A pioneer in U.S.-Soviet business ventures today forecast a spring thaw in the frozen commercial relations between the United States and Russia as the Reagan administration announced the first Cabinet-level trade talks with Moscow since 1978.
"I think spring is coming. There are some warming currents, and there are reasons to believe the climate will continue to moderate, albeit at a slow pace," William C. Norris, chairman of Control Data Corp., told a conference on East-West trade at Duke University here.
Norris, who first started business dealings with the Soviet Union in the early days of the Nixon administration thaw in 1970, said he was driven into "hibernation" when U.S.-Soviet relations took a "massive nosedive" 10 years later.
One of the "encouraging signs" for a renewal of trade with the Soviets was the scheduling of a Moscow meeting in May between Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige and Soviet Trade Minister Nikolai Patolichev. The meeting was announced in Washington Wednesday.
This will be the first high-level meeting on trade between the United States and the Soviet Union in seven years and was described by an administration spokesman as "part of President Reagan's overall approach to the Soviets in establishing working relations in all areas, including trade."
Officially, Baldrige and Patolichev will meet under the umbrella of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Joint Commercial Commission. The meeting was announced after Baldrige met Wednesday in Washington with Deputy Soviet Trade Minister Vladimir Sushkov.
What had been the start of a small, but flourishing, trade relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union disintegrated under the political pressures caused by Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when President Carter imposed a grain embargo, and the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, when President Reagan tried to stop the sale of western technology to build the Soviet's gas pipeline from Siberia.
As a result, the United States fell from second to seventh among the Soviet Union's capitalist trading partners. U.S. exports to the Soviet Union totaled $3.2 billion last year, with all but $466 million in grain sales. By way of contrast, in 1979, U.S. manufacturing exports to the Soviet Union in 1979 totaled $700 million.
Control Data alone lost orders worth $235 million as a result of the sanctions, and Caterpillar Tractor Co., which once supplied 80 percent of the heavy construction equipment to the Soviets, lost a $90 million contract for pipelaying equipment and has been superseded as Moscow's favored supplier by Komatsu Ltd., a Japanese company that is Caterpillar's major rival for world markets.
Administration officials took pains to say that the Patolichev-Baldrige meeting will not result in a huge increase of sales of American products to the Soviet Union.
But there could be significant sales in specific areas, especially food processing, consumer goods, petrochemicals, pulp and paper and pollution control devises, Commerce officials said.
By joint agreement, Baldrige and his Soviet counterpart, Patolichev, will not discuss trade in militarily sensitive technologies, especially sophisticated computers, where Reagan administration Commerce and Defense officials stand in sharp disagreement over Moscow's needs and its ability to get the technology elsewhere.
Some less-sophisticated computers and microchips, however, are included in a pamphlet Commerce Undersecretary Lionel H. Olmer showed the Soviets last January at a meeting in Moscow, setting the stage for the Baldrige trip.
A Soviet representative at the meeting here, Alexsei Voskoboy, said Moscow welcomes increased trade with the United States as long as it is carried out on a "equal and mutually beneficial basis."
But Voskoboy, chief of administration for scientific and technological cooperation with foreign countries of the State Committee for Science and Techology, said "the politics of embargos and sanctions leave a bad aftertaste" among Soviet scientists and engineers who might become involved in collaborative projects.
"We want to have reliable partners for many years to come. Agreements signed should be acted out independently of other external factors," he added, in an obvious reference to the pipeline sanctions and the grain embargo.
Voskoboy said there is room for "enterprising American firms" to take part in the massive reconstruction projects that are expected to be part of the Soviet's 12th five-year plan, to be announced soon.
Washington Post correspondent Dusko Doder reported from Moscow last month that the Soviets were favoring other western countries with contracts in the five-year plan because the United States was considered an unreliable supplier. U.S. officials, however, said they thought that issue had been put to rest during Olmer's talks in Moscow and indicated Baldrige would be unlikely to meet with Patolichev if the Soviets still held that view.