Critical juncture for US-Soviet ties: how to rebuild dialogue

With his latest strategic arms proposals, President Reagan has moved deftly to alter the public and congressional perception that he seeks to confront rather than accommodate the Soviet Union.

But concern lingers among experts in and out of government about the sharp deterioration in Soviet-American relations.

Neither superpower is doing anything to risk a direct conflict, these experts say. The situation cannot be compared to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 or to the tense days in 1973 when the Russians were loading paratroopers for the Middle East. But American officials admit that relations are at the lowest ebb in a long time. The administration is in fact looking for ways to keep the strains from deepening, even while the public polemics continue.

Outside analysts note that for a variety of reasons - Afghanistan, Central America, Poland, the downing of the South Korean airliner - the Reagan administration has still to rebuild relations with Moscow in a fundamental way.

''There is not much left of Soviet-US relations,'' said William Hyland to an audience here recently. Mr. Hyland is a former aide to Henry A. Kissinger and now editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. ''There is not much dialogue or economic relations,'' he said. ''Arms control negotiations are in danger of collapsing. . . . We are in for a long freeze.''

George Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow and a longtime observer of the Soviet scene, writes that the Soviets have concluded, rightly or wrongly, that they can only expect hostility from the Reagan administration and are therefore likely to change their policies toward the West for the worse. The present situation, he says, is in some respects one of ''heightened danger'' and one that ''ought not to be permitted to last a moment longer than it has to.''

To be sure, the administration has signed a long-term grain deal with Moscow. And the dispute within the administration over the export of certain oil and gas equipment to the Soviet Union appears on its way to being resolved. But, as Kremlinologists point out, the Russians do not regard trade as a concession. It has no effect on the Soviet leadership.

What concerns Moscow is the issue of security. So when it sees the United States talking with China about military cooperation, this wipes out any US gestures on trade.

Relations, in any case, are now approaching a critical juncture. As the US deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe draws near, the Soviets are threatening to break off all nuclear arms talks in Geneva. They have not responded positively to Mr. Reagan's latest arms proposals, presumably waiting to see how much the peace protests in West Germany will play into their hands.

Administration officials maintain that the President has made creditable proposals in both the intermediate nuclear force (INF) and the strategic arms reduction talks (START). Now that he has achieved an American military buildup, they say, he is in earnest about reaching an arms control agreement. The ball, they add, is in Moscow's court.

On the INF front, some observers are concerned that given the profound Soviet mistrust of the Reagan administration, it is too late to accomplish anything before the deployment begins in December. Once it is under way, the Soviets will feel compelled to counter with deployments of their own - perhaps sending a few cruise-missile-carrying submarines close to US shores. Then, because of the poor climate of US-Soviet relations, it will be even more difficult for the two sides to strike a deal.

''The President is trying to show that he is amenable,'' says Dimitri K. Simes, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''But he has not shown enough flexibility to make a difference to the Soviet Union - by taking account of the British and French forces.''

As for Reagan's proposals in the START talks, including the plan for a ''build-down'' of warheads, many experts view these as designed by the administration primarily to win congressional support for the MX missile. ''We were reducing the numbers of warheads anyway,'' says Dr. Simes. ''The proposal would still require a restructuring of Soviet forces and allow the US to proceed with its new systems. Maybe it was a good proposal, but not from the Soviet standpoint.''

Because of the current strains in ties, the US and the Soviets are urged to try to move back from a potentially serious face-off. Mr. Kennan suggests the two sides search for ''small steps'' to help stabilize the situation even within the present limited framework.

In general, analysts say the two countries could help keep their relationship from worsening by cooling the rhetoric and quietly pursuing contacts at lower levels.

Meantime, it is felt, the administration has yet to define its interests in respect to Central America, Poland, and other issues clouding the US-Soviet agenda.

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