MOSCOW — Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Secretary of State James A. Baker III failed to break a logjam in arms control talks Friday and disagreed over whether the United States is free to use military force in Iraq. But they still expressed confidence that U.S.-Soviet relations are slowly improving after what Gorbachev called "an uneasy period."
The arms control deadlock, which centers on a Soviet attempt to avoid demobilizing substantial armored forces slated to be cut under a treaty on conventional armed forces, meant that no progress was made toward setting a summit meeting between Gorbachev and President Bush, officials said.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev and Baker both said the newly warm ties between the superpowers have successfully weathered their first major crises since Gorbachev came to power--the U.S. condemnation of Soviet repression in the Baltic states in January and Soviet discomfort with the U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq.
"The relationship has gone through a test recently . . . and it has survived," Baker told reporters after meeting with Gorbachev for four hours at the Grand Kremlin Palace. "That is good for the Soviet Union, and that is good for the United States, and that is good for the world."
"From our side, nothing has changed in our approach toward Soviet-American relations," the official Soviet news agency Tass quoted Gorbachev as saying. "This is especially important since they have just gone through an uneasy period."
Baker even praised Gorbachev's handling of the crisis in the Baltic republics, where Soviet security forces have killed 21 people in crackdowns against independence movements.
"Steps have been taken to develop (a negotiating) process," Baker said. "Furthermore, steps have been taken to defuse tensions by withdrawing some forces from Lithuania. . . . We can only see that as some progress."
And Baker expressed some understanding for the slowdown in Gorbachev's political and economic reforms, noting that the Soviet leader confessed frankly that he has run up against "many problems."
"We do support his efforts to continue reform," Baker said.
Overall, officials from both countries seemed resigned to working within a relationship that is considerably more prickly than that of a year ago, when U.S.-Soviet meetings were near-euphoric occasions for discovering new areas of agreement.
Now, each meeting seems to unearth points where the superpowers' interests diverge.
Gorbachev's turn away from economic reform, his drive to stop some of the 15 Soviet republics from seceding and the increasing influence of a conservative military Establishment over foreign policy have all complicated the relationship, in the eyes of U.S. officials.
"We have known (that) the ups would go into downs," Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh said. "The idea of certain fragilities was always there. . . . (But) we have developed a more solid basis for the relationship."
The clearest reflection of the new coolness is in the talks over the treaty on conventional forces in Europe (CFE), an agreement that was central to ending the Cold War.
Under the CFE treaty, the Soviet Union must cut its tank forces in Europe by about 50%, or by about 11,700 tanks, along with similar cuts in aircraft, artillery and troop strength.
But after the Soviet Union, the United States and 20 other countries signed the CFE treaty last November, the Soviet military said it had transferred about 3,500 tanks from the army to the navy--thus exempting them from the pact, which doesn't cover naval forces.
Western officials cried foul, charging that the move was a subterfuge to evade the intent of the pact. "It cuts to the heart of credibility and trust," Baker said last month.
On Friday, Soviet officials gave Baker a set of proposals for breaking the deadlock, but he sounded pessimistic when asked about the progress of the talks.
"We still have some unresolved problems on CFE. . . . They are the same problems," Baker said, adding that U.S. and Soviet negotiators "have not reached any understanding."
The substance of the Soviet proposals was not disclosed.
In an unusual move, the Soviet negotiating team was led by Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the armed forces general staff; some Soviet military officers have complained loudly that the treaty strips them of too many troops and tanks. In earlier rounds, the Soviet side was led by diplomats from the Foreign Ministry, which has argued for sticking to the treaty's terms.
"It was a good excuse for the general to deal with this subject," Bessmertnykh told reporters--perhaps hinting that he was happy to have Moiseyev argue with the American negotiators instead of his Foreign Ministry team.
Negotiators also discussed the START treaty to cut long-range nuclear missiles, and U.S. officials said the differences remaining on that pact are technical and can be solved fairly easily.