Judging Soviet motivations by their actions

DO the Soviets' recent actions shed any more light on the state of their policy and attitudes under Konstantin Chernenko? Since he succeeded Yuri Andropov, besides staging major naval maneuvers, the USSR has pulled out of the Olympics, announced new missiles for East Germany and more missile subs for the US East Coast, and harshly rebuffed all proposals for renewing arms control talks, including the appeal last Monday by the West German foreign minister. Abruptly, the USSR canceled the visit to China by a deputy prime minister, which was set for just after President Reagan's trip. And at home, it tightened restraints on contacts with foreigners and further harassed the Sakharovs.

What does all this signify?

First off, of course, is the continuity with the policy Andropov laid out in his formal statement last September after the Korean airliner episode.

Calling hopes for better relations ''illusions,'' he charged Reagan with pursuing ''a militarist course which poses a grave threat to peace'' and seeks United States world dominance. By then, Soviet leaders seemed to have concluded that the President's purpose was to denigrate the Soviet Union, deny it legitimacy, and conduct a ''crusade against socialism as a social system.''

Some experts, like Seweryn Bialer of Columbia University, feared that angry and defiant Soviet leaders might strike out to ''teach Reagan a lesson.''

That may motivate some of the Soviet actions, as well as their constant verbal castigation of Reagan in the press and to visitors from the West. Perhaps we should be thankful that their reactions have taken such largely symbolic forms. No doubt they would like to see Reagan defeated, but their actions tend to be counterproductive by appearing to justify some of his positions.

Second, and more specifically, their actions reflect frustration and resentment over the failure of the massive Soviet campaign to prevent deployment of the INF missiles last fall. They do not appear to have accepted that defeat as final. Indeed, they seem to be continuing the effort to divide the West Europeans from the US by frightening them.

But again their intransigence on arms control negotiations works the wrong way. At their party conference last weekend, the Social Democrats of West Germany, which opposed the INF missiles, reaffirmed their support for NATO. Moreover, suddenly dropping the China visit hardly seems to serve Soviet interests, whatever their views of Reagan's trip there.

A third factor may well be involved. The leaders may be uncertain and unsettled about their future course in the light of changed conditions. As Andropov explicitly recognized, the regime faces serious problems and hard choices regarding the operation of the economy, allocation of resources, the burden of foreign clients, and the potential strains of an arms race in response to the US buildup. The choice of Chernenko may itself reflect such indecision.

Under such conditions the Soviets tend to be assertive to cloak weakness or gain time. Andrei Gromyko and Dmitri Ustinov are natural spokesmen for such a hard line. Their harshness and truculence are in keeping with such a purpose.

Does this all support the view that relations are the worst in 20 years? Only in a limited sense. Certainly the mood and tone and invective on the Soviet side have hit a low point. Soviet leaders are manifestly disappointed and bitter that their foreign policy is not going as smoothly and favorably as it seemed to a few years ago. But the risk of confrontation does not seem high - it is not as great as it has often been in the past. More worrisome is the lack of contact between the two sides, which was much more extensive even in the ''cold war'' period of the 1950s. That could be dangerous in case of a sudden crisis in a trouble spot like the Mideast.

The West seems agreed that no concessions should be made merely to lure the Soviets back to the negotiating table. That is sound. But the US and its allies should be using this interval for clarifying their own policies toward the USSR. In particular, what serious forms of balanced arms control are we prepared to accept?

An election year is hardly a good time for that effort. But this administration would have trouble resolving that issue in any event. It is deeply split about how far arms control would really serve US interests, and the President does not seem enough in charge to thrash out and impose a position.

If so, that is most unfortunate. One potential way to influence Soviet policy debate is to make clear to the participants the alternatives that are available on the Western side if they choose to meet the conditions.

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