AFTER six months of rapid improvement in relations, the United States and the Soviet Union are having a tiff that was perhaps inevitable. From the Jackson Hole ministerial meeting last September, to the Malta seaborne summit, to the Ottawa Open Skies conference, talks between the superpowers have been going so well that an absence of breakthroughs is now seen as a letdown.
On Friday, Secretary of State James Baker III admitted to ``disappointment'' after three days of talks with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze ended with no progress made on key arms control issues. While attempting to appear upbeat, Mr. Shevardnadze said, ``I will not hide from you the fact that ... we have encountered certain difficulties.''
Both men pointed to their scheduled May meetings in Moscow as the last chance to settle significant arms differences before the Bush-Gorbachev summit begins on May 30. Without further progress, the two presidents won't be able to initial the outline of a strategic arms reduction treaty, as they pledged to do in Malta. A bilateral agreement for chemical weapons reduction might not be ready in time either.
``There's a lot of work to be done in just seven weeks,'' said Mr. Baker in the aftermath of the meetings.
Even before Shevardnadze arrived in Washington last Wednesday, Lithuania's drive for independence had put both superpowers on edge.
The subject came up every day the Soviet foreign minister was in town. President Bush, for example, took pains to emphasize that he had told Shevardnadze that the whole US-USSR relationship was at stake if the Lithuanian situation isn't resolved peacefully.
The final dates for the Bush-Gorbachev meetings were set while Shevardnadze was in town, however, indicating that Lithuania hasn't yet had a serious effect on superpower relations. The May 30 date for the summit was earlier than anticipated; prior to the date's announcement, White House aides said the third week in June was their best guess.
Shevardnadze brought with him a personal letter from Gorbachev to Bush. A senior US official says it was not about Lithuania, but rather ``covers arms control in a general manner.''
Will the final glitches be overcome and a strategic arms reduction (START) treaty be ready for signing in June? ``I'm hopeful,'' says the US official.
Shevardnadze pointed out in his closing press conference that the things that still separate the US and the USSR on START are obstacles that appear toward the end of talks. They require not so much political concessions, but professional negotiation and clever compromise.
Take perhaps the thorniest category of weapons, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). What remains is to decide the range of ALCMs that will be subject to any START treaty.
The range of sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) must also be settled. Inside the US government, there is some sentiment to try and shoehorn a ban on multiple-warhead, mobile missiles into any START pact. The Soviets, however, say they don't want to raise a new issue at this late date. It is ``likely'' the mobile multiple-warhead missile ban will have to wait until START 2 negotiations, says the senior US official.
The Soviets are already pushing the US to begin START 2 talks right after a START 1 agreement. The US wants to wait for Senate ratification and implementation to begin. One influential former Reagan administration official says START 1, as now envisioned, wouldn't make any difference in the strategic balance, and that a START 2 is needed to make the balance more stable.
Weapons such as mobile, multi-warhead missiles and large silo-based missiles should be banned, says Paul Nitze, a special arms adviser to Reagan. ``We're going to feel under threat from the Soviet Union as long as those heavy missiles are there,'' he says.
The Baker-Shevardnadze talks made no progress on major issues remaining before NATO and the Warsaw Pact can sign a conventional forces in Europe (CFE) reduction treaty. Definition of aircraft to be included remains the most difficult CFE issue.
The CFE talks in Vienna are to some extent bogging down over picky issues, says one analyst. The two sides are arguing over the height of the fence that will surround stored military equipment. ``The difference between the two positions: 25 centimeters,'' says David Shorr, associate director of the British American Security Information Council.
On the future of Germany, Baker said he felt the Soviets had dropped their insistence that a unified Germany be neutral. But Shevardnadze also made clear that the Soviets oppose a greater Germany in NATO. He proposed instead that Germany join NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
Says one US official: ``It sounded like, `We don't like what you're proposing, but to be honest about it we don't have a clear alternative ourselves.' ''