With Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev's visit to France completed, Allied officials are wondering whether West Germany will be the next stop in Soviet efforts to win friends and influence governments among Washington's allies.
A commonly discussed view with in Western circles these days is that Brezhnev's badly strained relations with the Carter administration had led the Kremlin to a strategy of looking for helpers elsewhere in the West. By be having nicely to Western Europe, the goal apparently would be to isolate the United States from its Allies on key issues such as human rights and thereby help bring the White House around.
This notion has gained some currency here, too, and there is at least some concern that a possible visit to Bonn by Brezhnev this fall could introduce pressure between the two Western capitals.
West German specialists on Soviet affairs tend to take a different view.
They are not convinced that there is a new Soviet strategy or that the Kremlin has any strategy at all at the moment. What seems to interest Bonn's Kremlinologists most about the Soviet Union is the uncertainty with which Moscow seems to be conducting its affairs.
They cite several factors:
The manner and suddenness of the ouster last month of former Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny; obstructionist Soviet tactics at the ongoing 35-nation Belgrade conference poorly on Soviet motives and alienated many neutral and nonaligned participants; overt arrests of Soviet dissident and harsh treatment of Western journalists in Moscow.
They are all evidence of internal political problems, all evidence that there is a very deep and far-reaching discussion going on in Soviet leadership circles about how to continue," said one experienced diplomat.
"The Soviet Union in many ways is an easier place to govern than demonstrative Western Societies," another specialist adds. "The people are very nonpolitical, able to take setbacks and very self-sufficient. But still, the limitations for the future are growing for the Soviet Union in terms of a change of power within a few years," he says.
Thus, meetings with Brezhnev have become both more important and more fascinating to Western governments "to see him, judge his capacity, status and performance."
Specialists here are reflect some reports suggesting that the United States, fearing Bonn vulnerable to Kremlin pressure, is opposed to a would-be meeting.
The West Germans do have vulnerabilities. More than 3 million ethnic Germans remain in Eastern Europe and Bonn's detente policies toward the East have been painstakingly constructed to improve both emigration and travel between East and West. The Soviets can also turn up the heat on West Berlin at any time.
But Bonn is also the single most important Western trading partner and supplier of advanced industrial technology and currency to the East, so both sides have a stake in maintaining reasonable relations.
Furthermore, the West Germans believe that they are perceived in Moscow's eyes in much the same way as the United States, and differently from France. This helps explain why Bonn is not convinced that Moscow is trying to drive a wedge into the Atlantic Alliance.
Although the Brezhnev visit to Paris probably did not go as well as the Kremlin had hoped, it is clear that the Soviets used the occasion to send a message to Washington about just how bad relations were between the two superpowers.
But the West Germans believe the Soviets are much more comfortable with the French in this role because of French independce from the military portion of the NATO alliance.
For all the discussion, the Brezhnev visit still is not definite.
During a visit to Moscow this month by West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Brezhnev suggested he might come in the autumn but did not take the opportunity to make anything firm. Nor did the Soviets hold out any tantalizing new prospects of improvement in the Berlin situation.
Furthermore, the prospect of a meeting with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has been talked about on-and-off for two years and repeatedly delayed.
Brezhnev, the West Germans say has probably always planned first [WORD ILLEGIBLE] getting a new strategic nuclear arms limitation agreement signed, then meeting with Carter, and only then with Schmidt.
One important focus of a Brezhnev-Schmidt meeting, both sides have said, would be discussions of mutual East-West troop reductions in Central Europe. Progress on that subject is unlikely, however, until a new SALT agreement is in sight and some Bonn specialists believe there may still be another delay in a Brezhnev visit here if no progress towards arms limitation is made by this fall.