Moscow's veteran ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin, was back in Moscow this past week working away at helping his colleagues in the Politburo decide whether to talk to the Americans in September, and about what.
Clearly, the men of the Kremlin were having trouble making up their minds - and thereby hangs a story.
Moscow is having trouble these days making up its collective mind about all sorts of things, domestic as well as foreign. It is a long time since there has been any fresh initiative out of the Kremlin about anything.
Yuri Andropov made a few stabs at innovation in domestic affairs during his brief reign. But he was not in power long enough to launch a major initiative or follow through on even his brief experimental pilot projects in economic innovation. Moscow's economy had settled into a trough of stagnation well before the end of the Leonid Brezhnev era.
The last new Soviet adventure in foreign affairs was the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Since then the Soviets have done two things which the Western world resented - the imposition of martial law in Poland (by the Polish Army) in December 1981, and the shooting down of the Korean airliner on Sept. 1 of last year.
But martial law in Poland reflected not a new policy but a clinging to an old one. Keeping Poland under firm Soviet control has been a keystone in Soviet policy for Eastern Europe since the end of World War II in 1945. The downing of the Korean airliner reflected the Soviet sense of how the USSR protects and defends its own frontiers.
Moscow engaged in a forward strategy in world affairs during the Khrushchev era and well into the Brezhnev period. The most ambitious phase was from 1975, when the Soviets backed the winning revolutions in both Angola and Mozambique, to 1979, when they lost Somalia in order to gain Ethiopia and invaded Afghanistan. During that phase they also made a lodgment in Yemen and consolidated their position in Vietnam.
Today the Soviets' biggest overseas operation is still Afghanistan, with more than 100,000 Soviet troops there. Next comes Vietnam, with 7,000, and Syria, with the same number. There are 4,600 in Cuba and 2,400 in Ethiopia.
Brezhnev was in power from October 1964 to November 1982. He must have been reasonably active at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan, but external evidence would indicate that that was probably about the end of his active phase. The essential fact is that there has been no strong positive initiative in either domestic or foreign Soviet policy since then. The Soviets have been slogging along ever since with policies established long before.
Besides slogging, they have done some stumbling. The latest example is their poor playing of the propaganda hand over the prospective meeting with the US in Vienna this September to discuss weapons and outer space. They had for some time before their proposal on June 29 been asserting that they wanted negotiations; but they claimed the US blocked progress on arms control by always setting impossible conditions.
They are today in the position of setting their own condition for Vienna: that the talk will be exclusively about weapons in outer space. They lost the inside track on that game.
Earlier they had sustained one of their worst diplomatic and propaganda defeats in many years. That was the failure of a major and sustained campaign to prevent deployment of the new American intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe.
They put some three years of intensive propaganda and diplomacy into that effort. Their methods were too heavy-handed. They caused more alarm than persuasion. The new American weapons are being deployed on NATO bases in Europe.
And while the Soviets were misplaying their hand in Western Europe, they were losing an even more important gain in Asia. Ronald Reagan gave them a splendid and three-year-long opportunity to repair their breach with China and keep China from slipping further down the Western tilt in its foreign policies.
Soviet hostility toward China from 1960 (when the Soviets pulled their technicians and advisers out of China literally by the trainload) to 1981 (when Ronald Reagan entered the White House) had pushed China toward reconciliation with the West in general and with the US in particular. From 1972 (when Richard Nixon went to Peking) to 1981, Washington and Peking kept getting closer and closer.
President Reagan halted that process, and talked about restoring US relations with Taiwan rather than with mainland China. The Chinese predictably reacted by reopening talks with the Soviets. By October 1982 they had entered into a formal arrangement with Moscow for a series of talks to alternate between Moscow and Peking. There were three rounds of those talks in 1983 - in March, September, and October. A fourth round took place in March of this year.
By that time Mr. Reagan had gotten the message, invited the Chinese prime minister to Washington, and gone to Peking himself. The Russians had had their chance, for three years.
They blew it by refusing to meet the Chinese even partway on the three things the Chinese most wanted. Those were (1) fewer Soviet troops along the Chinese frontier, (2) Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and (3) less Soviet aid to Vietnam.
There are still 52 Soviet divisions (nearly one-third of the Soviet Army) on the Chinese frontier, some 105,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and 7,000 more in Vietnam. To the Chinese this array seems to be aiming at them from three angles. The Soviets couldn't bring themselves to pull far enough away to tempt the Chinese back from their new pro-American orientation.
The Soviet approach to China that failed is a colossal foreign policy blunder. It is the kind of blunder explainable only by mental atrophy in Moscow. And that, in turn, is explainable only by the absence of strong leadership.
The essence of the matter is that Moscow has been stagnating in a political interregnum ever since Leonid Brezhnev lost his grip on affairs, which was sometime in 1980. He was replaced by the fragile Yuri Andropov, who, in turn, gave way to another elder compromise time-server, Konstantin Chernenko.
Leonid Brezhnev was the last true czar of all the Russians. Russia goes dormant when led by ineffective, elderly time-servers. It is in a dormant phase now. There is no harm for others in a drowsy, hibernating bear. But it is prudent not to wake it.