Death had its logic in claiming Konstantin U. Chernenko just before Big Two arms-control talks resumed in Geneva. For the one achievement of his time in brief authority was the renewal of the talks.
It is fitting, too, that at the time of death a colleague in the Politburo, Vladimir V. Shcherbitsky, was in this country probing American attitudes. For what Shcherbitsky has been saying provides a strong sense of how the Soviet political leadership views arms control and its problems.
Technically, he came to this country as part of an exchange program between Congress and the Supreme Soviet, the Soviet Union's rubber-stamp parliament. Before cutting short the trip to return to Moscow for the funeral, the 33-person delegation spent four days in Washington. Both in public and in private with President Reagan, arms control was the prime subject.
Most of the public statements were made by well-known members of the delegation. Gen. Nikolai Chverov, a leading military figure in arms control, repeatedly let it be known that if the United States went along with its "Star Wars" program for anti-missile defense, the Soviets would take appropriate countermeasures, including a buildup of offensive weapons. Georgi Arbatov of the Institute of the USA intimated in a television broadcast that the pursuit of Star Wars by this country would "ruin" chances for arms control.
But Shcherbitsky is not to be confused with those smaller fry. He is a Soviet pol, a member of the Politburo since 1971 and the first secretary for the Ukraine since 1972. One Reagan Administration official who spent time with him was reminded of this country's last potent big-city political boss.
"Shcherbitsky," he said, "is a Russian Mayor Daley." And like the late Chicago mayor, Shcherbitsky is associated with a distinct wing in national politics. He rose as a protege of Leonid I. Brezhnev, and had long had close ties to another Brezhnev protege, Chernenko. Like Chernenko, he was identified with the Kremlin faction that promoted detente with the United States in the early 1970s. Shcherbitsky was named Ukrainian first secretary on the eve of the Brezhnev-Nixon summit meeting of 1972, which assured Brezhnev a majority for detente within the Politburo.
In a formal statement distributed by Tass, Shcherbitsky echoed the hard line on Star Wars set out by Chverov and Arbatov. But he sounded a different note when he spoke to reporters after a session with Reagan.
Asked whether a Big Two agreement on arms control was possible, Shcherbitsky said: "In all the previous agreements there were some compromises, and we are ready to agree to a number of compromises. If the United States will go along that line, then a compromise agreement could be achieved and the people would breathe freer. The Soviet Union regards the United States with great respect, and no one in my country thinks about attacking the United States."
The contrast between that conciliatory tone and the harsh line of the lesser lights underlines a problem confronting the Soviet Union in Geneva. To keep their own people alert and disciplined, Soviet officials have to enter the talks sounding off about the menace of Western imperialism. That is particularly true during the time of transition required by Mikhail S. Gorbachev to consolidate his power as general secretary in place of Chernenko.
But Moscow cannot huff and puff about the talks concerning the long-range intercontinental missiles, nor about the negotiations on the intermediate-range "Euro-missiles." The Soviets walked out of those sessions at the end of 1983. Inasmuch as they have returned voluntarily, the talks can't be all bad. Threats, far from uniting the Soviets and dividing the Westerners, serve only to remind the world of a Soviet failure.
The Strategic Defense Initiative, however, is a new item on the agenda. It has aroused apprehension among many Americans and Europeans. If Star Wars puts the United States on the road to a more effective defense against missiles, as claimed by its proponents, it is only logical for the Soviets to step up their offensive capabilities. So, for all these reasons, dutiful exponents of the Moscow line are bound to bang away at Star Wars.
But top-drawer political people take a larger view. The fact is that the Soviets themselves are working at their own anti-missile defense. Presumably they want to continue research--at least until the point where they have the capacity to render virtually useless the national nuclear forces that have been developed and are now being modernized in France and Great Britain. At that point the Soviets will be in a position to call for cuts in offensive weapons and for limited deployment of anti-missile defenses.
The burden of decision would then be on the United States. Maintenance of the unremittingly hard line now being enunciated by Reagan would cast the United States as the chief obstacle to an accord. Acceptance of the Soviet offer would confirm fears that we don't care about Western European defense.
So far the Reagan Administration has had the luck to deal with Soviet leaders who were dead men above ground. The emergence of Gorbachev announces that this country cannot go on forever merely posturing about arms control.