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US-Soviet Thaw Reaches the Pacific

Vladivostok's welcome for first US Navy visit in 53 years typifies `new type of relationship'

SEAMAN D.J. Cheatham was standing nervously on the deck of the United States Navy's most modern cruiser as it sailed into the stronghold of the Soviet Navy. Slowly the quay came into view, lined with excited citizens of this Far Eastern port city. Giggling children carrying flowers waited at the dock. ``When the boat pulled up one of the guys said, `Hey, they're like real people,''' the 26-year old boatswain's mate from Georgia said.

It has been 53 years since a US naval vessel entered the port of Vladivostok, most of them years of cold war. While tanks and infantrymen faced each other in Central Europe, the world's two largest navies challenged each other across the broad waters of the Pacific.

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Even now, the Pacific remains largely untouched by the spirit of entente that guides arms control and disarmament in Europe. The Soviets accuse the Americans of spurning proposals to open talks on disarmament in the Asia-Pacific region. The Americans point to a steady buildup of Soviet naval and air power and refuse to put navies on the arms control agenda.

But the Sept. 10 arrival of the cruiser USS Princeton and the frigate USS Reuben James here, returning a visit last month by a Soviet naval squadron to San Diego, marks a small but important break in the wall of suspicion between the two navies. The visits have even made new friends of the two Pacific Fleet commanders, Adm. Gennady Khvatov and Adm. Charles Larson, both veteran submarine commanders.

``Three years ago I had never talked to a Soviet citizen,'' Admiral Larson told reporters following his arrival here. ``When I bring my flagship today to Vladivostok to meet with a friend I recently entertained in San Diego, I have to say nothing is impossible.''

``We are enjoying a new type of relationship,'' Admiral Khvatov replied. ``These experiences are based on the `seeing is believing' principle.''

Surrounded by crowds

Soviet sailors, from the admiral on down, came back from San Diego stunned. Not by the full store shelves ``but by the hospitality and warmth of the citizens,'' recalls Comdr. Georgi Rakhmetov, the chief political officer of the cruiser Admiral Vinogradov.

American sailors in their dress whites came back to the dock, exhausted by the crowds of people that surrounded them.

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``I feel overwhelmed,'' said Petty Officer First Class Nigel Crowhurst.

The sailors were showered with offers to visit homes, requests to trade pins and articles of clothing, and endless questions about their lives, from how much money they make to the size of their homes. College students, crusty merchant seamen, and even American journalists, were pressed into duty as interpreters.

The sight of American sailors freely strolling the hilly avenues of this strikingly beautiful port town is more than just a post-cold war novelty.

Vladivostok is the headquarters of the Soviet Pacific Fleet, a role that goes back to czarist days. Its military importance gave it the status of a ``closed city,'' which under the Soviet system means that were foreigners barred. The inflow of Soviet citizens was also strictly controlled.

Two years ago Vladivostok was opened to Soviets. A trickle of foreigners was allowed in. It has now grown to a steady but small stream of businessmen and journalists permitted entry for specific events. The city government and the regional administration are pushing for full-scale opening, hoping to make it the business capital of the Soviet Far East.

Vice Adm. Nikolai Martynyuk, a tall man who charges at visitors with a firm handshake, enthusiastically supports the exchange of naval visits. He reminds visitors of his desire for friendship, but does not hesitate to recite a list of complaints about US military actions.

Both fleets have nuclear-missile-carrying submarines, Admiral Martynyuk says, but the US is developing new, more powerful Trident-II missiles which ``will give a new impulse for the arms race.'' He talks of US cruise missiles ``piling up'' on ships stationed at the US naval base in Japan.

The Soviet fleet has adopted a defensive doctrine, confined to defending its shorelines, Martynyuk contends. The much larger US Pacific forces, in contrast, have a powerful offensive capability, he says.

``We were very shocked last October when two aircraft groups entered the Sea of Japan'' for a huge naval exercise, along with two battleship groups and amphibious landing forces, about 200,000 men in all, he says.

``The Sea of Japan does not require such a concentration of force,'' he asserts. ``Speaking as a friend, if it is [for] North Korea, it is too much.''

The frank-talking admiral also expresses concern about Japan pressing its claim over the four islands in the Kurile chain seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

``After the visit,'' the admiral says, ``I would like the [US] Seventh Fleet to leave [Japan] for Hawaii. And after this, exercises conducted in the Sea of Japan should not be by more than 10,000 men. We should visit each others' ports once every two years. And never call each other potential enemies and live as good friends.''

Defensive or offensive?

Larson, responding to questions from Soviet journalists, opened the door a bit on some of these issues.

``I think the doctrines of our two navies are defensive and we have a lot in common,'' he said. ``The Soviet Union is not my enemy and is not my primary focus as far as military capability.''

The US Navy is deployed at bases overseas for reasons of ``geography,'' he argued. The US is there ``to support friends and allies, to protect some of our interests, but not to be an aggressive force.'' Although exercises would continue, ``the total scope ... will reduce over the next couple of years.''

Soviet Fleet commander Khvatov subtly rejected the tougher stance of some of his officers, who say that disarmament in the Pacific should await the results of the talks in reducing conventional forces in Europe and the nuclear arms treaty between the US and the Soviet Union.

``What we need now is not division, but things we have in common,'' he said. -30-{et

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