For Eduard Shevardnadze and George Shultz, this week's talks are part of what has become almost a superpower routine. ``Continuity'' best characterizes the meetings between the Soviet foreign minister and American secretary of state, says Rozanne Ridgway, assistant secretary of state for European affairs.
``The strength of our new relationship with the Soviets is that it can take the good and the bad,'' says a ranking US official who specializes in East-West relations. ``Neither of us is starry eyed about the future.... Tempers still get heated at times. But the current structure can take shocks and not fall a part.''
The agenda covers a range of topics: arms control, regional conflicts, human rights, and bilateral issues.
Neither Assistant Secretary Ridgway nor other informed officials predict major breakthroughs this time around. Big-ticket items, such as a strategic arms treaty, will await a new US administration.
But there could still be important movement this year on human rights, conventional arms reductions, and regional conflicts, as well as some useful progress in the strategic area. And two nuclear testing treaties could be signed and ready for verification.
Afghanistan will also be an important topic between the two ministers.
``This is a very delicate period on Afghanistan,'' a senior US official says. ``The Soviets are faced with the prospect of the collapse of their clients, and quite probably in a humiliating way.... So even before [Pakistan's President] Zia was killed, the chances were high for a lot of pressure on Pakistan. They are gonna play hardball.''
Several weeks ago in Moscow, US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost had a heated discussion with his Soviet counterpart on Afghanistan and air raids into Pakistan by Soviet or Afghan planes. Mr. Shultz will reportedly repeat to Mr. Shevardnadze the warning to lay off Pakistan. He will reject Soviet charges that the US and Pakistan are violating the Afghan accords.
``We offered the Soviets negative symmetry [cutting off both US and Soviet aid to their respective Afghan allies], but they rejected it,'' a ranking US official says. ``Now Moscow needs to bring Kabul to its senses,'' if the Afghan government wants to play any role in a post-Soviet Afghanistan.
Some US officials say they think Moscow may in fact offer new ideas on political accommodation in this week's meetings. There have been several hints that the Soviets realize their pressure on Pakistan is not enough to salvage their Afghan clients.
On strategic arms, Ridgway this week repeated what has been assumed for some time: There will be no strategic arms reduction treaty this year.
``Our objective,'' a well-placed US specialist says, ``is to hand over a clean draft to the new administration, with a lot of the underbrush cleared away.''
The maximum goal for this week is to tie down some loose ends on how to handle air-launched cruise missiles and mobile missiles and to move forward on ideas for verifying a START treaty.
US officials say they hope the two ministers will be able to initial the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty - or at least narrow the remaining gap significantly. The Reagan administration also hopes to be a able to initial agreement on ratifying the Threshold Test Ban Treaty by the end of the year, officials say. The two treaties have been held up because of US questions about their verifiability. Recent US-Soviet joint verification tests have reduced the problems.
The controversial Soviet radar facility at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia will also be discussed. The US is expected to repeat the charge that the facility violates the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and ask that it be torn down. The US will probably further reject Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's offer to turn the facility into an international space center, arguing that it could be quickly converted to prohibited purposes.
The ``end game'' of the Vienna Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) talks will also be ``dominant'' during the ministerial meetings, a ranking US official says. The US and other Western countries want Moscow and its East-bloc neighbors to fully implement human rights commitments made in the 1975 Helsinki accords.
``We are the hardest to please on this subject, and they have the key to bringing the conference to a close,'' one official involved says.
US officials say they are not prepared to yield unless the Soviets make ``big changes'' in treatment of dissidents, emigration procedures, and other areas. The pre-condition most often cited is the freeing of Soviets arrested for trying to monitor Moscow's compliance with the Helsinki accords.
But Ridgway suggests the US also wants some new commitments, for example, on the amount of time a government can take to review citizens' requests to travel abroad.
President Reagan will also focus on human rights in a meeting with Shevardnadze this week, officials say.
Both Moscow and Washington would like to tie up the Vienna talks to open the way for new CSCE negotiations, this time on conventional-force reductions in Europe.