It was, by all accounts, a blunt exchange. On one side of the Kremlin meeting room West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl explained why his country would begin deployment of new theatre nuclear weapons in December if arms control talks in Geneva fail to produce an accord. On the other side, Soviet President Yuri Andropov, physically frail but mentally acute, delivered a stern warning about Moscow’s probable response. In what was arguably the most important East-West meeting of the year, the West German and Soviet leaders faced each other across the chasm of conflicting views and neither side blinked.
Kohl, meeting reporters at the end of his three-day visit, called his talks with Andropov “very frank conversations, very direct. It was not a talk among diplomats but between two men in very clear language.” As expected, he made a forceful case for NATO’s planned deployment of 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles. Those systems, he argued, are the West’s answer to the Soviet Union’s placement of 350 triple warhead SS-20 missiles, many of which are targeted on Western Europe.
But Andropov, who cancelled a planned first-day meeting with Kohl for “personal reasons”—widely assumed to be medical treatment for kidney disease—parried Kohl’s thrust. If the NATO missiles are deployed, he said, there will be no Soviet concessions. Instead, Moscow would extend its SS-20 deployment into East Germany and possibly Czechoslovakia. “The military threat for West Germany will grow manifold,” Andropov warned.
Despite the tough talk, Kohl maintained that there is “still a chance to get somewhere at Geneva,” in the current round of Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. And West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher flew to Washington Sunday to convey whatever new ideas emerged from the exchanges. But the Reagan administration will be interested in more than the Kremlin’s oblique hints of a new nuclear negotiating position. One immediate concern is Andropov’s health. The Soviet president had difficulty walking last week and, during his meetings with the West Germans, gripped his hands tightly— but in vain—to prevent them from trembling during a photo session. Reli-
able Soviet sources say that the 69year-old party leader, who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev last November, suffers from diabetes and weak kidneys, requiring weekly treatment on a dialysis machine.
Although Kohl and other Western visitors have been impressed by Andropov’s intelligence and grasp of complex issues, there have been private fears that his reign in the Kremlin may not be a long one. Already,
Western Kremlinologists are studying the Politburo lineup for a probable successor. The youngest member, Mikhail Gorbachev, 52, is the current favorite. Gorbachev has been given an increasingly high profile since Andropov succeeded Brezhnev, and he is one of only four Politburo members who hold positions of power on the Central Committee’s Secretariat. On the
other hand, if kidney malfunction is in fact Andropov’s principal disability, dialysis could sustain him for years. At any rate, the Soviet leader evidently felt well enough to accept Kohl’s invitation for a return visit to Bonn; the date, however, was not set.
Another subject on which Washington planned to grill Genscher is the prospect of a Reagan-Andropov summit. Kohl had asked for and received Reagan’s consent to broach the subject. According to the chancellor’s spokesman, Peter Boenisch, Andropov indicated a willingness to hold such a meeting, provided it is carefully prepared. Stripped of its diplomatic gloss, the basic message is that Moscow, as much as Washington, wants to guarantee that any summit will produce an accord. Neither Reagan, expected to announce his
re-election bid later this year, nor Andropov, still consolidating power inside the Kremlin, can risk failure.
Some observers have noted a recent thaw in the otherwise chilly superpower dialogue. They cite the reopening of long-term grain negotiations, a compromise at Madrid in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe that is winding up and some modest movement on talks in Vienna aimed at reducing NATO and Warsaw Pact conventional forces. But both capitals know that these are the sideshows. The main focus remains the separate theatre and strategic arms negotiations in Geneva, and neither side is publicly optimistic.
Still, Kohl was not the only Western visitor in Moscow last week. Elevenyear-old Samantha Smith, a Maine schoolgirl who has corresponded with Andropov, was in the Soviet capital, and a 19-member congressional delegation led by Republican Thomas Foley of Washington held a series of meetings with top Soviet officials, the first such bilateral sessions in almost four years. According to one participant, New York Democrat Tom Downey, senior Soviet military chief Marshal Sergei Akhromeev suggested that the Kremlin would be prepared to negotiate a theatre nuclear weapons pact along the lines of the abortive 1982 “walk in the woods” proposal. That plan, informally discussed by the chief Soviet and U.S. negotiators during an afternoon stroll in the Geneva woods, would have seen the Soviet Union reduce its SS-20 force to about 75 systems. In return, NATO would have deployed a similar number of cruise warheads, but cancelled the more destabilizing Pershing II. Both parties subsequently rejected the formula, but Downey quoted Akhromeev as saying, “If such a proposal is offered again, it will be seriously negotiated.”
Still, Andropov’s blunt language contained few hints of compromise. With a frankness seldom seen in diplomatic discussions, Moscow and Bonn traded sharp words last week both on the NATO deployment and on West German hopes for reunification—a subject not usually raised by foreigners inside the Kremlin. At his Moscow news conference, Kohl also referred directly to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and to Poland’s aspirations for free labor unions. Soviet journalists, reportedly stunned by the chancellor’s forthrightness, in turn ignored tradition and criticized Bonn’s policies openly.
Despite the frost, as an interim mediator for Washington and Moscow, Kohl’s direct approach was probably the best one. As both Reagan and Andropov begin to weigh the results, they may note that plain talk leaves little room for misinterpretation.
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