Soviet spokesmen in Moscow are advising American journalists that they have had it up to their *! 3/4&)(*$ %() with the Reagan administration. Some of them are even saying that Soviet-American relations have to be written off for years to come and that America should be treated like Albania--ignored.
I asked Secretary of State George Shultz yesterday how he felt about this. He said Moscow had made some sharp statements and overall relations were "not particularly good," were in fact "tense." But, he pointed out, a full set of public and private discussions is now being conducted with the Russians: "there is dialogue." Tone reflects substance, he said; the tone of public Soviet- American discourse reflects the many substantive matters in which Soviets and Americans have deep disagreements, and if agreement is reached on substance, the tone will improve.
Other officials were at pains to add that none of Moscow's public snorts come across in the private discourse.
They were also at pains to add that despite the public perception of Ronald Reagan as not being serious about arms control, the "objective considerations" favoring arms control have never been better. The administration has gained leverage by its high defense budgets, they said, and alliance unity has profited from continuing consultations and the new bargaining flexibility the president showed this week.
It does not follow, however, that the Kremlin's recent expressions of frustration are exclusively propaganda, words meant simply to be played back to the West in order to bring heightened public anxiety to bear against government policy.
There is also, I think, a genuine puzzlement. For Ronald Reagan has been a tough nut for the Soviet Union to crack-- tough to deal with and tough to understand. No wonder: he's tough for Americans to understand, too.
From the Soviets' point of view, the difficulty may be that--to a degree that perhaps remains in dispute in the East as well as the West--he is serious not just about his ideology but also about theirs.
With Richard Nixon the Soviets showed that they were prepared to deal with a hard- liner, even one who made a virtue of unpredictability: within the context of the fluky and unstructured American political system, he could deliver, more or less. But they may well see Reagan as something quite different --as a true believer who has asserted the universality of democratic principles and gone on to pledge a new purposefulness and muscularity in the global advancement of them.
This hint of a disdain for requirements of convention and prudence is one part of the threat the Soviets may discern in Reagan's latest statements. It leads them to affect an air of injured innocence, as though Reagan's excesses, not at all their own, account for current tensions. The same hint of a zealotry unrestrained by pragmatism or, if you wish, by the now- treasured Nixonian opportunism, fuels the fears Reagan has kindled in the West.
The Soviets may also see Reagan as the rare leader in the West who thinks they actually believe what they say they believe. Moscow devotes a considerable effort to making people think that the Kremlin is not a revolutionary expansionist power, as its ideology clearly spells out, but by and large respects the international rules. Many people here complain that Reagan doesn't understand the Russians. Some there may complain that he understands them too well.
When Reagan took office, the Soviets floated the idea they might wait him out. They weren't sure whether he was a conservative "Nixon" they could do business with or a certifiable neanderthal they could not. But they went ahead.
That's worth keeping in mind now. I don't like Reagan's rhetorical stirring up. It gets in the way. It is more important, however, that the negotiating forums are open. On the record, we need not fear that the Soviets will feel so bruised by his tough words that they will suspend the pursuit of their interests in those forums. Rather, they will fire back some tough words, and sit down. Even as they raked over Reagan's new Euromissile proposal, they accepted his invitation to hasten back to Geneva to talk about it.
Precisely because the United States is not Albania--because American policy affects the security, the interior political balance, the economy, everything--the Kremlin must stay engaged with us. Precisely because they are not Albania, we must stay engaged with them. With the two sides having now given and taken a few fresh shots, maybe they're both ready for serious negotiating.