Smiles Of A Summer Summit May Be The Last For A While

Seen from the Oval Office, the images from the Soviet Union are not reassuring. Striking coal miners ignore Moscow's orders to return to work. The economy implodes as the threat of price riots grows. And protest posters carry the words "v otstavky," or "resign," next to Mikhail Gorbachev's name.

For George Bush, the chaos in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev's increasingly murky future are fueling a new sense of urgency in U. S.-Soviet relations. Nervous Washington officials are trying to lock in two arms-control deals that would consolidate the gains of five years of negotiations with Moscow. To do that, Bush is moving to get a Moscow summit off the ground in June or July. "The longer we wait, the higher the risks," says an Administration Soviet expert. Bush and Gorbachev held a summit last June. But when Gorbachev launched a bloody crackdown on the Baltic states in January, five years of improving ties skidded to a halt.

Bush's first priority is to end the stalemate over the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which calls for huge cuts in Soviet forces in Central Europe. Warsaw Pact and NATO countries signed the treaty last year, but it was sidetracked on its way to ratification last fall. Soviet hard-liners insisted that 3,700 Soviet tanks and artillery pieces be counted as naval hardware, thereby putting them outside treaty limits. Bush rejected that ploy but now says he'll go along with it if Moscow makes equivalent cuts elsewhere in Central Europe.

VOTE-GETTER? If the CFE treaty can be nailed down, it will generate momentum for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which calls for deep reductions in long-range nuclear arsenals. START would lessen the danger of nuclear war and help chart spending cuts on new generations of nuclear weapons. Since START mandates much bigger cuts on the Soviet side, Bush is likely to offer Gorbachev concessions on verification issues such as on-site inspection of factories where ballistic missiles are built. If that happens, U. S. officials believe it may be possible to reach an agreement in principle with the Soviets before a Moscow summit.

Bush strategists worry that he runs a political risk in leaving important work with the Soviets unfinished as the 1992 election approaches. As the Persian Gulf victory fades, Bush's failure to sign a major arms deal with a weakening Gorbachev would leave a big gap in his foreign policy record. Powerful incentives are also pushing Gorbachev toward a summit. Boris N. Yeltsin, his chief rival, is likely to win the first-ever direct elections for president of the Russian republic on June 12. That will give Yeltsin a popular legitimacy that Gorbachev lacks. Tacking down the CFE accord would also strengthen Moscow's ties with Western Europe--its best source of badly needed economic investment. Indeed, in coming years, the Soviets are likely to refocus their diplomatic efforts on Western Europe. "A new axis between the Soviets and Europe is forming slowly," says Mario Lemme, a Soviet expert at the Aspen Institute in Berlin. "Their interests now converge more than those of the Soviets and the U. S."

Even a successful summit, however, would likely be the last hurrah of the heady era of ever-improving U. S.-Soviet ties. After a Moscow meeting, Bush advisers believe that spreading turmoil in the Soviet Union will make follow-on talks on arms control or direct economic cooperation difficult at best. "We're entering an era of modest expectations and few bold moves," says one State Dept. specialist. That's a far cry from the vision of superpower partnership that Bush had offered as the legacy of the cold war's end. The Administration still expects the odd breakthrough on regional issues from Angola to Afghanistan. But as the Soviet Union turns ever inward, superpower leaders may find less and less common ground for summit celebration.

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