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Gorbachev and Bush Getting Together as Friendship Takes On a Harder Edge : Diplomacy: Each side wants something, but the Americans are in better position to play hardball.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev are heading for a two-hour summit lunch in London this week--and possibly a full-scale summit in Moscow by the end of the month--with the U.S.-Soviet relationship under new strain.

Last summer, the two superpowers were celebrating a new-found sense of alliance that reached a peak when Gorbachev agreed to back Bush’s tough stand in the Persian Gulf crisis.

This year, Gorbachev is doing the asking, seeking large-scale Western support--at the Western economic summit in London this week--for his still-incomplete economic reform plans. But Bush’s response has been more flinty-eyed than friendly: he has promised U.S. support if the reforms turn out to be real, but he has persuaded other Western leaders to join him in refusing direct financial aid.

At the same time, the United States has been pressing the Soviets hard on nuclear arms control, trying to win last-minute concessions in the Strategic Arms Reduction (START) talks--and warning that there would be no Moscow summit meeting unless Gorbachev agreed.

The new, harder edge in a still-friendly relationship has some Soviet officials unhappy. “If we’re such good friends, why do we have to meet like this?” a senior Soviet official in Moscow asks plaintively about the on-again, off-again summit plans. “With Americans, all negotiations are conducted through leverage,” he complains. “And that is just a polite way of saying, ‘How much pressure can we put on Gorbachev to get what we want?’ ”

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U.S. officials agree that they are pushing the Soviets hard--and they say they have good reasons. On the economic issue, they argue that holding back on aid is likely to nudge Gorbachev toward more sweeping reforms. And on arms control, they argue that the Administration should take advantage of Gorbachev’s desire for a U.S.-Soviet summit to get the best deal they can.

President Bush told foreign journalists last week that disagreements between the two countries are inevitable and that each side must keep its own interests in mind. “I can’t change my position (just) because Gorbachev might like me,” Bush said, “and he damn sure isn’t going to change his because I like him.”

“Bush’s commitment to Gorbachev is still there,” another official says. “The Gulf crisis gave that a quantum boost, and it hasn’t gone away. . . . But we’ve lost upwards of a year.” But he argues that Gorbachev slowed the progress in U.S.-Soviet relations himself--by cracking down against the rebellious Baltic republics, by retreating from economic reform plans and by allowing the Soviet military to dispute the terms of the 1990 treaty to reduce conventional armed forces in Europe.

“It’s really the Soviets’ fault,” this official charges.

Not surprisingly, the Soviets don’t agree. “We saw that the Cold War is over, that superpower rivalry is a thing of the past, that we are partners,” says a senior official in Moscow. “We have changed, and fundamentally so, but the Americans have not changed nearly so much.”

The outlook for U.S.-Soviet relations differs significantly from Washington to Moscow:

Soviet officials say they are concerned that Moscow does not have the relationship it thought was building with Washington. Gorbachev himself said recently that progress in Soviet-American relations remained “fragile” and urged “responsible behavior so that what has been achieved is not destroyed.”

Gennady Vasiliev, a foreign policy commentator at the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, argues that U.S. hard-liners, seeing the Soviet Union’s internal problems, have persuaded the Administration to take a tougher line.

“To me, it seems that what is at the root of it all is that Washington has embarked on certain adjustments to U.S. policy,” Vasiliev says. He complains that the Administration is acting as if “after the easy victory over Iraq . . . there is only one superpower in the world, and the United States can do as it sees fit.”

Some Soviet officials have expressed fear that Gorbachev’s success in improving the Soviet Union’s international standing could turn against Soviet interests at a time when the country is severely weakened by its domestic crises. Conservative critics of Gorbachev have even compared the situation to the months before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

“Push too hard and things will pop,” warns Sergei Grigoriev, a former Gorbachev assistant. “If you increase the torque too much, you run the risk of something snapping.”

In Washington, American officials agree that the Soviet Union is in a weakened position because of its economic and ethnic crises, but they don’t believe that the pressure the United States has applied so far puts Gorbachev in peril.

“The economic crisis is driving everything else--Gorbachev’s approach to the West, his internal politics,” one senior official says. As a result, he adds, the Soviet leader has little choice but to cooperate with the West.

Three senior officials who advise Bush on Soviet affairs all say they don’t believe Gorbachev is in serious danger of being overthrown. “I’m not seized with the notion that Gorbachev is going to disappear from the scene,” says one. “He’s shown that he can take care of himself.”

Soviet officials and analysts say Gorbachev needs two things from the London economic summit: Western approval of his plans for economic reform, and pledges of future aid that are clear enough to impress the Soviet public.

The official Soviet news media have worked hard to lower popular expectations in Moscow of any immediate help from the seven major industrial democracies at the summit--the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Canada. “There will be no blank check,” a Soviet television commentator noted.

Gorbachev himself has tried to avoid the impression that he is going to London hat-in-hand. “We are not going as beggars,” he told Supreme Soviet deputies on Friday. “This is not a mission to plead for help or to mortgage our country to foreigners.”

Gorbachev’s conservative opponents, on the other hand, have publicly predicted that the Soviet leader will fail to get Western help and have complained that he is allowing the Western powers to push him into designing his reforms to foreign specifications.

American officials recognize Gorbachev’s political needs in London, but they remain privately scornful of his reluctance to take the plunge into genuinely radical free-market reforms; one aide describes an earlier Gorbachev economic plan as “mush.”

“The atmospherics (at the economic summit) have to be good,” says one. “There needs to be something coming out of it that looks like it’s going somewhere.”

But the initial burden is on Gorbachev, he adds: “He needs to convince (the other summit leaders) that he is serious. . . . The past two years have convinced the West that just providing assistance isn’t going to work.”

Officials in Washington and Moscow say that both Bush and Gorbachev want to hold their long-delayed summit meeting in Moscow before the middle of August. The summit was originally planned for last December but was postponed twice--first because of the Persian Gulf War and later because of disagreements over arms control.

But U.S. officials argue that in political terms Gorbachev may need the summit more than Bush does. “One thing he has going for him is his ability to deal with the West--that’s one of his great assets,” a senior U.S. official says. “The Soviet elite still see Gorbachev as the guy who has the church key to the West. (Russian Republic President Boris) Yeltsin can’t do that yet.”

By the same token, however, Gorbachev still needs to show that he can gain something for the Soviet Union with his diplomacy. “A lot of the magic (of a summit) is gone,” the official noted. “It’s not a trade-off for empty shops or the union coming apart.”

Indeed, the event that was intended as the centerpiece of the summit--the ceremonial signing of a START treaty--may not do Gorbachev much good. Soviet conservatives have already attacked the treaty as too favorable to the United States; Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov complained in the Supreme Soviet last month that it will cost 5 billion rubles (roughly $8 billion at the official exchange rate, $165 million at the black market rate) to destroy 800 missiles and 6,000 warheads as required by the pact.

“Our conservatives play very well against one another,” says Vitaly Goldansky, a top scientist and member of the Supreme Soviet’s foreign affairs committee. “Any sign of American pressure from the right there gives our conservatives a chance to scream, ‘Concession! Concession!’ and that puts pressure on Gorbachev to be tougher, too.”

Bush Administration policy makers have been pressing hard for an agreement on START for two reasons: They believe that any delay will give Soviet conservatives more time to marshal opposition to the treaty, and they believe that Gorbachev may be more inclined to make concessions now than later.

“Gorbachev would like to get it done, in part because of his meeting at the economic summit,” a senior official says. “He wants to go in there in a good light . . . but he has to be careful not to roll over his military completely.”

But the Administration has been divided. Secretary of State James A. Baker III has been pressing for a deal, but National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft has been holding on to a tougher U.S. position on the issue of “downloading"--allowing the Soviets to reduce their warhead count by removing some warheads from multiple-warhead missiles. Scowcroft fears that unless the “downloading” loophole is eliminated, an assertive post-Gorbachev government could replace those warheads without warning.

The issue has been especially difficult for two reasons: first, it suggests a lack of confidence by the U.S. side in its Soviet partners. Second, the Soviets charge that Baker offered a compromise on the issue several weeks ago, only to have Scowcroft cancel it. (A U.S. official says the Soviet complaint was “basically correct.”)

“The basic agreement was reached long ago,” complains a military adviser at the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party. “What they are talking about now is not even small change--it’s details, footnotes almost. The U.S. need is clear for an agreement that the Senate can accept . . . but our need for dignity and acceptance as trustworthy--for the Cold War to be over--should also be met.”

“We not only want things to come together--we want people to feel that they are coming together,” Vladimir I. Shcherbakov, the Soviet Union’s deputy prime minister for economic reform, said last week. “They need to believe this, to be convinced of this, if we are going to do the things we need to do.

“In America, you measure ‘consumer confidence,’ and it is a very important economic index,” Shcherbakov says. “Here, we must pay attention to ‘public confidence'--the confidence of people in the government--and the two summits, the economic in London and the Soviet-American in Moscow, are part of that.”

McManus reported from Washington and Parks reported from Moscow.


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