Moscow senses Reagan tide and reluctantly goes with the flow

If the pundits and the pollsters -- and the Russians -- have got it right, the United States is heading for its first, full, eight-year presidency since the days of Dwight Eisenhower.

That is one reading of the Kremlin's decision this past week to accept President Reagan's invitation to Andrei Gromyko to come and talk things over in the White House later this month.

The Soviet foreign minister, a full member of the ruling Politburo, would hardly have said "yes" if he and his colleagues had not calculated that they would almost certainly have to brace themselves for four more years of dealings with their bete noire,m Mr. Reagan.

Washington's decision to nearly double the tonnage of grain the Soviets can buy from American farmers in the coming fiscal year may have helped. Its timing was impeccable in diplomatic-political terms -- a friendly Reagan gesture to both Russians and American farmers just before the US election.

Up to now, the Kremlin has gone out of its way to make life difficult for the campaigning US President. As one senior East European official remarked to this writer earlier this summer, "The Soviets have no interest in helping Mr. Reagan win the November election."

But, having apparently failed to prevent that unhappy (from their viewpoint) event from occurring, the Soviets' overriding motive for resuming top-level discussions seems likely to be a desire to cut their losses and get in on the ground floor with a probably ongoing administration.

It is clearly a reluctant stance. There has been no letup in Moscow's campaign of vilification against the Reagan administration. Just this past week the official Tass news agency commented that US-Soviet relations had fallen to "the lowest point in their history."

And, before the announcement of the Gromyko talks with Mr. Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz, the Russians had been busy tightening up their own empire. They don't want any others doing the talking for them. If anyone is to probe the West at this moment, it will be members of the Soviet Union's own leadership, not one of the East bloc's lesser lights.

With unusual public pressure in the case of East Germany's Erich Honecker, and presumed private armtwisting in the case of Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, the Kremlin has persuaded both to at least "postpone" their planned visits to West Germany this month. It's probably no coincidence that just before Mr. Zhivkov's postponement, the Soviet Politburo's assumed second in command, Mikhail Gorbachev, visited Sofia. It would have been interesting to hear what they had to say to each other.

The Russians are still smarting from NATO's success in beginning its long-planned deployment of nuclear Euromissiles, intended to counter the Soviet buildup of SS-20 missiles. It now seems clear that the Soviets miscalculated the ability of the West European peace movement to disrupt or prevent the NATO deployments.

Moscow invested a great deal of prestige and effort into its campaign against the NATO missiles. The campaign failed. Whatever the merits of the missiles themselves and the political costs of their deployment, the fact that NATO managed to start putting them in place late last year was a major strategic setback for the Kremlin. Moscow's reaction was the deep freeze into which it plunged the various forms of arms talks, its relations with the US, and, most recently, its allies' residual minidetente in Europe.

The proposed Gromyko talks are among the first significant signs of a possible slight thaw. Mr. Shultz last met with Mr. Gromyko in January this year in Stockholm. Now the White House is even talking up the possibility that nuclear weapons talks "can be renewed before too long" (National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane on NBC's Today program on Thursday).

But forecasting Kremlin policies these days is as risky as forecasting the English -- or New England -- weather. Until the Kremlin hit its current period of leadership turmoil and turnover, it used to be a model of uniformity -- at least in comparison with the United States, which seemed to friends and foes to lurch from one policy to another with every change in White House occupant.

While Leonid Brezhnev's rule dragged on and on, one President after another entered and left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And with US foreign policy becoming increasingly entangled in political debate, these one or one-and-a-bit term Presidents tended to swing the rudder of foreign policy back and forth from port to starboard.

Today the situation is reversed. A Reagan win would open the way for the first full two-term presidency since 1961. Whatever the Russians and the American allies think of Mr. Reagan's policies, at least they know what to expect.

Meanwhile, an internal struggle of some sort appears to be going on inside the Kremlin, as a weary-looking Konstantin Chernenko appears, disappears, and reappears on the scene. The unexplained ousting of Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov from his post as top military leader seems to be one symptom of internecine strife.

Kremlin-watchers are left guessing as to who is calling the shots -- let alone what the shots are likely to be in the months ahead.

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