Victory in a Draw

Two games of chess ended in a draw Monday. In one, played on a board in Leningrad, the stakes are the championship of the world. In the other, played across continents, the stakes are the fate of the world, insofar as that rests with relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the big chess game, Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist accused by the KGB of using his Moscow base to spy on the Soviets, flew to West Germany--a free man as part of a package deal.

As reported elsewhere in this edition, Gennady F. Zhakarov, charged by the FBI a week before the Daniloff arrest with using his United Nations post for espionage, will plead “no contest” in a New York court this morning and will leave for Moscow. Yuri Orlov, a dissident Soviet physicist living in Siberian exile, will be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. And seven of 25 Soviets who were ordered deported will remain in their U.N. posts. We assume that the Soviets have been told that they cannot interpret that as a license for their U.N. mission to spy.

But in many ways the details of the agreement that ended a month of alternate acrimony and diplomacy are less interesting than the fact that both countries labored to avoid checkmate.


The United States has insisted from the start that Daniloff was framed and held hostage to force the release of Zhakarov; what we know of the case and of the history of similar incidents supports that view. As the Soviets were in no position to admit that, and the United States was in no position to enforce its view, the best possible outcome was a draw--an event that in chess allows both players to score points. The same principle has been applied to the Daniloff affair. Washington will be able to say that Daniloff’s release is a tacit admission by Moscow that it knows that Daniloff is no spy. Moscow will get Zhakarov back, legally neither guilty nor innocent.

Four long private meetings between Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze were used to plot the end game that both sides played to produce the draw. President Reagan’s role was to stay out of it--a role that he played well, although he could not resist the temptation to say Monday that the Soviets, not the Americans, backed down.

In the end, both countries agreed to a draw because Daniloff was not the only hostage. Arms-control negotiations and the periodic meetings between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union that may eventually find ways to avoid serious confrontations were also in bondage.

A draw has its drawbacks. It is not likely that Daniloff can ever return to Moscow--a journalistic assignment for which he is uniquely qualified. Reagan will take a pounding from his party’s ultra-conservatives, who insisted on an outcome with winners and losers. But for arms-control discussions and a future superpower relationship of competition without confrontation, a draw is clearly a victory.