``In a sense going to France is a way to get the French to pressure Washington. Not going to Germany is a way to get the Germans to pressure Washington.'' With this observation, one senior Western diplomat here sums up Moscow's tactics in Soviet policy toward Europe. He sees Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's just-ended first official trip west -- to France -- as mixed in purpose. First, it aims to get Washington's European allies to influence United States policy in directing arms control accommodation with Moscow. If that doesn't succeed, then it aims at driving a wedge between the US and its European allies.
This in turn fits into the larger mixed motivation on the part of the Soviets in seeing if a deal is possible with the US -- but blaming Washington for the failure if it doesn't work. ``I don't think they know'' if the main aim in their current charm and arms control campaign is propaganda or negotiation, the diplomat suggests. ``I think Gorbachev is engaging in a kind of fallback diplomacy.''
He and other Western analysts here see France's vocal opposition to the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'') as a significant factor in Mr. Gorbachev's selection of France for his maiden trip to the West as Soviet Communist Party general secretary. Moscow would dearly love to have the Europeans persuade President Reagan to accept restraints on SDI testing and deployment in exchange for mutual deep cuts in offensive weapons. And it hopes that West Germany would participate in such lobb ying, out of Bonn's constant wish for as much d'etente as possible, especially as a lubricant to better East German-West German relations.
Ironically, while Europeans incline to favor SDI restraints on the basis of their own analysis, the conspicuous Soviet pressure makes it more difficult for them to lobby the Americans for such a course.
Certainly Moscow's bid to negotiate separately with the British and the French about reducing their independent nuclear missiles drives no wedges between the US and Europe. Mr. Reagan has said he has nothing against such talks -- while Paris has declined such bilateral negotiations and London has put off negotiations until such time as the superpowers have first reduced their huge arsenals.
A more intriguing question is what wedges Moscow might hope to drive between Western European allies themselves at this point. France and West Germany are obvious candidates. The French worry that the West Germans might look favorably on Soviet attempts to decrease the number of French nuclear weapons, and the Germans worry that the French might slight West German interests in their effort to restore the special relationship between Paris and Moscow.
No mainstream West German politicians are calling for French nuclear reductions, however. And West German officials say they are pleased with the reported vigor with which President Franois Mitterrand stressed the importance of French-West German reconciliation in his private talks with Gorbachev.
The one European country that Moscow might think it has a good chance of shaving off from the rest of the alliance is the Netherlands -- and here the Soviets are maneuvering with much more sophistication than in the recent past. In the early 1980s, Moscow gambled on a rather crude appeal to Western European citizens over the heads of their governments -- especially in West Germany -- to block new deployments of NATO Euromissiles. That gamble failed, as West Germany, Italy, and Britain, and later Belgium , all proceeded with stationing, and their peace movements faded in importance.
The current Soviet tack is much more subtle in singling out the Netherlands, the shakiest of the deploying nations, for special pressure. The nation still has the strongest peace movement in Europe. The government has pegged its forthcoming decisions on NATO stationing to the number of Soviet missiles, saying that if the SS-20s have increased over the 1984 number by this Nov. 1, the Dutch will go ahead with the planned deployments.
Gorbachev has now given a new impetus to antinuclear sentiment in the Netherlands, however, by reducing the SS-20s aimed at Europe to the 1984 figure of 243 (while leaving the total number of SS-20s aimed at Europe and Asia at 441 [US figures], or 63 more than the 378 of 1984).
The return to 243 SS-20s aimed at Europe from the present number (261 according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, or 270 according to Arms Control Association figures) is no great concession by the Soviets. The SS-20s are mobile, and this just involves moving two or three regiments of the missiles further east. It will make Dutch deployments much harder to carry out politically, however.