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Soviet Rigidity at Arms Talks : An Old Familiar Tune Is Being Played in Geneva

Times Staff Writer

Three months after Mikhail S. Gorbachev rose to power in the Soviet Union, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms talks are deadlocked, and superpower relations consist largely of playing the same old scratchy records--in public as well as private.

The situation smacks of the old days--the days of Leonid I. Brezhnev, Yuri V. Andropov and Konstantin U. Chernenko. There is none of the fresh air that might be expected from Gorbachev who at 54 is the youngest Soviet leader since Georgi Malenkov briefly succeeded Josef Stalin in 1953.

There had been hope, in Washington and elsewhere in the West, for a change and although this hope had been slight, it was real. Why, instead, this continued Soviet rigidity almost across the board, in East-West relations in general and in foreign policy in particular?

It is a question being discussed by many European and American diplomats, analysts and political leaders, and here are some views heard in recent days in Geneva, Vienna, London, Bonn and Paris:

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Bruno Kreisky, former Austrian chancellor and a veteran of more than 30 years’ active dealing with Moscow, said:

“Gorbachev’s first priority has to be the home front and consolidation of his own power, and he is clearly leaving foreign policy almost entirely to (Foreign Minister) Andrei Gromyko. . . . At some point in the future he will certainly want to put his own stamp on foreign policy, probably bringing in his own man, maybe the ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, to take over the Foreign Ministry. But that’s for the future, and we will just have to wait and see.”

In a long conversation at his home in suburban Vienna, as Secretary of State George P. Shultz was meeting with Gromyko downtown, Kreisky speculated that the next important development in Moscow would be the replacement of the 80-year-old premier, Nikolai A. Tikhonov. This would be a very significant move in Gorbachev’s consolidation of power, particularly, Kreisky thinks, if the premiership goes to the Leningrad party leader and Gorbachev’s earlier rival, Grigori V. Romanov.

After that, the presidency of the Soviet Union still has to be determined and that post might offer a convenient way to push Gromyko upstairs, although Kreisky believes that Gorbachev will move cautiously in pushing the remaining Old Guard too fast or too hard. So he is not much surprised at the current stalemate in foreign policy.

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“Gorbachev’s problems on the home front are overwhelming,” Kreisky said, “and only when he has gotten his own people in place in the administration, and has made his impact felt on domestic matters and in the Soviet economy, is he likely to try anything very much in foreign policy.”

No Serious Offer

A senior British diplomat echoed this view, but with a somewhat different emphasis. This man, who has been involved in East-West talks with the Soviets ever since the Helsinki negotiations in the early 1970s, said he doubts that Moscow will make any serious negotiating offer in the Geneva nuclear talks for 18 months or longer and that he does not think that there will be any agreement at Geneva with the Reagan Administration.

“The Soviets simply do not seem to feel under any pressure to negotiate,” he said. “Gorbachev has plenty else on his platter and he can afford to take the long view and wait. After all, if his health holds out and he doesn’t make any major blunders, he can probably expect to be running the Soviet Union for the next 20 years, or longer.

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“President Reagan has only three years to go, and what is three years out of Gorbachev’s time? He doesn’t have to be in any hurry to come up with an agreement with the United States. I think the stalemate will be a long one.”

A senior American official with the U.S. delegation in Geneva thinks the Soviets have retreated into rigidity because the leadership situation in the Kremlin is still developing. He points to the fact that Gorbachev’s plans to visit the United Nations in October were at first Page 1 news in Pravda, and then were quietly dropped. This, he concludes, is a sign that Gorbachev is not yet master in his own house.

“Nobody outside the Kremlin knows how solid Gorbachev’s power really is, or what pressures he may be juggling with inside the Politburo,” the American official said. “But there has been a very long delay in calling a full Central Committee meeting to endorse the new administration lineup, and there are a number of important leadership decisions still to be taken.

Sticking to Old Policies

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“In a situation like this, it is probably just prudent behavior to stick to the old policies under Gromyko rather than try anything new.”

Is the present stalemate a relatively short-term matter then, and will Gorbachev begin to show flexibility once he gets his act together, or is it to be stalemate over the long haul?

The Reagan Administration keeps saying that the Soviets came back to the negotiating table in Geneva only because of the “Star Wars” program and that eventually this pressure will force them to start negotiating seriously.

Others, in Europe, think this is a misreading of Soviet tactics. They note that the Reagan Administration kept saying almost exactly the same thing about the deployment of cruise and Pershing 2 missiles in Western Europe, but when the missiles began arriving the Soviets not only made no move to get down to negotiations but promptly broke off the talks.

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“In retrospect,” the British diplomat said, “I think we have to see that they were in Geneva not to try to make a deal with the Americans to limit the number of missiles NATO would deploy but to stop the deployment altogether. If they had wanted a deal, if they had been serious about negotiating, they would have seized the opening that (American arms negotiator) Paul Nitze gave them with his famous walk-in-the-woods offer in 1983. But they were in Geneva to block, not negotiate.

No Movement for Months

“I think we are seeing a repeat of this tactic now with the ‘Star Wars’ program. They are in Geneva not to look for a package deal limiting ‘Star Wars’ in return for reducing missiles, but to block ‘Star Wars’ completely. Moreover, they know that the Allies are not exactly convinced partisans of the program, and they may think that time is on their side. At any rate, that’s why I doubt there will be any movement in Geneva for many months.”

Lord Carrington, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, acknowledges that “holding the alliance together over the long haul if nothing happens in Geneva will have its political problems.”

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This is one reason why he has rather forcefully warned the Reagan Administration of negative consequences within NATO if it should announce that it is abandoning any further voluntary compliance with the limits on missiles specified in the unratified treaty known as SALT II. A White House spokesman said Reagan will make the announcement on June 7.

Even after Gorbachev does consolidate his administration, even if he moves Gromyko up to the presidency and brings in Dobrynin as his foreign minister, there is not much likelihood that the Soviet attitude toward “Star Wars,” formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, will change.

As the American official with the Geneva delegation ruefully put it: “They walked out for 15 months after we began the missile deployment, and it didn’t do them much good with the Europeans. So now they want the political advantages of being seen to be talking, but without really negotiating.”


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