A blunt exchange of messages between President Reagan and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev precipitated the new U.S. sanctions against the Soviet Union, administration sources said yesterday.
The sanctions announced yesterday were described as interim, unilateral measures that may be followed in several weeks by larger steps in unison with allied and friendly nations. The limited sanctions might not have been ordered at all, and almost certainly not yesterday, had it not been for the crossed correspondence between the two leaders, according to the sources.
The exchange began with a message from Reagan to Brezhnev announced publicly by the U.S. president in his televised address last Wednesday.
Reagan said he had urged his Soviet counterpart to "permit the restoration of basic rights in Poland" and warned that "if this repression continues, the United States will have no choice but to take further concrete political and economic measures affecting our relationship."
The reply from Moscow came on Christmas night. Although neither side has released it and Washington officials will not describe it in detail, Reagan has characterized it as "negative" and other officials have called it "very tough" in substance and tone.
In view of that response, the sources said, Reagan and his advisers felt he had no choice but to make good on his own public challenge --and quickly--if he were to maintain credibility with Moscow.
For this reason, the decision making in Washington was accelerated with a 2 1/2-hour meeting of senior foreign policy officials at the White House Monday. After the session, their recommendations were passed by telephone to Reagan, who was spending the day clearing brush at his California ranch.
It was no surprise to some of those familiar with Soviet patterns and practices that a publicized challenge from Washington was returned with a Kremlin rebuff. Senior administration officials insisted yesterday that a softer and more conciliatory Brezhnev reply had been considered a possibility, and said such a response would have presented more complicated policy problems for the Reagan administration.
But by moving so quickly, the U.S. government did not have enough time to get the Europeans to take parallel steps that would have given the sanctions an alliance-wide flavor. By moving without the allies, the Reagan administration risked being compared to the Carter administration, which two years ago imposed a list of sanctions against the Soviets in retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan and then found most of the allies unwilling to follow suit.
The steps announced yesterday were strikingly similar to some of those taken by President Carter, except that they did not include the strongest of the earlier measures--an embargo on most sales of U.S. grain to the Russians. That embargo was criticized sharply by Reagan during the 1980 campaign, and lifted by the new president in April.
Reagan administration officials insisted the two situations are dissimilar because the new sanctions are designed, as Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. noted, to be "an interim step that hardly exhausts the list of potential actions" that could still be brought into play if the Soviets prove unresponsive. Nobody would specify a definite time for a new set of decisions, though some officials spoke of a few weeks.
Another distinction, according to Reagan administration officials, is that discussions with the allies have advanced further now and that the Western European allies are more concerned about events in nearby Poland than they were about events in Afghanistan.
Haig, speaking in San Francisco yesterday, said France has been as outspoken as the United States about the Polish crackdown, and that Britain's position "is compatible with ours." He conceded that West Germany, which has special problems because it borders Eastern Europe, lags behind the others, but he expressed optimism that unity can be achieved.
A meeting of the political directors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization today is described here as a step toward alliance solidarity. Next week, in another key step, Reagan and Haig are to confer here with West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who is now vacationing in Florida. And by mid-January, there is likely to be a meeting in Europe of the NATO foreign ministers to discuss the Polish situation.
The steps announced yesterday nearly exhausted those that the administration could take without having alliance agreement, and without negating the two most important decisions it made regarding the Soviet Union in its first 11 months.
Those were to lift the grain embargo and to begin Soviet-American negotiations on European-based nuclear arms in November.
A senior State Department official who briefed reporters yesterday conceded that the postponement of negotiations on a new grain agreement was "a signal" rather than strong action. The same official announced that the United States plans to resume the arms talks after the end of the holiday recess Jan. 12 "under present conditions."
It is possible that the beginning of Soviet-American negotiations on strategic arms, which were expected by spring, might be delayed because of developments in Poland, according to informed sources. The SALT II treaty, which resulted from earlier rounds of negotiations, was put on the shelf by Carter after the invasion of Afghanistan.
Perhaps most painful to Moscow among Carter's responses to Afghanistan was one not formally announced at the time: the beginning of U.S. military cooperation with the People's Republic of China, which is Moscow's arch rival. Sino-American accord has been threatened by the Reagan administration's Taiwan policy, but the renewed tensions with Moscow make that accord more important, and would seem to make a high-profile gesture toward Taiwan less likely now.