We are not accepting the invitation to attend the funeral of detente." Pravda said on June 17 in a major article known to enjoy blessing from the highest officials in Moscow. But all signs indicate that the Russians are only just keeping detente alive against the day when it will be possible to sign a new arms-control treaty. Meanwhile, they are getting in some nasty licks at Soviet dissidents and the Americans who make dissident actions known to the world.
Yuri Orlov - the physicist who tried to organize a nationwide system for monitoring Soviet compliance with the human-rights clauses of the Helsinki accords - was tried and given the maximum sentence six weeks ago. Two Zionist dissidents, tolerated for years, were shipped off to Siberia two weeks ago.
Craig Whitney of The New York Times and Harold Piper of The Baltimore Sun have been hailed before a Russian court on a charge that they slandered Soviet television officials by reporting complaints from the relatives of a Georgian dissident that his televised recantation was bogus. The correspondents went to court last Monday and asserted Soviet justice had no jurisdiction over what they wrote for American publication. Though the Central Committee has given assurances that the case will be disposed of gently, the charge still stands and another hearing is set for July 18.
The trial of Alexander Ginzburg - who served as fundraiser for the great physicist and supreme dissident, Andrei Sakharov - is due to begin tomorrow in the provincial town of Kaluga. The trial of Anatoly Scharansky, eho is charged with treason for alleged contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency, begins tomorrow, too.
Soviet foreign-policy officials who are known to favor detente admit that the trials are bound to have an adverse effect on American relations. They assert - and I believe them - that the dissident activities are a mere pinprick, not the sign of major unrest imagined by many Americans. But they do not agree that it would be useful in the interests of detente to shrug off the dissidents, or deal with them in less draconian fashion.
One reason for the toughness seems to be a clear awareness that President Carter is not strong enough to push through now what really interests the Russians - a new strategic arms limitation treaty, or SALT. That perception is mirrored in the Soviet approach to the resumption of arms-control talks at the meetings between foreign minister Andrei Gromyko and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance set for Geneva this week.
Officials at the Central Committee, the Foreign Ministry and the USA Institute, which advises the government on its American dealings, believe that a breakthrough wrapping up the negotiations is out of the question. They expect a small step forward in limiting the development of new types of missiles. Just enough, in other words, to keep the talks going.
Nor is there any Russian interest in accelerating matters by a summit meeting between Carter and Leonid Brezhnev. During the Fourth of July reception at the U.S. embassy here, one middle-level Soviet official told me:
"President Brezhnev is a leading world statesman who has gone from success to success. President Carter is a newcomer who has steadily declined in world opinion. A meeting now is impossible."
Apart from having nothing to gain in foreign policy from showing restraint now, the Russians may have an internal policy reason for toughness. The chief Russian proponent of detente. Brezhnev, is obviously up and about. He spoke at a meeting of the Central Committee on Monday and appeared at sessions of the Supreme Soviet Wednesday and Thursday. But he is not in the pink. At best he has ups and downs. Some analysts here speculate that his grip is weakening, which allows new scope for the security forces to take the kind of actions that worsen the climate for detente.
Still nobody here believes the present spell of bad relations between the United States and Russia is apt to get out of hand. The Soviet economy continues to lag, and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin told the Supreme Soviet again of the need for Western technology. The growing cooperation between the United States and China is taken very seriously here.
So it appears that when the United States is ready, the Russians will also be prepared to push through to an arms-control accord. But it is hard to resist the conclusion that much of this trouble could have been avoided if the Carter administration had moved from the beginning to grab an early SALT deal.