WITH a major Bush-Gorbachev summit less than two weeks away, the ministerial-level meeting in Moscow this week has become a last chance to regain lost ground. The summit will not reach some key goals unless US Secretary of State James Baker III and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze can unknot some difficulties in the next few days.
Their meeting, beginning tomorrow, is the last session in more than seven months of preparations aimed at signing major arms control and economic treaties at the summit.
But in recent months, a chill has been cast on US-Soviet relations. The sense of limitless improvement through perestroika has faded, a White House official says.
The spirit of Malta no longer holds, the official says, referring to the heady optimism surrounding last December's Malta summit. ``The relationship is not as free flowing and easy as it once was.''
On the US side, the problem is Soviet pressure on Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors. Soviet treatment of the Balts has raised US misgivings about economic agreements designed to help open up the Soviet economy.
At Malta, the superpower leaders set a goal of signing a major trade agreement that establishes a legal and practical basis for expanded commerce between the US and USSR. A handful of points remain unresolved in the agreement, but the US trade representative is confident they can be settled by the summit without further rounds of formal negotiations, according to a spokesman.
But a more general tension has arisen in the administration over strengthening the Soviet economy while the Soviets are leaning heavily on Lithuania. ``The economic side of the relationship is most threatened,'' the official says.
On the Soviet side, backsliding on arms control occurred at the last Baker-Shevardnadze session in April. The setbacks probably put the signing of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) beyond the reach of this summit, according to White House officials.
The Bush administration is not sure how to read the backsliding, which reopened some of the questions Americans thought they had settled in February.
Foreign policy officials entertain various possible explanations: that the Soviets grew tougher because negotiations were reaching the ``endgame'' stage, that it is sheer tactics, and that the Soviet positions were not well coordinated and the February progress was reevaluated under closer scrutiny in Moscow.
At least one key White House official favors the last explanation.
``We'll have a better sense for that coming out of the Baker-Shevardnadze talk'' this week, says another senior official, also speaking on condition that his name not be used.
The ministerial this week carries a heavy burden. The April setbacks leave it with major issues to resolve and not just details.
The Soviets, says the official, have shown some signs of flexibility, but no real movement, and not on the essential points at issue.
A successful summit is important for both superpowers. Both the START and Conventional Forces in Europe accords benefit the allies by bringing order and Soviet reciprocity to the military drawdown between the alliances. The CFE talks include some 23 countries, but the summit is still expected to move those talks forward.
The Bush administration would like to show the allies and Eastern Europe that US-Soviet relations are still making progress. At a time when NATO faces reordering of its purpose, and Germany is reuniting, many officials say that any chance for extended conversation between the superpower leaders is beneficial.
Gorbachev, US officials believe, needs a foreign policy victory at a time when very little is going well for him domestically.
Yet, says the White House official, ``it's an unfair test to expect this to be a happy summit. It's going to be a serious summit.''
White House officials have the sense that Gorbachev is under severe pressure in Moscow, driven by a collapsing economy. They do not believe he is in any danger of overthrow, according to two different sources.
Although the Soviet military is full of discontent after a massive restructuring, it has neither ``an ethic or history of trying to overthrow the government,'' one official says. Further, Gorbachev has consolidated more power in the Kremlin than any Soviet leader in recent memory, the official adds. But the Kremlin may be less powerful in Soviet society than in the past.
The knottiest issues before Baker and Shevardnadze concern the START negotiations. The two sides have not agreed on ranges for air-launched cruise missiles to be covered by the treaty. They also have differences over how to treat sea-launched cruise missiles. The two presidents committed themselves at Malta to sign a START outline, at least, at the coming summit.