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U.S. Soviet Relations: Cooler, But Not Cold

U.S. Soviet Relations: Cooler, But Not Cold

It wasn't exactly the kind of partnership Jim Baker had in mind. After warm U. S.-Soviet meetings that helped thaw the cold war, the Secretary of State found himself standing with his Soviet counterpart outside the White House on Jan. 28, reading a terse announcement. By "mutual agreement" with Moscow, President Bush would postpone his February summit with Mikhail Gorbachev.

Both Washington and Moscow were quick to blame the Persian Gulf war for the first cancelation of a superpower summit since the frostiest days of the cold war. Whether or not summit planners get the meeting back on track by June, however, one thing is clear: Moscow's Baltic crackdown and reactionary tilt is changing the tenor of Soviet relations with the outside world.

Few expect a return to the old Soviet hostility. On Jan. 29, Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh went out of their way to demonstrate that superpower relations are still on track. After Moscow voiced concerns that the U. S.'s real agenda in the gulf was to wipe out Iraq, the ministers smoothed over differences and said their only goal is to evict Iraq from Kuwait.

HARDER LINE. Still, after the Baltic crackdown and the departure of Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, it's clear that improvement in Soviet relations with the democracies will be harder and longer in coming. Of key concern to the U. S. is that the resurgent Soviet military might make it harder to reach a strategic arms reduction agreement and win final approval of a conventional arms deal.

A possibly harder Soviet line also concerns Europeans, who want quick withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany and Poland. Soviet generals, however, have begun hinting that the timetable is too rapid. The Germans, in particular, are waiting for a February meeting of the Supreme Soviet, which is slated to approve final details of German reunification. Likewise, Gorbachev's scheduled Apr. 16-19 trip to Japan could be affected if the conservative shift prevents him from offering any solution to the old dispute over four islands north of Japan. Another guessing game is over the gulf. The superpowers say they are now speaking with one voice, but some specialists remain worried that Gorbachev could be forced to make concessions to the Soviet army, which is concerned by the destruction of their old client, Iraq. "The longer the war goes on, the greater the chance that Gorbachev or some replacement will come under pressure from the military to reassert the Soviet role," says Bruno Schoch, a Soviet expert at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt. In short, Gorbachev's foreign policy faces pressure on many fronts. "There is a counteroffensive by the defense and military Establishments," says Andrei V. Kortunov, head of the international department of the Institute of the USA & Canada in Moscow.

It's unlikely Moscow will completely reverse Gorbachev's course. With its Eastern European empire lost and its economy incapable of financing Third World adventurism, the fundamentals that fueled Moscow's foreign policy revolution remain in place. Any Gorbachev-led government will likely continue to see relations with the West as crucial to rebuilding a bankrupt economy.

'A PRICE.' In the end, how well Bush manages the new, murkier relationship with Moscow could be just as important a monument of his Presidency as the gulf war. Congress, however, will make that balancing act more difficult. Bipartisan disgust with Soviet repression could hold broader foreign policy objectives hostage. Says Senator Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.): "The Soviet government has to understand there's a price to pay for stepping back from reform."

But how high a price? The strategic arms agreement that hangs in the balance vastly benefits U. S. security interests by requiring lopsided cuts in Soviet nuclear forces. If he had moved faster to engage Gorbachev in his first year, Bush might have already pocketed the pact. Now, with the direction of Soviet foreign policy uncertain, the "new world order" that Bush once envisioned could prove a more distant goal.