MIKHAIL GORBACHEV has given Helmut Kohl a long-anticipated present - Soviet acceptance of a united Germany in the NATO alliance. In exchange, the Soviet leader is looking for a substantial economic aid package - enough, he hopes, to rescue his reform policies from being crushed by the collapsing Soviet economy.
The changes in NATO strategy decided at the recent London summit, as well as Western moves toward providing aid, gave Mr. Gorbachev much-needed evidence of a change in the adversarial attitude of the West.
Still, most observers had expected the Soviet leader to take a little more time to prepare Soviet public opinion for this decision, including overcoming resistance from the military.
Gorbachev's surprising readiness to publicly give the green light to Mr. Kohl's plans reflects his strengthened confidence in his own power following the conclusion of a tumultuous two-week-long Communist Party Congress.
Though the timing of the move was dictated by immediate political calculations, the outcome of the Gorbachev-Kohl talks is the product of Soviet strategic policy to make an alliance with Germany the determining feature of a new post-cold-war Europe.
For Moscow, Germany is the main route to overcoming the self-imposed isolation of past decades. The Soviets see Germany as not only a source of economic aid but as the Western nation holding views closest to theirs.
This view was openly expressed in a commentary published by the official Tass news agency on the eve of Kohl's visit. In very authoritative language, Tass ``political observer'' Alexander Antsiferov linked the fate of Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) revolution to the reunification of Germany.
``The West German government is interested in the success of perestroika, because it is only in this case that more favorable conditions will be created for the process of reunification of Germany,'' he wrote. ``At the same time, the Soviet Union is no less interested in the successful implementation of the reunification plans of Germans, because a single Germany has a good chance of becoming its major partner in political, trade and economic cooperation.''
The commentary credited Kohl with being responsible not only for persuading the West to consider assistance at the Houston summit of industrial nations but also for shifting the NATO alliance away from a policy of confrontation toward the East.
Even the Soviet military shows signs of accepting this logic. ``It is time to quench our fears as regards a unified Germany and to learn to accept the inevitable as natural,'' wrote historian A. Borisov in yesterday's issue of the Army's daily Red Star.
The agreement announced at the joint press conference of Kohl and Gorbachev is close to what many observers had predicted. Following reunification, Kohl said, the powers of the four victorious powers of World War II in Germany - France, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union - ``will be fully abrogated.''
A reunified Germany will then be free to choose which alliance to belong to, which Mr. Gorbachev explicitly agreed could mean that Germany will be in NATO.
The 370,000 Soviet troops based in what is now East Germany will be withdrawn in three or four years, during which time no NATO forces will be based there. Gorbachev expressed the hope, but clearly had no assurance, that no foreign troops or nuclear weapons would be based there after Soviet withdrawal.
The Soviets got two important concessions in return. Kohl unilaterally agreed to a limit of 370,000 troops for the army of a united Germany, more than the 250,000 figure sought by Moscow but less than the current nearly 500,000-strong might of the West German armed forces. He also said Germany would renounce the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons and sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
The basic structure of an agreement on Germany, the two leaders agreed, will be in place by the time of the summit of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Paris in November. This will give Kohl his sought-after completion of reunfication in time for all-German elections in December.
The two leaders also unveiled plans to negotiate a broad, long-term treaty, covering politics, economy, security, culture, and science and technology.
The idea bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the famous 1922 Soviet-German Treaty of Rapallo. Then, a Weimar Germany struggling to recover from its defeat in World War I and a young Soviet regime newly victorious over Western-backed efforts to overthrow it, found common cause in cooperation to overcome their isolation.
Today there is mutual interest between a powerful - and feared - Germany eager to win acceptance of reunification and a Soviet Union desperate to be part of Europe.