AFTER going through some rough spots in recent months, United States-Soviet relations appear to be on the upswing. Momentum is building toward wrapping up two bogged-down arms-control negotiations: the Soviet chief of staff arrives in Washington today to try to iron out the final discrepancies in the treaty on conventional forces in Europe (CFE); and, according to Bush administration officials, both presidents want their canceled summit back on track for this summer.
President Bush also appears set to provide some form of food assistance to the Soviet Union, after creating the impression that he would not. Although the Soviet Union has been deemed unworthy of credit to purchase grain through a United States Department of Agriculture program, Mr. Bush strongly suggested last week that the US would come up with something to satisfy President Mikhail Gorbachev's request.
This is not to suggest that the US is trading Soviet acquiescence on the CFE treaty in exchange for grain, says Dmitri Simes, a Soviet affairs analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
``Bush doesn't need to do that; they are already so close on CFE,'' Mr. Simes says. ``But at the same time, the US can't be seen offering credits before the CFE dispute is over. The motive for giving grain credits is different: to save Gorbachev.''
All the CFE signatories except the Soviet Union - that is, 21 out of the 22 nations - agree that the dispute is the Soviets' fault. They are trying to circumvent the treaty's limits and hold on to tanks and other materiel that should be eliminated.
Bulk of dispute settled
But in recent weeks, the bulk of the dispute has been settled, at the Soviets' instigation, say administration officials. This has paved the way for progress toward finishing the remaining details on a strategic-arms agreement, or START. In the deal, Moscow will lose 48 percent of its ballistic missile warheads and the US will cut 35 percent. Only some technicalities regarding verification remain to be settled.
``When START reconvened [on April 19], the Soviets came ready to deal,'' says a ranking State Department official. ``The political leadership there feels a greater sense of urgency than we do about START. The Soviets put great symbolic importance in strategic areas. For them, it is a bellwether of the health of overall relations.''
Though START will be the formal centerpiece of the summit when Bush goes to Moscow, the official says, gauging internal Soviet matters such as the failing economy and the integrity of the union will be of greater importance to the US. This official links the Soviets' sense of urgency over arms control and the summit to their own feelings of insecurity about the future. The Soviets understand the vicissitudes of US politics; more bloody repression in the Baltics or the outbreak of civil war, for example, could make ratification of CFE in the US Senate extremely difficult.
Crackdown in Baltics
In January a Soviet crackdown in the Baltics caused what former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze called ``a certain pause'' in relations with the US. Now Washington officials speak positively of negotiations between Moscow and the three Baltic republics over economic and other relations (although the Baltic leaders themselves describe them as inadequate for not addressing the central issue of Baltic independence).
An earlier blow to US-Soviet dealings came in December, when Mr. Shevardnadze abruptly resigned over the conservative turn in domestic affairs. Shevardnadze had been a forceful proponent of Gorbachev's liberal foreign policy and had a close working relationship with Secretary of State James Baker III.
Shevardnadze is still missed, as witnessed by his reception in Washington last week, including a meeting with Bush. His successor, Alexander Bessmertnykh, does not have the clout on arms control that Shevardnadze had, administration officials say. But these officials hasten to add that by the time Shevardnadze quit, he had already lost much of his influence.
Furthermore, points out a well-placed administration official, during this entire period of domestic Soviet turbulence, a key element in the superpower relationship - Soviet support for US policy in the Persian Gulf - did not waver. In Soviet foreign policy overall, ``it's extraordinary that much of the `new thinking' is still there,''says the official.
Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh's trip to Israel last week, the highest-level Soviet visit there since relations were severed in 1967, is the latest example of how Gorbachev's policy of expanded contacts with former foes remains intact.
The US, meanwhile, is broadening its own contacts with the more important players in Soviet domestic politics. As a part of Bush's strategy to ratchet up pressure on Gorbachev to restore the Baltic republics' independence, Bush met last Wednesday with top figures from all three Baltic republics. Bush had had previous meetings with the leaders individually, but it was the first time he had received them as a group at the White House.