SOVIET Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze was in top form as he swept up the wide marble steps toward the hall where diplomats are meeting this week to discuss arms cuts. Spotting the diplomatic editor of a large London daily, he dodged to give the woman a quick hug. A few steps more, and a handshake, then another, and still another. ``You'd think he was running for office,'' mumbled one Austrian official.
Not quite. But the Soviet Union is clearly on a diplomatic roll - and the polished foreign minister is enjoying every minute of it. After years on Europe's diplomatic fringe, the Soviets have crafted a set of policies that combine prospects for disarmament with a program of internal reform.
Analysts here point out that it's this hard-nosed tally of security benefits, not starry-eyed enthusiasm, that is pushing European countries toward a more positive assessment of Soviet policy.
West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has led the pack in showing support for the Soviet Union's ``new thinking,'' arguing that the West needs to reinforce Soviet reforms by responding with initiatives of its own.
During this week's meetings in Vienna, Mr. Shevardnadze also called on the West to take action. ``Let those in the West who are applauding our unilateral steps respond with a step of their own in those categories of arms where they have an advantage,'' he said.
Even European hard-liners admit that change in the Soviet Union's policy is real. The issue is whether it will last - and whether it can be used as a guide for Western policy.
British Foreign Minister Geoffrey Howe said this week there is now a ``real prospect to put the cold war behind us.'' But some legacies of that era remain, he added.