Commentators for Pravda, Tass and other official Soviet media recently have blotted out the sweeping invective they normally employ about President Reagan's policy statements and shifted their criticism of Washington's preparations for the November summit to other White House and Pentagon officials.
Just weeks ago, the U.S. president's remarks drew regular charges of "flagrant distortion of the facts," "groundless anti-Soviet fabrications" and "sententious pronouncements" in the pages of the Communist Party newspaper Pravda. Now the critical assessments of his comments are gone, even in Soviet reports of his steadfast public commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative, a project under constant analytical attack in Soviet newspapers.
Instead, Soviet articles now blame Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle, national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane and other U.S. officials for allegedly disrupting the summit atmosphere by waging "an anti-Soviet campaign," making "demagogical claims" and taking positions toward Moscow that are "ossified, unconstructive and negative."
In today's Pravda, Sergei Akhromeyev, chief of the general staff of the Soviet armed forces, blasted McFarlane and Weinberger for allegedly misinterpreting the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty, but he did not refer to Reagan at all.
The shift in Soviet criticism away from Reagan and onto his advisers in publications widely circulated in the Soviet Union accomplishes several aims in the Kremlin's presummit strategy, western analysts in Moscow said.
It avoids the question of why party chief Mikhail Gorbachev would meet with an anti-Soviet propagandist, as Reagan was characterized earlier, analysts said. "Soviet officials do not want Soviets to think that their guy is meeting with someone unreasonable and virulently against Soviet policy," a senior western diplomat in Moscow said, "even if they have painted the American president in those terms before."
In addition, the concentration on the attitudes and opinions of Reagan's close circle of advisers also effectively characterizes the U.S. president before the Soviet public as an indecisive leader vulnerable to various outside influences, in contrast to the portrait of Gorbachev in the Soviet media as a vigorous leader in charge of a loyal team of ministers and advisers.
The figure Gorbachev cuts in his first encounter with a U.S. president is a key component in the establishment of his public image here, a senior western diplomat said. "If Gorbachev can come away from Geneva with a reputation for taking control of a meeting with the U.S. president," the diplomat continued, "he can probably invigorate Soviets with a greater sense of superpower pride."
Some western observers point out that part of the efforts to use the summit to heighten the 54-year-old Gorbachev's domestic image have involved subtly displaying some of the disadvantages of his summit partner, including age. Following a recent shot of the 74-year-old Reagan on Soviet television, several viewers wondered aloud about the state of his health.
An article in the government newspaper Izvestia last week, apparently designed to show that the U.S. president requires heavy briefing, pointed out that 25 summit preparatory reports have been submitted to him.
A Tass analyst last week, emphasizing Reagan's susceptibility to political pressures, wrote that eight conservative U.S. senators, including Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), "notorious for their vision of the world through the notch of a gunsight" have sought to "intimidate their own president" into rejecting an arms control agreement with Moscow.
In its shift away from direct criticism of Reagan, attacks in the Soviet press against his aides and some conservative members of Congress are growing sharper as the summit nears. "U.S. reactionary right-wing forces" are mounting "hostility" toward Soviet policy, a Tass military analyst wrote recently, complicating the summit "by virulent propaganda" and "whipping up tensions" between the superpowers. They are being singled out as scapegoats in case the summit yields negative results, western diplomats here feel.
Softening criticism of Reagan is also a way of lowering the rhetoric and preparing for the possibility of a watershed in U.S.-Soviet relations, some western analysts and middle-level Soviet officials said.
By isolating Weinberger, McFarlane and other officials as "soloists of the anti-Soviet campaign," Kremlin officials also may seek a compromise on SDI by playing off the American supporters of the research program against its opponents.
The differing opinions of Soviet strategy reflect a wide divergence in summit expectations circulating among Soviet officials.
While Soviets publicly focus on U.S. intransigence on SDI as the main issue blocking chances for a successful summit, U.S. officials have said that in their privately expressed "hopes" for the summit, the Soviets are more "realistic."
One U.S. official suggested that the Soviets' shrill public pitch against SDI was not echoed in private meetings on the summit. "Their hopes are as realistic as ours are," the official said.
In the official rhetoric, too, some Soviet officials have backed away from a summit showdown on SDI. In an analysis last week, Izvestia commentator Alexander Bovin urged the Soviets to seek an arms control compromise even in the face of a likely U.S. continuation of SDI.
"No matter what the Soviet Union will propose," Bovin said, "the United States will go ahead with its Strategic Defense Initiative." But, he added, as there is now a chance for an arms control agreement, "it ought to be used."