuclear war,'' Mr. Brezhnev's Oct. 27 speech to top military officials was tougher in tone than any he has made since President Reagan moved into the White House nearly two years ago.

The Soviet President included no reference to the ongoing talks with the Americans on nuclear arms control, noting only that ''practical preparations are under way'' for deploying new US nuclear weapons in Western Europe.

Mr. Brezhnev, saying he was meeting the military officials at the suggestion of the Soviet defense minister, prefaced his remarks by alluding to ''new (policy) questions'' that had arisen in the past two years and demanded urgent attention.

To what extent the Brezhnev speech presages a practical shift in Soviet foreign and domestic policy remains to be seen.

Senior Soviet officials were not immediately available for comment on Mr. Brezhnev's speech.

Yet earlier conversations with such officials suggest the Kremlin has, for some time, been searching for a credible and coherent reply to perceived efforts by the Reagan administration to out-arm the Soviet Union, undermine its economy, and publicly to embarrass a fellow superpower.

These officials have also suggested various practical restraints in framing such a strategy: among them, the assumption that Soviet policy shifts could never fully finesse the central importance of relations with the United States. The officials have so far termed unrealistic any move simply to ''write off'' prospects for improved relations with the Reagan administration, or to ''wait it out.''

It was against this general background that Mr. Brezhnev spoke.

At the same time, the substance of his remarks suggested a response to considerations beyond mere Soviet-US relations. These include publicly expressed concern over instances of lapsed training, discipline, and ideology within the Soviet military as well as over evident sensitivity to reports overseas that Kremlin weaponry had performed poorly against US equipment in the recent fighting in Lebanon.

To the extent that Mr. Brezhnev's speech does foreshadow practical policy moves, it suggests:

* A genuinely concerted effort at normalizing relations with the Chinese.

* An overall upgrading of Soviet military training and preparedness.

* A continued commitment of major resources to the military. (Some diplomats read the fact that the Soviet defense minister had suggested the Brezhnev meeting as an indication the armed forces sought reassurance on this score at a time when nonmilitary programs, particularly a bid to improve Soviet agriculture , have been receiving great public attention.)

* Intensified emphasis on matching new US weapons systems. (Senior officials, in earlier private remarks, have singled out Soviet determination to come up with a radar-elusive cruise missile comparable to that developed by the Americans.)

Some Western analysts saw in Mr. Brezhnev's reference to ''practical preparations'' for siting of new US missiles in Europe a hint the Kremlin might also formally renounce a declared moratorium on expanding its own medium-range nuclear missile force in the European part of the country. In announcing that move in March, Mr. Brezhnev said all bets would be off if such ''practical preparations'' began.

But diplomats noted that to rescind the moratorium - which Western officials, despite Soviet denials, charge has been violated almost from the start - might greatly complicate longstanding Soviet efforts to improve relations with Western Europe and to encourage strains within the Western alliance.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.