US-Soviet relations sour as Kremlin focuses on problems at home

The Kremlin's foreign policy seems stuck on automatic pilot. Western analysts here say Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is preoccupied with shoring up his own political power and dealing with a raft of other internal problems.

In the meantime, Soviet-American relations seem to be slowly souring. Although Western diplomats blame the Kremlin for much of the problem, the Reagan administration also comes in for criticism.

A number of analysts here offer a picture of a distracted Soviet leadership, unable or unwilling to act on a number of nettlesome foreign-policy problems stretching across the globe.

But they also fault the United States for failing to halt the slide in relations -- and for sometimes being less than forthcoming with its own allies.

To be sure, the two superpowers continue to maintain contacts on a number of fronts. Negotiations on a possible summit meeting continue. US and Soviet officials have just signed a new agreement on cooperation in agriculture.

Meanwhile, Soviet officials are in Washington discussing the situation in Afghanistan. And a new cultural agreement between the two countries is still being negotiated. Other issues -- including air safety over the North Atlantic -- are still being discussed, and modest progress is reported.

But on the central issue dividing the two countries -- arms control -- the two continue to be at loggerheads.

The sticking point continues to be President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars,'' as it is popularly known). The Soviets insist that the US agree to halt research on it before there can be progress at the Geneva talks on arms control and space weapons.

``How can the US agree to a statement that the objective of the talks is to prevent an arms race in space, and then refuse to negotiate on star wars?'' asks a Soviet official.

Another issue that has rankled the Kremlin is Mr. Reagan's qualified decision to continue adhering to the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) -- while accusing the Kremlin of undermining it.

The Soviets insist that not a single Soviet violation has been proved. Therefore they bristle at what they claim is Reagan's assertion of a US right to observe the treaty selectively.

It is all part of an overarching pattern, they claim, in which the US seeks military advantage over this country. It is, of course, difficult to discern how much of this is mere posturing. But some analysts report that the Soviets seem genuinely to believe that hard-line conservatives within the Reagan White House and the Pentagon are bent on pushing their own agenda during the administration's second term -- and that the President has not curbed them.

Consequently, some analysts speculate the Soviets could be preparing for a prolonged stalemate in relations with the US. And some Western diplomats complain that the US appears to be doing little to avert such a standoff. To be sure, the complaints are none too serious -- yet. But they do indicate some disgruntlement.

One complains that his country can't seem to get the ``full story'' from the US concerning SDI and allegations that the Soviet Union is violating SALT II and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty.

Another observes that the US would prefer its allies to wear ``blinders,'' accepting only information that buttresses its own views while ignoring things that support Soviet positions. That, he adds, is ``regrettable,'' since it only aids Moscow in its attempts to divide the US from its allies.

Moscow, in the meantime, is also saying little about its own ``star wars'' programs. The Kremlin has made no comment on a claim by a West German government official that the Soviet Union is already into the second phase of developing its own version of SDI.

Soviet Defense Minister Sergei Sokolov denies that this country is developing a space-based weapons system. But Soviet officials have refused all requests to visit a radar site near Krasnoyarsk, a facility the Reagan administration claims could eventually form part of an ABM system. The Soviets claim it is for ``space tracking.''

Moreover, Soviet officials claim, US spy satellites provide enough information to verify that assertion. Thus, they argue, on-site inspection is not necessary.

One diplomat notes that on this, as on every other major foreign-policy issue, Soviet leader Gorbachev is hewing to standard Soviet policies.

``It's not the right time for major initiatives,'' the diplomat says. ``His first priority has got to be on internal affairs. He can't give too much attention to carrying out a new foreign policy.''

On the other hand, says another diplomat, Gorbachev also seems to have avoided major foreign-policy commitments that would be difficult to jettison later. That, he says, could be a hopeful sign that once Gorbachev has secured his grip on Kremlin power, there could be changes in Moscow's foreign policy.

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