Why should Gorbachev call the shots on arms control?

THE recent important breakthrough in US-Soviet negotiations regarding a treaty to ban medium- and short-range nuclear missiles reminded everyone that the main tone in East-West relations is set by the United States and the Soviet Union. That is so despite the unprecedented visit of East German leader Erich Honecker to West Germany that took place last month. Both events also show how eager Mikhail Gorbachev is to see the door of Western acceptance open to him more widely and the pressure eased under which he operates. Reforms in the USSR have built up great expectations while the economy stubbornly refuses to follow suit. In some critical areas, such as foreign trade, the situation actually continues to deteriorate. Mr. Gorbachev therefore tries to produce quick results in foreign policy.

It should not be surprising then that even before Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze completed his high-level talks in Washington, Gorbachev had an article published in Pravda; it suggested that an intermediate-range nuclear force treaty could lead to another accord with the Reagan administration in early 1988 that would reduce strategic weapons by 50 percent.

A question comes to mind: How can Gorbachev, presiding over a country in serious economic and social crisis, repeatedly choose timing and even arms control priorities for negotiations with the incomparably better-positioned US and its NATO allies? Without answering this question, the West is unlikely to find proper answers to Eastern initiatives.

There is a tendency to explain Gorbachev's effectiveness solely on grounds of the shrewdness of his well-chosen foreign policy advisers.

Yet, there is more to it. First of all, Gorbachev's ability and willingness to take risks in trying to manipulate the West in a certain direction are creating some new realities that the US and its allies find difficult to challenge.

It is obvious, for example, that some of the mounting Soviet arms control proposals are meant just for propaganda purposes. However, because Gorbachev is able to offer considerable concessions to the US and NATO in spheres of his choice, he has a reasonable chance to impose on them his arms control priorities at his timing without having his possible bluffs in other areas adequately challenged.

Increasing risk-taking and unprecedented flexibility is the name of the game in Gorbachev's politics as well. The effect is to erode the previous unity of views in the West about the USSR, allowing Moscow more room to maneuver.

It is likely, for example, that Mr. Honecker's recent visit to West Germany, undoubtedly approved in advance by Moscow, will lead gradually to a new phase in intra-German relations. If so, the influence of Bonn and East Berlin on East-West relations is likely to increase.

Moscow is obviously aware of the complexity of this game. But Gorbachev is likely to regard his increased willingness to experiment with intra-German relations as one of the few effective ways he can influence the West.

To further weaken Western European skepticism about its new initiatives, Moscow now also encourages its East European allies to stress all-European themes in statements instead of referring to the class struggle. Some Soviet officials have reportedly ``privately'' told their Western counterparts that present Soviet leadership is more pragmatic than ideological.

Eastern pressures on NATO are also increasingly subtle and diversified. Honecker has, for example, suggested in West Germany that it is only because East and West Germany belong to opposing military alliances that the border between them is ``not as the borders should be.'' Further, he predicted, ``the day will come when the borders will not separate us but unite us....'' A recent offer to Bonn from an East Berlin military official to develop East-West German disarmament initiatives shows, on the other hand, how inventive and eager the USSR and its allies are to capitalize on any mistakes or lack of coordination in NATO.

Paradoxically, Gorbachev's policy has also encouraged many East European dissidents to believe that a gradual weakening of NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be an acceptable price to pay for the development of strong bonds among the countries of central Europe.

The very scope and substance of Gorbachev's maneuvering proves that the Soviets come from a position of weakness, not strength. His domestic problems are, meanwhile, expected to grow. The Central Intelligence Agency told Congress a few days ago that changes being introduced by Gorbachev could result in economic disruption in the USSR, depressing growth rates for the rest of the decade. The success or failure of arms control talks, as well as Soviet efforts to gain new access to Western markets and technology, could thus seem crucial to Moscow.

The US and NATO must actively challenge Gorbachev. They must do so by pressing ahead with their own arms control agenda at their timing from a position of strength. For the West, the goal of arms control is not to build up Soviet prestige but to reduce the Soviet threat to the West.

Milan Svec is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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