SOVIET President Mikhail Gorbachev has made it clear that the Soviet Union is pulling out of Eastern Europe. The only question is under what conditions it will do so. In a Pravda interview Tuesday, Mr. Gorbachev spoke of ``the Germans' right to unity. We have never denied them this right.''
At last week's NATO-Warsaw Pact meeting in Ottawa, the Soviets agreed to a ``2 plus 4'' structure to oversee German reunification efforts. This includes the two Germanys and the wartime Allies: the US, USSR, Britain, and France.
But Moscow is trying to salvage some important conditions before allowing the process to proceed. It insists that a united Germany must not be a part of the NATO alliance, and that the German Army be reduced in size.
``Let nobody think that Moscow will remain indifferent if a united Germany joins NATO,'' said Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze recently.
For a Soviet government to allow NATO's borders to be moved eastward from mid-Germany to the East German-Polish border without opposition would be unthinkable for many Soviets.
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has tried to accommodate Moscow's concerns. He has proposed that what is now East Germany not become a part of NATO and that NATO troops not be stationed there. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher suggested Sunday that Soviet troops might remain in eastern Germany ``for a transition period.''
Interestingly, Mr. Genscher's idea was opposed by his Cabinet colleague, Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg. The West German Cabinet adopted Genscher's position early this week.
But nobody knows how firm the Soviet position on the matter really is. Soviet stances on several European security issues have been revised several times over the last few months.
In some respects, Gorbachev is only acknowledging what is already taking place. The process of German reunification is under way, if only because a large segment of the East German population has moved or is moving to West Germany.
The resulting intellectual drain and political paralysis in East Germany before the March 18 elections have brought that country's economy to near collapse. Only some kind of economic and political union with West Germany can save it. Hence Bonn's attempts to persuade East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow to join in a monetary union with a single currency as a first step.
Complicating matters is the unease of some of the Germanys' neighbors toward rapid reunification. In London, Mrs. Thatcher reiterated Sunday that any reunification process must protect the rights of the four Allied powers.
To the east, Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, concerned about claims by some West German conservatives to prewar German territories that are now part of Poland, have both demanded a place for Poland at any negotiations about Germany's future.
Both Mr. Modrow and Gorbachev this week publicly backed Warsaw's plea. The West German government says it will respect Poland's present boundaries.
The Soviets also agreed in Ottawa to President Bush's proposal to bring the level of US and Soviet troops in Central Europe down to 195,000. They acquiesced to Mr. Bush's demand that the US be allowed to station an additional 30,000 troops in places like Italy and Britain.
Gorbachev had little real choice but to agree to the Bush proposal. Most of his Warsaw Pact allies are demanding the complete withdrawal of Soviet troops stationed in their countries.
The increasingly precarious condition of the Soviet economy is also leading Gorbachev to reduce costs wherever he can. The stationing of hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops in Central Europe hurts the Soviet economy twice over. It not only costs a bundle of rubles to maintain troops and equipment at foreign bases, but it takes thousands of able-bodied young men away from more productive work in factories or on farms.
Soviet foreign policy since World War II has had two primary goals: the removal of US troops from Europe and the dismemberment of NATO. The Soviets are already making noises about total withdrawal of all foreign troops from Europe. This would leave then Soviets in a somewhat superior position, in the West's view, because in any European war, Soviet soldiers stationed at home would be much closer to the battlefield. The US, on the other hand, would face the task of moving an army and equipment across the Atlantic.
Gorbachev told Pravda German reunification ``must be synchronized with the general European process, with its core - the formation of a ... new structure of European security which will replace the one based on blocs.