The Russians have finally accepted the fact that Europe is not to be split from the United States on the issue of theater nuclear weapons, the West German government and foreign ministry contend.
This explains the new Soviet willingness to enter negotiations to limit these weapons -- and the marked Soviet respect for West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Moscow despite his tough stance on arms and Afghanistan.
The West German conservative opposition contests this assessment of Schmidt's June 30-July 1 visit to Moscow. In the opposition view, the Russians are offering to negotiate precisely because they think this will split Europe and the United States. And they showed such deference to Mr. Schmidt -- at a time when they are castigating American President Carter -- for exactly the same reason.
The first test of these contrary theses will com in Belgium, which must now make its six-month-late decision on whether to accept new NATO theater nuclear weapons on its soil. Belgium abstained last December when NATO made its arm-and-disarm "double decision": to deploy new theater nuclear weapons from 1983 on if there is no arms-control agreement by then, but to press Moscow hard in the meantime to negotiate mutual limits.
West Germans officials are bombarding the Belgians with the argument that only the unified determination of the West to go ahead with these weapons will ever persuade the Soviet Union to agree to mutual limitations on them.
Simultaneously, West Germany officials are arguing in NATO and domestic policy debates that only a real commitment to arms control can ensure the necessary public support for the eventual deployment of essential new NATO weapons if no agreement is reached.
The West German opposition protests, on the contrary, that the mere opening of arms-control talks Chancellor Schmidt has so assiduously sought is likely to seduce the Belgians into a further postponement of their decision -- and to seduce West Europeans into opposing new deployment.
As presented by knowledgeable West German diplomatic sources, the government and foreign ministry evaluation of Schmidt's Moscow trip runs like this:
The Soviet dropping of its previous preconditions for European theater nuclear arms-control talks (first, annulment of NATO's December decision, and later, prior American ratification of SALT II) is no "breakthrough," as Schmidt made clear in his parliamentary report on his trip. But if suggests that the Russians, too, are interested in reaching as low a mutual level of arms as possible in Europe. If they didn't think the West would go ahead with deployment of the planned Pershing IIs and cruise missiles, they would simply stall on entering negotiations, enjoy their superiority in long-range theater nuclear forces through their already deployed SS-20 missiles, and exploit domestic West European aversion to new NATO weapons.
Similarly, the Soviet display of respect for Chancellor Schmidt indicates that the Russians can take blunt criticism without angrily breaking off their dialogue with the West. Schmidt minced no words in his public (or private, diplomatic sources say) presentations to the Kremlin. He called again for complete Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, asserted that Soviet theater weapons have disrupted the military balance in Europe, reaffirmed West Germany's loyalty to the Atlantic alliance, and pointed out that today's streams of refugees are mostly coming from communist lands.
In addition, Schmidt is well known to the Russians as the original advocate of NATO nuclear modernization. West Germany, in a clear response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has just expanded the operational area of its navy northward in Norwegian waters toward the Sovit naval stronghold of the Kola Peninsula. It is also verging on getting the 3,000-ton postwar limit on its ships lifted. And, in the Olympics duel that the Russians are so sensitive about, West Germany is the one major Western European country to be joining the boycott.
Further, during his Moscow visit Schmidt thwarted the Soviet wish to subordinate international tensions to warm bilateral relations to demonstrate "business as usual." Schmidt downplayed the 25-year supplementary trade agreement that the Russians wanted the two leaders to sign; he had the two ambassadors sign it instead. He also insisted -- a first for any visiting West German leader -- on laying a wreath not only on the memorial to the unknown Soviet soldier, but also on the cemetery of German prisoners of war who died in captivity in the Soviet Union years after the end of World War II.
Despite this West German toughness, the Russians (who were aware of the content of Schmidt's statements in advance) still accorded the West German chancellor a much warmer reception than protocol required. President Leonid Brezhnev himself met Chancellor Schmidt at the airport. All 10 members of the Politburo resident in Moscow were present at the dinner for Mr. Schmidt (an honor previously bestowed only on former US President Richard Nixon). And the Russians granted Schmidt's request to talk with weapons expert and Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov and his deputy, Col. Gen. Nikolai Ogarkov. (Only once in all of postwar history did American officials get to meet a Soviet defense minister, at the signing of the SALT II treaty last year.)
In analyzing the Soviet deference for Schmidt the West German opposition cites the very same facts to condemn Schmidt's Moscow trip. Schmidt fell into a Kremlin attempt to woo West Germany away from the US, according to the conservaties.