By Jim Hoagland
SOVIET LEADER MIKHAIL Gorbachev has already begun to prepare for his November encounter with Ronald Reagan in Geneva as a summit of struggle rather than conciliation. In addition to taking direct aim at Reagan's space weapons program as his principal negotiating target, Gorbachev is also laying an elaborate public relations trap for the American president.
If the new Soviet leader cannot get the agreement he desperately wants from Reagan to limit testing of the Strategic Defensive Initiative (SDI), Gorbachev has a secondary agenda: To come away from Geneva having damaged Reagan's credibility and increased tensions both within the administration and between Washington and Europe on arms control issues.
The Russian approach to the summit, as signaled in public choices on dates and site and in private diplomatic missions, suggests that the first U.S.-Soviet leadership meeting in six years is likely to develop into a major struggle for world opinion and particularly for support in Western Europe.
Europe has been an area of Soviet failure under Gorbachev's predecessors, and he apparently sees it as an area in which he can show his own style of getting things done. Public opinion gains there could also help the Soviets intensify the misgivings within European governments about SDI, popularly known as "Star Wars."
The new Soviet emphasis on directly engaging the Americans in a battle for opinion at the summit was reflected last month when nine Soviet officials quietly slipped into Geneva on the heels of a departing American advance team.
The nine Soviets, who included members of Gorbachev's Kremlin staff, quickly set about asking the same kind of questions about logistics and substance that the visiting Americans had probed the week before. Western specialists who became aware of their presence could not recall a Soviet advance team for other summits ever focusing on detail the way this team did on the handling of journalists, 3,000 of whom are expected to pour into the Swiss city for the Nov. 19 summit meeting.
Gorbachev's choice of a date in November from among several blocs of time proposed by the United States is an essential element of the still unfolding Soviet strategy to box Reagan in at Geneva and to try to reverse the strong anti-Soviet tide that has coursed through Western Europe in the first half of the 1980s.
While the Russians appeared to adopt the idiom that "timing is everything" in their pre-summit bargaining, the United States concentrated on arguing for its choice of a site. The U.S. team pushed hard to get Gorbachev to accept Reagan's idea of a high- risk, high-reward visit to Washington that would be followed up by a journey by Reagan to Moscow. The Soviets simply stonewalled on that until the United States agreed to their suggestion of a neutral city instead, with agreement coming quickly on Geneva.
The Russians have now constructed a timetable around the Nov. 19 meeting that gives Gorbachev maximum exposure in Europe as a leader who has been proposing and implementing bans on nuclear weapons deployment and testing, at exactly the moment Reagan will again be confronting pressure from within his own administration to call into question the value of the arms control process that Europeans treat as essential to world peace.
Points already staked out on Gorbachev's timetable that could handicap Reagan in this world-class opinion sweepstakes include:
A visit to Paris beginning Oct. 2 that will focus attention on his role as a dynamic new leader at the helm of the Kremlin. Implicit in his choice of visiting France before meeting with Reagan is an ostentatious bow to the Europeans as more reliable partners than the Americans.
Gorbachev's unilaterally proclaimed April 7 moratorium n the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles targeted on Europe that is due to expire a few days before the summit begins. Gorbachev is well positioned to extend it through the summit and challenge Reagan once again to halt U.S. medium-range deployments. Moreover, the Dutch government will now be forced to make its November decision on accepting the deployment of 48 U.S. cruise missiles in the shadow of the summit.
The Soviet unilateral ban on nuclear weapons testing, announced by Gorbachev on July 30 and instantaneously denounced as a fraud by the White House, which will still be in effect as the two leaders meet. The ban runs until the end of the year. Again, Gorbachev can try to focus attention on Reagan's refusal to discuss a joint ban.
Four days before the summit begins, the Pentagon is due to report to Reagan on "proportionate responses" the United States should take to Soviet violations of the SALT II treaty identified by the administration. Reagan commissioned the study in June as a consolation prize for conservatives when he decided to abide for the time being by the limits of the SALT II treaty.
Preparation of the report is likely to produce renewed infighting in Washington over arms control at a time when the administration should be trying to achieve a unified view to present to the Russians. The report will give the forces in the administration who oppose arms control negotiations with the Russians a chance to revive their pressures on the president to abandon the SALT II limits that the United States and the Soviet Union have tacitly agreed to observe.
Gorbachev can also play on the fact that the treaty itself, which European leaders have repeatedly endorsed as an important defense against nuclear war, technically expires six weeks after the summit, still unratified by the United States.
"At this stage, Gorbachev certainly was not ready for (a visit to) Washington. He wants European exposure and involvement. He will go after American opinion directly only after he has laid the groundwork in Europe, which he will then try to use to exert pressure on the United States," said one U.S. specialist who feels that the administration blundered by not focusing earlier on the dilemmas that the Nov. 19 date presents for Reagan and the advantages it gives Gorbachev.
Even American officials who do not share that concern acknowledge a strong current of opinion within the administration that Reagan should approach the summit with the primary objective of limiting potential damage rather than seeking any dramatic breakthroughs.
One line of argument being advanced is that Reagan should not seek any arms control agreements at the Geneva summit, but should go armed with new proposals to present dramatically to world opinion and to Gorbachev, who would then be asked to carry them back to Moscow to study and respond at a second meeting -- presumably this time in Washington.
Little enthusiasm appears to exist within the administration for an effort to reach agreement with the Russians on a statement of principles, similar to those negotiated during the Nixon administration, in the absence of specific agreements on arms control procedures.
American officials tend to minimize the amount of damage that Gorbachev can do in terms of European opinion, stressing that improving the badly battered Soviet image in Europe does not represent a significant alternative to having to deal with the United States. They also emphasize that an all-out Russian attempt to intimidate western European governments into opposing the deployment of cruise and Pershing II medium-range missiles in 1983 backfired.
In challenging Reagan to a public relations battle, Gorbachev is taking a calculated risk, given the president's considerable assets in that field. The Soviet effort has become so visible that much of the American planning about the summit must now be shifting into the battle for opinion, with Reagan preparing his own inimitable publicity offensive.
But Gorbachev's actions thus far indicate that the Soviets may have learned some lessons from the diplomatic fiasco that preceded European deployment in 1983 and are ready to repair some of the damage. The chief architect of that failure, then Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, was kicked upstairs to the ceremonial post of president in July almost at the time that the Kremlin announced in rapid-fire succession that Gorbachev would visit France from Oct. 2 to 5 and meet with Reagan in Geneva six weeks later.
The visit to France inevitably becomes linked to any Soviet effort to play on lingering European concerns about Reagan's commitments to world peace and arms control. It will come just as a bitter five- month-long election campaign for control of France's National Assembly is getting under way in earnest. Conservative French politicians who have a good chance to defeat President Francois Mitterrand's Socialist party in the March election see the visit as a potential trap both for them and for Reagan.
Mitterrand, faced with unrest in the electorate and revolt from his former political allies in the French Communist Party, has a large interest in a visit that features him and Gorbachev as two serious world leaders striving for international understanding. Gorbachev will obviously want a glowing, friendly atmosphere around the meeting that would stand in stark contrast to a failure with Reagan in Geneva.
Beyond these tactical concerns, November is also a key moment for the Soviets in their substantive effort to block or confine the development of the SDI program of space weapons that Reagan has said will operate as a defensive shield over the United States. The results of the summit will be taken into account as Gorbachev puts the finishing touches on the five-year weapons development program he will be presenting to the Soviet party congress due to meet in February.
In comments made in Moscow earlier this summer, Soviet officials suggested that their next major arms control proposal is likely to focus precisely on the area of SDI that is of the most concern to European leaders who generally support Reagan, such as England's Margaret Thatcher and West Germany's Helmut Kohl.
Both Thatcher and Kohl have strongly endorsed Reagan's description of current American activities as a research program. But both have expressed concern about proceeding beyond research into testing, development and deployment. Gorbachev is likely to focus on this potentially divisive distinction, holding out the possibility that the Soviet Union will agree to deep cuts in offensive weapons if Star Wars is confined to research short of systems testing.
Soviet officials express concern that SDI testing is far more advanced than Washington has thus far acknowledged, adding urgency to their efforts to contain it.
"Let us not fool ourselves," said Col. Gen. Nikolai Chervov in an interview. "SDI is not just a research program. We must take seriously the idea that the United States is seeking a two-layered system in space in two years, using existing technology. They are not going to make it out of papier-mache."
Gorbachev will have to move off the current Soviet insistence on a complete ban on SDI, including research, in order to make a proposal that has any chance of attracting U.S. consideration. But the very nature of his offensive toward Western Europe is that he is a man who is able to leave the past behind and strike out in new directions when he sees that it is to his advantage. That characteristic alone makes him a more unpredictable, and therefore ultimately a more dangerous negotiating adversary for Reagan any of Gorbachev's three immediate predecessors would have been.