Dealing with a canny Moscow

EDUARD SHEVARDNADZE, the Soviet foreign minister, is due to meet with Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington today, presumably to put a Reagan-Gorbachev summit meeting back on track. Only a week ago, Mikhail Gorbachev balked at setting a date for the meeting, arguing that the United States must first make concessions on the development of space-based missile defenses.

President Reagan did not cave in. He held firm. And though the course of US-Soviet relations this past week has been as erratic as the ups and downs of the stock market, it looks very much as though Mr. Gorbachev has blinked.

These blips in Washington's relationship with Moscow may serve a useful purpose. Trying to improve that relationship is essential. Trying to get an arms control agreement is a worthy cause. It should be pressed. But the West should not forget that negotiating with the Soviets is often a frustrating and perilous affair, and that the bargaining partner across the table is canny and sometimes ruthless. If the latest pause causes Americans to reflect on that, it may have some value.

Far too often, the American public allows sentiment to overlie pragmatism in the conduct of foreign policy. There are vast swings in emotion. We have seen it in the case of Communist China, once reviled and feared, and now looked upon with benevolence and some affection. With the ``humanizing'' of the Soviet leadership since Gorbachev came to power, there has been a public tendency to view the Soviet Union more benignly, if not sentimentally.

But despite Gorbachev's smiles and public relations skill, he did not climb to the top of the pile in the USSR by being Mr. Nice Guy. He is a tough, dedicated communist, who presides over a system that is not democratic, is often aggressive, sometimes unpredictable, and prone to duplicity.

Gorbachev does not deal in emotion. He deals in power. What has most impressed Soviet leaders over the years is American strength. President Kennedy, early in his presidency, thought he could sweet-talk Nikita Khrushchev and was sent reeling. It was only when he showed mettle during the Cuban missile crisis that Mr. Khrushchev took him seriously.

Similarly, it is the strong stand of President Reagan, along with internal Soviet considerations, that has brought the two major powers to the brink of arms control. Reagan has been insistent on refurbishing the US military. He has held firm when the Soviets walked out of talks on intermediate missiles. He has held firm on his Strategic Defense Initiative. That firmness is essential in dealing with the Soviets.

The USSR is, after all, the country that continues a vigorous effort to steal US military secrets and high-tech research. Just this week it was revealed that the Soviets had successfully mounted an operation to acquire and copy the specifications of the effective American Stinger missile.

Also this week, the US claimed that the Soviet Chamber of Commerce is headed by a high-ranking KGB officer and is systematically engaged in commercial espionage in the West.

Even as Washington negotiates with Moscow, the Soviet KGB continues a disinformation campaign against the US, spreading stories that the US is responsible for AIDS, and kidnaps Central American children for the use of their transplanted organs.

Writers and scholars from the USSR, many of them exiled dissidents, met in New York last weekend to talk about political change in their homeland. Maybe they have a narrow view, but they were wary. Communist countries, they argued, are unlikely to change, or become less menacing, of their own volition. They will do so because of Western strength as the weaknesses of the communist system take their toll over time. It is a thought worth pondering.

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