At noon on Feb. 23, a brisk andwintry Saturday, President George Bush was in seclusion at Camp David's Laurel Lodge when Mikhail Gorbachev telephoned. The two leaders spoke for 20 minutes, perhaps one of their most fateful conversations. Gorbachev insisted repeatedly and forcefully that Bush should give Saddam Hussein 48 hours to withdraw from Kuwait before launching a ground attack. At each turn, Bush declared that he appreciated the Soviet role. But what Gorbachev didn't know was that Bush had decided to go ahead with the ground war a week before.
So much for the budding diplomatic partnership of the U. S. and the Soviet Union. Ever since the last days of the Reagan Administration, hopes had been growing that the two rivals of the cold war could somehow stroll off arm-in-arm and together solve the world's problems. Now, the split over Saddam is raising old specters of distrust, intrigue, and a stepped-up arms race.
REALPOLITIK. The current turmoil, however, may also bring a needed dose of reality back to the U. S.-Soviet relationship. Few believe the cold war will return. Instead, tough realpolitik, not euphoric notions of "partnership," will guide Moscow and Washington. "The gulf war has demonstrated that U. S.-Soviet relations will be more complicated and mixed than they have been in the past," says Michael Mandelbaum, a senior Soviet expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
As the endgame against Saddam is played out, both sides are struggling to take the measure of their new relationship. Gorbachev's last-minute peace moves have touched off an Oval Office rivalry between National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who views Gorbachev with suspicion, and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who insists the peace bids were sincere. That rivalry will do much to determine future relations with Moscow.
In the Kremlin, a vanquished Saddam spells trouble for Gorbachev. He now confronts freshly emboldened Soviet hardliners who believe that Bush has taken them for a ride. They note that their side is taking such essential steps as abolishing the Warsaw Pact and withdrawing troops from Eastern Europe. But they complain that a serious Soviet bid for peace in the Middle East caused nary a hiccup in Bush's war schedule.
"They just spit on Russia, they just spit," says a commentator close to Gorbachev's advisers. Even the liberal newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote that "the events of the last days cross out the romantic dreams about cooperation of the U. S. S. R. and the U. S. to establish a new world order. After the Persian Gulf, Moscow and Washington would never trust each other to the degree that is necessary for such cooperation."
The mistrust began growing in December, when Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the highly regarded Soviet Foreign Minister, abruptly quit. Since then, a summit slated for February was postponed, a treaty to cut strategic arms drastically has been shelved, and another pact to limit conventional weapons in Europe has been stalled. While Gorbachev talks of cutting the military, the official Soviet defense budget for this year will actually rise by 35%, according to Andrei V. Kortunov, head of the international department at Moscow's Institute of USA and Canada Studies. The war, he says, "is just another link in the chain of events that indicate we have mounting problems."
DEEP STUDY. And that may be the optimistic view. Soviet analysts believe America's stunning success with high-tech weapons could touch off a new arms race. "You can bet that every day, the weapons used in the war were undergoing serious analysis in the highest military echelons of both the U. S. and the Soviet Union," says Yuri Y. Pinchukov, an arms-control specialist at the Institute of World Economy & International Relations in Moscow. The Soviets are certain to explore how the antiaircraft system they sold Baghdad was easily knocked out early in the war. Soviet generals are said to be studying ways to improve their Scud missiles, so highly vulnerable to U. S. Patriot missiles.
The coda to the war with Iraq could set the tone of U. S.-Soviet relations worldwide. The place to watch is Central Europe, where the Soviets might delay the withdrawal of hundreds of thousands of troops. If relations sour that much, a new cold war, marked by distrust and closely watched borders, could come.