While Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and President Leonid Brezhnev talked of a "partnership in peace," West German and Soviet spokesmen here fought a tight-fisted battle for the past two days before press and public that stood in sharp contrast to official cordiality.
Whatever the outcome of private talks, the propaganda battle was clearly dominated by Brezhnev's spokesman, Leonid Zamyatin, known as an exceptionally intelligent man who is brutally straightforward. With more than 1,500 journalists covering the event, Zamyatin's rendering of Soviet positions reached all parts of Europe and beyond.
Zamyatin's message had several themes. One was to play on European fears of war. The scheduled deployment of new American medium-range missiles in Western Europe, he said, would "bring war closer to our homes."
The already deployed SS20 rockets of the Soviets, he asserted, did not constitute a threat to Western Europe and were not about to destroy Hamburg, Bonn or Cologne.
The interpreter translated the sentence mentioning Hamburg but omitting the other two cities -- at which point Zamyatin broke into German, which he speaks fluently, and added pointedly "and Cologne and Bonn."
Another major theme was to question the rationality of the Reagan administration's nuclear policies, coupled with a firm rejection of President Reagan's zero option proposal as "unacceptable." He said there exists a rough parity in the East-West military balance, and charged that the Americans now want to gain strategic superiority by placing new rockets in Europe.
When Schmidt spokesman Kurt Becker suggested during the joint briefings with Zamyatin that the Soviet leaders "cannot correctly assess the intentions of the American administration," he was vigorously challenged by Zamyatin. The Russians knew very well how to assess American intentions, he said, giving details of Reagan's rearmament program and saying that "violent" rhetoric of the United States "has declared the Soviet Union as its military enemy."
When Becker on another occasion quoted the chancellor as complimenting the apparent health and "physical assurance" of the 75-year-old Brezhnev, Zamyatin again challenged the German. The Soviet leader, he said, was in good condition, which was evidenced in his ability to hold more than seven hours of talks yesterday with Schmidt and other officials.
On yet another occasion, as Becker was trying to explain what he considered to be Bonn's useful role in clarifying arms control issues prior to the Geneva meeting, Zamyatin quipped, "After all, these are going to be Soviet-American talks."
West Germans were taken aback by Zamyatin's contentious attitude, and one Cologne newspaper commented today that "the Soviet guest is addressing Washington quite openly and toughly from Bonn."
Zamyatin restated the known details of the Soviet position. He made plain that the U.S. forward base systems would have to be a part of the Geneva talks. Moreover, he said, Soviet medium-range rockets cannot reach the United States while American forward base systems can reach Soviet territory.
His repeated challenges appeared to throw off balance the German spokesman, a courtly former journalist who was the editor of the weekly Die Zeit before taking his present job.
Only once did Becker get the better of his Soviet counterpart. It was at the end of the third and last of marathon briefings, when the question came up whether the European peace movement was discussed by the leaders.
"No," said Zamyatin.
Becker added, "The chancellor is at the head of the peace movement in this country."