Ever since President Carter's challenge to the Soviet Union in his recent Annapolis speech, the United States had been awaiting the response. It came Friday night, in a 5000-word declaration published in Pravda and all other Soviet daily newspapers.
This prominent and extensive treatment, which is reserved for state documents of highest importance, left United States officials no doubt that this was the definitive response that had been promised in recent hints from Soviet sources. There was no doubt, also, that the highly unusual document, covering the broad range of U.S.-Soviet relations, represents a comprehensive Soviet rejoinder not only to the Annapolis speech but to much else in the first 17 months of the Carter administration.
Kremlinologists mining it for clues to future Soviet argument and action were already at work on their studies yesterday, but the policy-level reaction of the U.S. officials at the top was still to be heard.
Carter and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, were in Panama for ceremonies in connection with the ratification of canal treaties when the Soviet statement was published. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and his senior aides on Soviet policy were in London at the end of meetings with U.S. ambassadors from Western and Eastern Europe.
Both the Carter and Vance parties returned home yesterday, but officials said it would be several days at least before the government is likely to have a considered analysis and reaction.
One high-level indication of the Carter administration's attitude is expected Monday afternoon, when Vance is scheduled to testify before the House International Relations Committee.
Moscow's statement, which is couched in unusually lean and forceful language with less than the usual burden of ideological rhetoric, is directed to the American people and international opinion as much as to the home audience. The clear intention is to shift the onus for superpower tensions to the U.S. administration of "James Carter," as Moscow consistently calls him, and to portray the Soviet Union as the victim of an unprovoked and unjustified policy shift in Washington.
The Pravda article goes out of its way to absolve the American public at large from responsibility, saying that U.S. public opinion polls show a continuing overwhelming majority support for improved relations with the Soviet Union and an early strategic arms treaty.
In some of its more convoluted passages, the article blames the trouble on "the so-called military-industrial complex, the extreme right-wing circles, the organizations of counter-revolutionary emigrants from Eastern Europe and other forces" which have become more active precisely because they are losing ground.
While the lengthy blast was being prepared in Moscow, Carter was telling the Dallas Times-Herald in an interview Thursday that "there is a tremendous stability that exists between ourselves and the Soviet Union" in strategic and conventional arms and in the joint desire for a comprehensive nuclear test ban agreement." Perhaps significantly, the test ban is one of the few pending questions between the two countries not mentioned in the Pravda article.
In the interview, Carter said he did not believe U.S.-Soviet relations are in a crisis stage but that an early meeting with Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev would "relieve tension." Carter also defended Brzezinski, who was singled out for special attack in the Pravda article, as "kind of a target for anyone who disagrees with a policy that I myself have adopted."