Soviet President Konstantin U. Chernenko has demonstrated that the Soviet Union, for its own purposes, shares an interest with President Reagan in curbing the acrimonious crossfire between the two superpowers and in displaying an eagerness to break out of the impasse between their two nations.
U.S. specialists have widely divergent views, however, about the objectives behind Chernenko's interview with The Washington Post Tuesday.
Many U.S. analysts see it primarily as a tactic to exploit the American political scene, to capitalize on the foreign-policy debate between President Reagan and Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale Sunday by focusing on concessions sought by the Kremlin in order to break the current across-the-board impasse with the United States on nuclear-arms control.
From that U.S.-centered perspective, the Soviet move confirms and extends the moderating process begun in meetings last month involving Reagan, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko and Secretary of State George P. Shultz but indicates no sign of a shift on substance.
To other analysts, however, the purposes were overwhelmingly Soviet-centered and the American election factor only peripheral.
From this outlook, a major objective of the interview was to strengthen Chernenko's position in the Soviet hierarchy amid great domestic uncertainty about the state of the leadership by showing that he is in charge and can function on the world scene as spokesman for the collective leadership.
Some specialists saw a combination of these objectives.
Chernenko, acting as "chairman of the board" of the Soviet Politburo, was demonstrating that "the Soviet bear is not hibernating," contrary to the Reagan administration contention that the Soviet Union has been incapacitated by its multiple turnover in rulers, said Dimitri K. Simes, Soviet specialist for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Furthermore, "the Soviets are trying rather hard to make clear that they are willing to resume the arms-control process even without their previous conditions for the removal of American missiles from Europe," he said. The Chernenko formulation was silent on that longstanding and rejected Soviet demand.
The Soviet leadership tried to transmit a similar message to the Reagan administration in the format of a Pravda interview with Chernenko published Sept. 2, Simes said. At that time, Chernenko emphasized the four prime issues stressed in the carefully formulated written responses given The Post Tuesday. All require movement by the United States.
They are agreement on preventing militarization of outer space, accepting a mutual freeze on nuclear weapons, U.S. ratification of the 1974 and 1976 test-ban treaties and a U.S. pledge against first use of nuclear weapons.
Chernenko's message in September was coupled with caustic criticism of the administration for attempting to force "great-power ambitions" on the world "with the help of raw military force." Tuesday's interview, however, included no similar denunciations but unusual stress on opportunities that could open up if the United States moved on any of the four principal barriers.
Soviet sources portray that as an open-ended inducement to the United States to display even minimal evidence of readiness to break the deadlock on nuclear arms-control and outer-space negotiations. From the administration standpoint, however, the movement sought appears totally one-sided.
One U.S. official said that, while the Soviet position is that "it is possible" to move forward if there is agreement "at least on one of the essential questions," the Soviet formula, he said, offers "no assurance" of that.
Other U.S. analysts suggested that it is unrealistic to expect the Soviet Union to go further at this stage, which essentially involves expressions of public posture on both sides, not negotiations.
In either case, however, under these circumstances, administration thinking is dominated by a skeptical outlook on Soviet intentions, namely, that the Soviet position reflected by Chernenko is welcome as a change in tone but not in substance.
National security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane saw the "more positive tone" as "a basis for hope," which, compared with some interpretations inside the administration, was a characterization of guarded optimism.
If the Soviet Union anticipated a more forthcoming response from the administration, that is another measure of the gulf between the two nations about what each should deliver to surmount the great barriers between them.