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Do Soviets Have Reagan on Defensive?

December 27, 1985|DIMITRI K. SIMES | Dimitri K. Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington

An aide to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, sipping Dom Perignon champagne in the trendy Geneva discotheque Griffins, was boasting about how his country had approached the summit meeting as an integral component of a strategy to simultaneously influence and outmaneuver the Reagan Administration.

A month after the Geneva session, it is increasingly clear that Moscow is serious about its design.

According to the Soviet official, who was one of the many made available to the assembled Western media people during the summit meeting, Gorbachev approached his encounter with the U.S. President with no illusions.

"We knew that Reagan was not coming to reach an agreement, but rather to create an appearance that he was sincere about arms control, an appearance which he would ultimately exploit to sell his Strategic Defense Initiative to the American people," the Soviet official charged. He commented that the Kremlin was determined to expose such "a deception."

That could be the reason why the Soviets did not push President Reagan very hard to include some provisions in the joint statement regarding continuing adherence to the SALT II and ABM treaties. Privately, a member of the Soviet delegation hinted that the Politburo expected that the United States would basically respect both agreements with or without making a formal commitment in Geneva. But the presence of a commitment in the joint statement would create the impression that the sides had made a genuine arms-control step. Lacking progress on SDI, the Soviet leadership did not want such a euphoric mood to develop.

The Soviets went to great pains after the summit session to emphasize that no movement on arms or other security issues was accomplished in Geneva. And, naturally, it is America that is blamed for the deadlock.

Still, there is another sweet side to the Soviet strategy. Moscow has learned from its failure to stop the deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe. The Soviet leader at the time, Yuri V. Andropov, had painted himself into a corner by threatening to walk out of the arms-control talks as soon as the first Pershing 2 and cruise missiles were installed. But the refusal to negotiate backfired. The Soviets were blamed for intransigence, and the deployment proceeded much more smoothly than had been expected.

No ultimatums from Moscow this time. Gorbachev is promising to walk his half of the distance, and more, to reach an arms deal. SDI is presented as an obstacle, but there is no outright threat that failure to accommodate Soviet demands would make the talks impossible.

Conversations in Geneva suggest that Soviet experts are well aware of powerful political, budgetary and technological constraints on SDI in the United States. Moreover, the Soviet general staff is reputed to be increasingly interested in developing strategic defenses to protect its own land-based missiles and command and control centers. As long as these defenses are based on traditional technologies, Moscow feels that it can compete on safe ground. Thus it is new exotic systems, rather than SDI per se, that the Politburo finds so objectionable.

This realism over the program in private is in marked contrast with the near obsession that the Soviet press manifests publicly. That is because, from Moscow's standpoint, SDI is not only a challenge but also a political opportunity. It is being viewed as a convenient target to alert Western opinion to the alleged dangers of Reagan's entire defense effort.

To put the President further on the defensive, the Soviets contemplate additional initiatives that would further sweeten their arms initiative. Gorbachev assumes that Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and associates Fred Ikle and Richard Perle can be relied on to resist any proposals from the Kremlin. But there is hope that the pressure of having two more summits will energize those in the Reagan coalition who are anxious to demonstrate practical achievements on arms.

Without them, future summits are bound to be described as a failure, with negative political fallout for the Administration. No similar problem exists for Gorbachev.

The Central Committee aide acknowledged that it will not be easy to implement the Soviet design. Reagan can outsmile them once again. And there is always the potential for embarrassing publicity over arms-control violations, Andrei Sakharov, Soviet spies in America, Cubans in Nicaragua or something else somewhere that would damage the benign image that Gorbachev is trying to project.

Yet, by the time the Dom Perignon was finished, the man from Moscow expressed confidence that they had a good fix on Reagan.

"Geneva," he said, "is the beginning of an unstoppable momentum of a new detente. It will be up to Reagan to join it or to be overwhelmed by it. We can live with either outcome."

Thanks for the warning, Comrade.

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