Western leaders wait for Kremlin to respond to recent overtures

When Soviet President Yuri Andropov passed on last month, the Western allies instinctively reacted in concert. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and American Vice-President George Bush all went to the funeral in Moscow and met new party general secretary Konstantin Chernenko.

And if French President Francois Mitterrand didn't attend, that perhaps had less to do with his attitude toward the Kremlin than with his attitude toward his domestic ally-rival and the Kremlin's client, the French Communist Party.

Remarkably, given the past four years, all the Western visitors to Moscow carried roughly the same message. They hoped the changeover in the Kremlin could provide an opportunity for a new beginning in East-West relations.

They certainly didn't expect any revolution in Soviet thinking from what was basically a continuation of the old collective leadership in the Kremlin.

They did hope, however, that some sterile tactical choices made by the Kremlin in 1982 and 1983 might be dropped, now that the personal prestige of the top leader was no longer staked on them. The collective leadership under a new leader had the leeway to rethink policy, a leeway it did not have so long as Andropov lived.

The Western overtures to Moscow did not begin with Andropov's funeral, of course. They coalesced, perhaps, with NATO's successful generation of decisive political support for Euromissile deployment at the end of 1983 in the three countries of initial stationing - Britain, Italy, and especially West Germany.

With the stationing, the allies believed Moscow had been thwarted in its grab for sudden theater nuclear superiority in stationing 243 SS-20 aimed at Europe between 1977 and 1983. They believed NATO's new Euromissiles unmistakably signaled Moscow that such a surge was unacceptable and that the West had the political will to counter it.

There was thus no longer the need to display determination by confrontational rhetoric. The Pershing II and cruise missiles on the ground in Greenham Common, Schwabisch Gmund, and Comiso spoke louder than words.

Domestically, the need changed from the mobilizing of public opinion to calming it down. A strong impulse to the antimissile movement, the West Germans pointed out early, came from popular fear of a heightened danger of nuclear war.

It therefore behooved NATO governments to demonstrate - by promoting continued East-West German amity, the new Stockholm conference on security-building measures, a new environmental conference, and whatever other East-West dialogue could be mustered - that Europe was no closer to war after than before the new Euromissiles were emplaced.

The West Germans lobbied for such tactics, and they got formal endorsement of them in the conciliatory ''signal from Brussels'' to Moscow as the NATO ministers met early last December.

Again and again Bonn argued that firm maintenance of the military balance (as in the new Euromissile deployments) must be complemented by readiness to explore areas of mutual interest (like preserving the political status quo in Europe) and mutual need (like arms control).

Philosophically, West Germany contended that the sun of East-West contacts would do far more than the cold wind of hostility to forward the (admittedly slow) evolution of the Soviet Union into a more tolerant live-and-let-live power.

Britain's ''Iron Lady,'' while skeptical of the West German philosophy, had nonetheless also decided that East-West confrontation had reached a dead end. She signaled her shift at the Tory party conference last October, offered herself as a forerider of dialogue by visiting Hungary in January, and advertised her interest in visiting Moscow as well.

In Paris, President Mitterand was underging a comparable metamorphosis.

And then there was the United States. In modifying its Euromissile arms control positions in 1983, in agreeing grudgingly to go to Stockholm in January 1984, and in endorsing NATO's ''signal from Brussels,'' Washington had been largely humoring the Europeans. But by the eve of the Stockholm conference on Jan. 16 Mr. Reagan was giving notice of his own change of course with what were by far his most conciliatory remarks on the Soviet Union during his incumbency.

Administration insiders explained this was no sudden departure. Reagan had been contemplating giving just such a speech since the previous summer and had deliberately not hurled public epithets like ''the evil empire'' at the Kremlin since the previous spring.

Loose public talk of nuclear war by administration members had ceased (after the shudders in Europe). ''Horizontal escalation'' had been quietly shelved, and the phrase would not appear in the defense secretary's 1984 annual report.

Even economic sanctions against the Soviet Union had lost some of their fascination in Washington. Prof. Richard Pipes and his vision of Armageddon had been honorably retired to Harvard back at the end of 1982, and his National Security Council post went to Jack Matlock, a reasonably hard-line Soviet specialist but a diplomat with the professional's instinct for pragmatism and aversion to ideology.

In official Washington, then, the dream faded of exerting enough pressure on the Soviet Union to make its economy and multinational empire collapse.

Indeed, the insiders continued, it was only the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner and Soviet truculence about the incident thereafter that postponed Reagan's intended offer of reconciliation to Moscow to 1984.

1984, of course, was an election year. However long the buildup to the Reagan administration reevaluation of its Soviet policy, the clinching argument on timing seemed to be the propensity of an American president to move toward the center as reelection approaches. This Reagan did on Jan. 16.

As he explained it, during his three years in office the US had amply demonstrated its toughness to the Soviet Union. It had overcome its post-Vietnam paralysis in the world. It had built up its military forces sufficiently to allow a civil gesture to Moscow without having this gesture interpreted as weakness.

Europeans greeted Reagan's explanation with relief, respect, and a grain of salt. They may not have thought that 100 future MX missiles in vulnerable fixed silos - half of President Carter's original program - demonstrated a US rise from inferiority to a ''margin of safety.'' But they had never believed the US was inferior (except in Euromissiles, which the new deployments were redressing).

They were impressed, however - and they assumed Moscow was, too - by Reagan's ability to hike defense spending by hefty percentages over four consecutive years without setting off a taxpayers' revolt. They were glad their rather moody senior partner was again exhibiting self-confidence.

They welcomed - after a period in which Moscow had lavished military means on pursuing marginal advantage in Africa and real potential advantage in Afghanistan and Europe - the conjunction of Reagan's explicit toughness with a new Soviet caution born of political succession and overextension. Once this conjunction was clear, they welcomed Reagan's tempering of his rhetoric.

As a British diplomat put it, the Europeans appreciate the blend of ''policy since the end of the Carter period of military strength combined with the readiness to talk - which has only just now'' coalesced.

''Now everyone (in the West) is on board on the two or three big principles, '' he continued. ''This happened at a time (of change in the Kremlin) when something can be done about it.... Chernenko has a choice: He could be an Andropov or a Brezhnev.''

This time, the NATO partners are agreed.

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