Soviet Union: Battening Down the Hatches

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Moscow issues plenty of bluster but no word on Sakharov

"In Washington, they are not interested in reaching agreement. They only speculate in general terms about the usefulness of dialogue." That note of scorn in Soviet Leader Konstantin Chernenko's remarks to West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher last week was characteristic of Moscow's increasingly hostile posture toward the West. The Kremlin categorically rejected Genscher's plea for a resumption of the Geneva arms-reduction talks that the Soviets broke off last November to protest NATO's deployment of new missiles in Europe. Only a few hours before Genscher's arrival, the Soviet news agency TASS published a lengthy interview with Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov, in which he warned that the new NATO missiles "increased the probability of a nuclear conflict." In retaliation, Ustinov said, the Soviets had dispatched to U.S. coastal waters additional submarines carrying nuclear missiles that could strike American cities within ten minutes.

Even before the Kremlin announced that the Soviets would not attend the Los Angeles Summer Olympics,*Soviet leaders were using every opportunity to foster a crisis atmosphere. Further evidence came in the way Moscow was handling the case of Andrei Sakharov, intellectual leader of the besieged Soviet dissident movement. The Nobel Peace Prize recipient began a hunger strike on May 2 to secure permission for his ailing wife Yelena Bonner to travel abroad for medical treatment. Turning a deaf ear to a growing chorus of international protests and inquiries, the Soviets refused to give any details on Sakharov's health and whereabouts. Said a top Washington diplomat: "They are not capable of taking any positive steps, so they are turning inward and isolating themselves. It is leadership by tantrum."

The Kremlin is still smarting from the failure of its campaign to prevent NATO from deploying new missiles in Europe. But Moscow's primary motive is to signal the U.S. that it will not do any business with the Reagan Administration. "You are dealing with a defiant and bitter Russian bear," says Dmitri Simes, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Everything they were trying to do internationally went wrong. They have now fallen back on a policy of assertive isolationism."

At his White House press conference last week, Reagan did not appear particularly troubled by the vitriol coming out of Moscow. "Yes, the Soviet Union is unhappy," he observed. "They are unhappy because for the first time in a couple of decades we are preserving our security ability." If the Soviets were so concerned that the U.S. would surpass them in the arms race, said Reagan, they should come back to the negotiating table. The President pointedly avoided chastising the Kremlin for its treatment of the Sakharovs. "I just have a feeling that anything I might say publicly could be injurious to [Yelena Bonner's] chances," he noted diplomatically. Reagan also down-played the threat posed by any new Soviet submarines off the U.S. coast.

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