Soviet leadership passes to a new generation. View from Washington. US analysts look at Gorbachev and see shifts in style, but not substance
Washington — There will be more zip in the Kremlin now. There may be a more polished style. But don't look for any changes of substance in relations between the two superpowers. So say Kremlinologists in and out of government as the United States prepares to deal with new Soviet party leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
``Most of the indications are that he is a clone [of the older leaders],'' says one administration analyst. ``Gorbachev is not a revolutionary, because he wouldn't have gotten there. You may not have change but only more vigor on policies already agreed upon and worked out by consensus.''
Despite urgings from some quarters, President Reagan has decided not to travel to Moscow for the funeral of Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko on Wednesday. Vice-President George Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and US Ambassador to Moscow Arthur A. Hartman will represent the US.
Diplomatic experts and congressional leaders are divided on the President's decision. Some say that Mr. Reagan is missing an opportunity to give an impetus to US-Soviet relations by meeting General Secretary Gorbachev. Others argue that a presidential pilgrimage would simply have been grandstanding.
``It would just be exhibitionist,'' says Malcolm Toon, former US ambassador to Moscow. ``He never met Chernenko, so it would have been a mistake to go.''
``Just as we're starting arms negotiations, it would have been a good opportunity for Reagan to explain to the new Soviet leadership his vision of the future and hear directly from them that they share his long-term vision, but [I believe] that his short-term plans will make it impossible to get there,'' says Mark Garrison, director of the Center for Foreign Policy at Brown University and a former US diplomat.
Specialists on the Soviet Union agree that the third Soviet succession in less than three years will not mean a radical shift in the Kremlin's foreign policies. It could take months or even years before Gorbachev consolidates his power, experts say, and so far there is no sign that the new leadership's policies would be more benign or liberal. Gorbachev comes out of the same mold as his predecessors and has been involved in past decisions, suggesting there will be more continuity than change in policy abroad.
``He joined the party very early for the postwar generation and his whole career has been in the party and Komsomol [Communist Youth League],'' says Dimitri K. Simes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``But he has no new ideas. He's a careful politician and probably very successful. But whether that means he's a formidable statesman, or what are his instincts beneath the smiles -- there are no crystal balls.''
At the same time, Gorbachev's relative youth gives him the physical and mental potential to be a stronger and more pragmatic leader, say administration officials and experts outside government. This could have its effect especially on the domestic economic front, where the Politburo wrestles with a stagnating economy.
His style -- and that of his comely wife -- have already aroused interest and even excitement abroad. By comparison with Western leaders, Gorbachev is not particularly extraordinary, experts say, but when compared with Leonid Brezhnev or Yuri Andropov, he presents a markedly different appearance.
Some analysts say that a stronger, more vigorous leadership in the Kremlin could have pitfalls for the US. When the US made mistakes in the recent past, for instance, the leadership in the Kremlin was too weak to respond. Now it is possible that the margins of what can be achieved and the margins of what Moscow can do to the US are widened.
``It all depends to what ends the vigor is applied,'' says Mr. Garrison. ``If it is applied to getting the Soviet economy moving and getting a handle on US-Soviet relations in a positive way, that is one thing. If it's applied to getting the economy moving and forcing the Americans to understand they are dealing with the other superpower and [the Soviets] are not prepared for concessions -- the situation won't be better and could get worse because you're not dealing with old men.''
As the US-Soviet arms talks get under way in Geneva without interruption, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko is expected to become even more dominant, at least while Gorbachev settles in and seeks to secure his position.
Washington's relations with Moscow, meanwhile, are experiencing something of a warming trend.
Not only are the negotiations on nuclear and space weapons under way, but the two sides are engaged in talks along a broad front, including trade, crisis communications, and fishing rights.
Secretary of State Shultz met with Foreign Minister Gromyko this month to discuss the Middle East, and Soviet Politburo member Vladimir V. Shcherbitsky has just paid a quiet visit to Washington and met with Reagan.
``The arms talks are important, but it is equally important that we begin to have more of a dialogue in other fields,'' says a senior Reagan administration official. ``They are all important, and we can't let our relationship rest on the arms control negotiations. We can't claim startlingly new agreements -- but it helps keep rivalry under control.''
Diplomatic observers welcome the improvement of ties even while noting that relations remain far from ideal.
``The world is more dangerous when we're not talking, since they're capable of making bad judgments,'' Ambassador Toon says. Despite the warming trend, he says, relations are still bad.
Reagan administration officials caution against expecting early results in the Geneva talks. It will take a few months to get a feel of where the talks might be headed.
The chief breakthrough, officials say, will have to come in Soviet thinking.
``Are they going to insist on presenting the appearance of a first-strike capability or are they willing to consider arrangements that will bring the levels down?'' a senior US official asks. ``If they are willing to show flexibility,'' he adds, ``we can move ahead and rapidly.''
Research on the President's Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called ``star wars'' program, is nonnegotiable, the official stresses.
Moscow's present claim that SDI is a cover for developing a first-strike capability does not hold water, he says, inasmuch as the Soviets already have a 3-to-1 advantage over the US in the ability to destroy hardened targets.