Soviets try to get between US and its allies
The nicest thing for Soviet officials about shouting at Ronald Reagan from Moscow is that his West European allies can't help but listen in. Off to a stormy start with the new administration, the Kremlin seems hopeful at least of insulating its relatively healthy ties with key West European states from any long-term worsening of relations with Washington.
In the best of all possible Soviet worlds, the current rhetorical shoot-out with Washington will yet expire when the superpowers get down to "really important" issues of detente. These, to the Soviets, include arms control and trade and technological exchanges with the West -- and not much else.
Thus the official news media here still seem reluctant to tee off on Mr. Reagan, himself, preferring to take aim on surrogates like the secretaries of state or defence. Toward the President there remains something of the tone of a bad report card sent to the parents of a lagging junior-high-school student.
"It would be premature at least," remarked a veteran diplomat, "to say that the Kremlin is panicking, or has definitely given up on Mr. Reagan."
But the public line toward the new administration has been visibly hardening, particularly since US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's Feb. 3 suggestion that Washington might reopen plans to produce a neutron weapon.
At the same time, there have been signs of a rekindled Soviet hankering to encourage splits in the Western alliance.
Whether this will pay off remains to be seen. There may be early indications in March when, European sources here say, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher tentatively plans to visit.
The future of Soviet-West European relations depends at least partly on elements Moscow cannot control -- such as the bubbling labor unrest in Poland and the Reagan administration's own stated preoccupation with shoring up the Western alliance.
Western diplomats maintain, for instance, that Soviet military intervention in the Polish crisis would almost surely keep Mr. Genscher at home -- and potentially cause far graver setbacks to Soviet-European relations.
The Polish crisis, moreover, seems so to worry the Soviets that it takes precedence even over ties with Western Europe. The official press here, in what is seen as part of public preparations for heightened Soviet involvement in Poland should the Kremlin decide this is unavoidable, has been alleging that West German and NATO activists are helping to stir the polish pot.
But the Soviets' main thrust seems still toward cementing ties with America's European allies. Diplomats expect this effort to intensify should relations with Washington continue to worsen.
In the Soviet view, the history of the Carter administration presumably serves as proof of sorts that "Eurodetente" can at least survive while "Americodetente" stumbles.
The latest issue of the Soviet monthly journal International AFfairs argues that links with West European states "continue to develop successfully." The article says Moscow already provides 16 percent of West German natural gas imports, and points to France as another important trading partner.
And if relations with these two key European states were not exactly helped by the Soviets' 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, both the French and West German leaders have nonetheless met with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev since then.
The International Affairs article, while including a rare admission that US trade sanctions imposed in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did have some effect boats: "The vast majority of West European countries naturally did not follow the USA in declaring an embargo."
The clear Soviet hope is that -- whatever turns relations with Mr. Reagan take -- West Europe can still be persuaded to provide imported technology and consumer goods, while resisting any US bid to beef up Western military strength on European soil.
Among recent indications of heightened Soviet sensitivity to the West Europeans are:
* The studiously restrained reaction to French President Valery Giscard d' Estaing's public call for an international conference on Afghanistan. Diplomats here say it is clear the Soviets want no part of such a scheme, at least not now.
But the public reaction here -- despite reported advance warning of the statement from the French -- was decorous silence.
* Mention in the official media of what are described as mutually profitable Soviet-West European relations. The Communist Party daily Pravda Feb. 7 called trade ties with France "a vivid example" of this, which will "undoubtedly contribute . . . to the strengthening of Soviet-French cooperation . . . and detente."
* The Soviets' public reaction to Mr. Weinberger's comments on the neutron weapon.
The official media promptly sharpened its attacks on the Reagan administration. But the main thrust of Soviet reasoning was, in the words of the official news agency, that the US suggestion "cannot but cause serious alarm among countries of the European continent."