On the eve of Jimmy Carter's inauguration, little more than two months ago, Soviet Communist Party leader Leonid Brezhnev declared Kremlin readiness, even eagerness, to work "jointly with the new administration . . . to accomplish a new major advance in relations between our countries."
Hopes were high here then for restoring momentum to stalled U.S. Soviet discussions on strategic arms control and disarmament trade and perhaps the Middle East.
Yet there was Brezhnev Monday pounding the podium in the Kremlin's Palace of Congresses and saying that "normal development of relations . . . . is unthinkable," as long as Washington seeks to 'teach others how to live."
The Carter administration, asserted Brezhnev in a remark that sounds more negative in Russian than in translation, is "not striving" to improve strained superpower ties.
With Secretary of State Cyrys R. Vance arriving in the Soviet capital this weekend for the first top-level talks between the Carter administration and Com unist leaders, the gloomy fact, as seen from here, is that Soviet-American relations are at their lowest point since the detente era began five years ago. Instead of the atmosphere of expectancy appropriate to such an initial encounter, the Kremlin mood is extremely defensive and angry.
Foreign analysts here, including some from Eastern Europe, still believe, however, that the Soviets, in the final analysis, are ready to negotiate seriously with Carter and his envoys and should the opportunity arise, manjor agreements will be signed.
What happened to bring relations to such a low point? Can the mood still be turned around as fast as it went bad?
The outlines of the crisis seem deceptively clear; Cartr haing vowed a greater commitment to moral diplomacy than his predecessors, spoke out in practically the first days of his term in support of Soviet and Eastern European himan rights activists, singing out severl Soviets by name. Several weeks later dissident exile Vladmir Bukovsky was received at the White House.
Although the President said his position did not apply only to Communist government that somehow got lost here.
The Kremlin, at first astonished and then incensed by what it termed egregious interference in its internal affairs, mounted a rhetorical barrage against the United States intended to portray it as violator of human rights and therefore not qualified to take a stand on the issue. Dissidents were arrested and otherwise harassed. Pressue on Soviets who maintain any unofficial contact with foreigners was increased.
Bold American action sharp Soviet reaction. The [WORD ILLEGIBLE] confrontation.
The reality though, at least on the Soviet side is somewhat more complicated. Three factors that have nothing to do with Carter's personal commitment to human rights combined after the New Year to heighten the Kremlin's ideological sensitivity beyond what it had been at any time in recent years. They are:
This year's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Bolshevik resolution. The Kremlin regards such jubilees as occasions for proclaiming the successos of Soviet policy in every sphere, meaning that fundamental criticisms - like the kind expressed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov - are resented even more than usual, which is a great deal.
This summer's Belgrade meeting to assess the results of 1975 Helsinki summit accord on European security and cooperation. Th e West wants to focus on the human rights aspects of the document, while the Kremlin ccontends that the Communist record in these matters is already better than anyone else's and that attention should be shifted to other areas that it finds easier to deal with.
The dramatic resurgence of dissent in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany; each differs from the other but all pose delicate problems for Moscow and it allies. Unrest had to be brought under control without provoking more trouble at home or the sort of outery abroad that followed the 1-68 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechosovakia.
Given these concerns it seems fair to conclude that the last thing the Soviets wanted was an energetic (and as far as the Kremlin could tell, unpredictable) new American President who made human rights the cornerstone of his foreign policy. The Kremlin doubtless did not want any outsiders looking over its shoulder while it sorted out its ideological affairs with arrests, intimidation tactics and an extensive campaign of internal propaganda.
Instead, the most powerful foreigner of all showed concerted interest in Soviet repression. Hence, Moscow's extraordinary venting of spleen.
The next question is whether Soviet anger will actually delay progress on critical issues as strategic arms control and disarmament. For weeks the Kremlin has been warning that Carter's outspokeness on dissidents "complicates" that atmosphere for bargaining on more important subjects. To drive home that message, the Soviet press departed from its regular cautious protocol and began to criticize the President by name for various proposals he made on SALT and the Middle East.
Moscow still wants good relations with the United States, Brezhnev said on Monday, "but this requires a definite level on mutual understanding and at least a minimum of mutual tact" - byt which he plainly means an end to things like personal letters to Sakharov and meetings with Bukovsky.
A commentary published last night in Izvestia, the government newspaper, gave an indication that the Kremlin hopes some accommodation can be reached with the Carter administration.
Aside from repeating the essence of Brezhnev's arguments and complaints, the author of the article, Alexander Bovin, who frequently reflects the most sophisticated high-level Soviet thinking, also asserted.
"Never has mankind possessed a destructive force capablf of exterminating things and never have the hopes to curb this force and stop the debilitating arms race been so real . . . The difficulties are formidable and it is going to be a long haul, but there is no reasonable alternative . . .
"Moscow will receive the U.S. Secretary of State and of course the proposals he will bring with him will be considered in their substance.
In other words, if Vance, arms negotiator Paul Warnke and the rest of the American team are able when the talks start Modnay to convince the Soviets of the practicality of their position - which in the current climate will not be easy - headway is possible. If that happens, the Soviet surliness toward the United States could again subside.
To those who doubt that Brezhnev and his comrades are capable of so swift a turnaround when ideology is at stake, there is last fall's precedent in what happened at the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the Kremlin's arch enemy.
Within hours the ceaseless polemic against Chinese leaders was abruptly halted s the Soviets, recognizing the chance for improvement in the new situation, moved to take advantage of it. That reserve has been sustained even though Chinese hostility towards the Soviets has thus far proved unwavering.
The Vance visit, like the continuing silence here on China, is a test of Soviet pragmatism.