Soviet President Yuri Andropov abruptly canceled his meetings with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl today, fueling speculation that he either was ailing or wanted to administer a gentle snub to his visitor.
Kohl learned of the rare move minutes before his departure from the Bonn-Cologne Airport, and it overshadowed the first day of his visit here. A West German spokesman said Andropov pleaded "personal reasons" for canceling private talks with the German chancellor and his attendance at a state dinner at the Kremlin. West German officials said the reasons given could indicate a sudden recurrence of the 69-year-old Andropov's chronic kidney ailment.
President Reagan, vacationing at his ranch in Santa Barbara, was informed of Andropov's move by National Security Adviser William P. Clark, Washington Post staff writer Juan Williams reported.
According to White House spokesman Larry Speakes, who accompanied the president to Santa Barbara, the president has not called Andropov and has no plans to do so.
As of Monday afternoon, Speakes said Reagan had received no private intelligence explaining Andropov's sudden cancellation and said questions about the Soviet leader's health amounted to "speculation," as far as White House officials could determine.
Andropov's place in today's contacts was taken by Premier Nikolai Tikhonov, who traded unusually sharp words with Kohl at a Kremlin dinner tonight.
Tikhonov attacked the scheduled deployment of new U.S. medium-range nuclear missiles in five West European countries, including West Germany. He said the missile deployment "inevitably will result in a sharp deterioration of the situation in Europe and in the world."
Tikhonov said in his toast, "We and our allies will respond by taking without delay additional measures to strengthen our security and develop a counterbalance to NATO's new military potential."
In his reply, the chancellor took a hard line, arguing that the Soviet Union had upset the balance of power in Europe by deploying its medium-range SS20 nuclear missiles. He underscored that in the absence of an agreement at the Soviet-American talks in Geneva, West Germany will take its share of American Pershing II and cruise missiles.
"The federal government, which has the backing of the majority of the German people, will not be deflected from this," Kohl said.
Kohl also attacked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as having created international tension and asserted that Moscow "no longer should ignore the wish of the Afghan people and the international community for a political settlement" of the problem.
Speaking about Poland, he called for a "national consensus" as a way to end the crisis in that country.
The government news agency Tass, in another indication of possible Soviet displeasure with the visitor, did not carry the full text of Kohl's speech.
While West German sources insisted that today's private talks were "more polite," the texts of toasts suggested a significant difference of opinions. The sources said that there was no substantive discussion today and that "real negotiations" were expected Tuesday during two meetings with Andropov.
Soviet sources said that Moscow was annoyed by Kohl's statements in an interview broadcast over West German television last night, in which the chancellor said bluntly that if the Kremlin does not make concessions, the West Germans are determined to proceed with the missile deployment plans.
While the chancellor was not breaking new ground in his television interview, the Soviets regarded these statements as inappropriate on the eve of his visit.
One Soviet source, describing Andropov's ailment as a "diplomatic illness," suggested that Moscow wanted to make its displeasure known without directly offending the visitor.
West German officials, however, insisted that the cancellations were not intended as a rebuke for Kohl's strong support for the missile deployment. Tonight, in an interview with West German television, Kohl hinted that Andropov was ill by saying "health problems are health problems everywhere in the world."
While Andropov had appeared frail during his recent appearances in public, there have been no rumors here that he is seriously ill. It was not possible to say with any degree of certainty whether the Soviet leader had taken ill today, but both Soviet and German officials insisted that he would meet with Kohl and his foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Tuesday.
The news that Andropov would not see Kohl today was conveyed to Andreas Meyer-Landrut, the West German ambassador, this morning. He was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where Andrei Gromyko, the veteran Soviet foreign minister, informed him that the meetings were off for "personal reasons."
Meyer-Landrut's cable reached Kohl as he arrived by helicopter at the airport outside Bonn. Kohl's party proceeded to Moscow, where it was greeted by Tikhonov and Gromyko.
The West German Embassy would not disclose the exact time of the ambassador's visit to the Foreign Ministry. The embassy made no mention of any expression of regret by Gromyko over the abrupt change of schedule.
During their exchange of toasts, Tikhonov and Kohl traded harsh words normally not used on such occasions. Tikhonov, speaking about the deployment of U.S. missiles in West Germany, said this would mean that "for the first time in postwar history a military threat again stems from German soil to the Soviet people. There is no need to say what that would mean to us."
In his reply, the chancellor rejected Tikhonov's assertion that the United States was not negotiating seriously at Geneva and he called for an early summit meeting between Andropov and President Reagan. Kohl also reaffirmed his government's commitment to the idea of German reunification, another notion likely to irritate his hosts.
Tikhonov reportedly had criticized Kohl's position on the German question during the private talks in the Kremlin this afternoon. Kohl is said to have urged a relaxation of restrictions on emigration by about 100,000 ethnic Germans.