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Why US, Soviets play a waiting game

The United States eagle and the Soviet bear circle each other, waiting, watching.

Both superpowers seem to be waiting for a new Soviet leadership to take over before making any accommodations or compromises.

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And, on the Soviet side, there is a kind of skeptical waiting to see whether the new secretary of state, George P. Shultz, makes any change of approach to Moscow. Soviet commentators doubt that he will.

Meanwhile, the cost to the world of the continuing deadlock in superpower relations could be a continuing arms race. If the Reagan administration is perceived in Western Europe as being the obstinate party in arms-control negotiations with the Soviets, then the cost to the Americans could be the collapse of the allied decision to start deploying new American nuclear missiles in West Europe in December 1983.

st In the view of some observers, the Soviets have shown restraint lately in most world arenas, thus justifying a new approach to that aspect of US-Soviet competition. Since Afghanistan and Poland, there have been no aggressive moves on the part of the Soviets.

Indeed, State Department officials say the arms flow from Cuba to Central America - for which the Reagan administration has held the Soviets responsible - has slowed. But the Soviets are not getting much credit from the Reagan administration for any of this. Instead, they are viewed as passing through a leadership transition phase, which prevents them from acting decisively.

It is against this background of waiting and watching that Secretary Shultz meets Sept. 28 for the first time in his top foreign policy position with the Soviets' veteran diplomat and foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko.

Mr. Shultz's style has been to feel his way carefully into major foreign policy issues, and no one expects him to be proposing radical change in the administration's tough approach to the Soviet Union.

In a little-reported speech earlier this month in Los Angeles, Eugene V. Rostow, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), declared, ''Since the late 1950s, at least, the primary strategic goal of the Soviet program of expansion has been to achieve world dominance by separating Western Europe from the United States and Canada.''

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If the Rostow statement is representative of administration thinking, then there is little chance that apparent Soviet forbearance - in the Lebanon crisis, for example - will translate into improved US-Soviet relations.

The Soviet approach to arms control, Mr. Rostow said, ''seems to be dominated by two ideas: to divide the United States from its allies and to prevent the modernization of the American armed forces.''

On Sept. 30, the Soviets and Americans begin a new round of negotiations in Geneva over proposals to limit medium-range nuclear missiles based in Europe. Both sides have presented draft texts of an agreement, but these appear to place them far apart. According to Rostow, the principal issue centers on the treatment to be accorded to Soviet SS-20s and comparable missiles on the Soviet side, and yet-to-be-deployed Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles on the US side.

''I have the impression that the Soviets have essentially given up on this administration,'' said Dimitri K. Simes, executive director of the Soviet and East European Research Program at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies.

''The Soviets are not very interested in giving any appearance of major progress in arms control,'' Mr. Simes said. ''They don't want this administration to look 'peaceful' in the eyes of the Europeans.''

But State Department analysts say only one group of Soviet officials has ''given up'' on the Reagan administration and that much of the Politburo leadership is still open to negotiating seriously with the administration, should, from the Soviet point of view, a more ''rational'' approach emerge in Washington.

''Between the turn of the year and the next spring, the administration has got to reexamine what's possible,'' said William G. Hyland, a former deputy national security adviser with the Nixon and Ford administrations who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Like a number of other observers, Mr. Hyland is convinced that new pressure will grow next spring from the grass-roots level in Western Europe against the deployment of new American missiles in Europe. This, in turn, could feed isolationist sentiment in the US Congress, he said. He thinks that even if the Christian Democrats are in charge in West Germany at the time, the country's population may be so ''polarized'' over the deployment issue that it could make it difficult for the West Germans to hold to the allied deployment decision.

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